Hart, Edwin Bret

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Hart, Edwin Bret

(b. Sandusky, Ohio, 25 December 1874); d. Madison, Wisconsin, 12 March 1953)

biochemistry, nutrition,

The son of William Hart and Mary Hess, Hart was born on a farm. After graduation from Sandusky High School he studied chemistry at the University of Michigan, receiving the B.S. in 1897. He then became assistant chemist at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva, where he investigated the protein in milk with L. L. Van Slyke. In 1900 he took a two-year leave of absence to study protein chemistry with Albrecht Kossel at the University of Marburg. Hart then accompained Kossel to Heidelberg, but because of a loss of credits, he returned to the United States in 1902 without his doctorate. Once back in Geneva, he studied with Van Slyke the chemical changes which take place in the manufacture and ripening of cheese.

Hart married Annie Virginia DeMille in 1903; they had one daughter, Margaret. In 1906 he succeeded S. M. Babcock as chairman of the agricultural chemistry department at the University of Wisconsin, serving in this capacity until his retirement in 1944. Under his direction, the department came into the forefront of nutritional research during a time when the role of organic and mineral trace nutrients came to be understood. Hart’s own contributions are difficult to assess, however, because of the collaborative nature of the research in which he was involved. Hart was closely familiar with the work of others and continually contributed ideas and encouragement. He was regularly involved in joint research programs with the departments of bacteriology, dairy science, poultry husbandry, and animal science. His department was unique in its success in establishing basic scientific principles while pursuing practical objectives. For example, his work on copper anemia not only had practical importance in animal feeding, but created new insights into the study of blood diseases; and the studies of single grain diets opened a broad area of nutritional deficiencies which led to knowledge of metabolic processes.

At Wisconsin, Hart continued his study of cheese curing in collaboration with bacteriologists E. G. Hastings and Alice Evans. He also developed a simple and rapid method for the determination of casein in milk. But once under the influence of Babcock, he turned his attention to the nutrition of farm animals. In 1907, with E. V. McCollum, Harry Steenbock, and George C. Humphrey, Hart undertook a four-year experiment in which sets of calves were fed presumably balanced rations derived from single plants. The failure of the animals to thrive on wheat and oat rations was a stimulus, along with animal feeding experiments elsewhere, for recognition of the vitamin concept.

At one time or another Hart worked on most of the vitamins and minerals of nutritional significance. Of particular importance was his work on phosphorus and calcium metabolism (with McCollum and Steenbock); the role of Iodine in preventing the “hairless pig” syndrome (with Steenbock); studies on rickets, particularly leg weakness in chickens (with J. G. Halpin) and irradiation of milk to enhance vitamin D content (with Steenbock); the role of iron and copper in anemia (with C. A. Elvehjem and Steenbock); the toxicity of fluorine from superphosphate fertilizer (with Paul Phillips); the essential nature of zinc in nutrition (with Elvehjem); and urea as a source of nitrogen in ruminants (with G. Bohsted).

Hart’s questioning character, coupled with a genial personality, made him an effective teacher at all levels. He worked hard and expected the same of his students and faculty. Although he enjoyed sports and travel, his interests were always close to his work. After his retirement, he continued his daily rounds of the laboratories—even to the day before the heart attack which ended his life. In 1949 the University of Wisconsin honored him with the Sc.D.


I. Original Works. Hart published almost 400 papers, nearly all of them in collaboration with student and fellow faculty members. The largest number appeared in Journal of Biological Chemistry and in the bulletins of the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station. There is a full bibliography in C. A. Elvehjem, “Biographical Memoir of Edwin Bret Hart,” in Biographical Memoires. National Academy of Sciences, 28 (1954), 135–161. For the paper on the single grain experiments, see “Physiological Effects on Growth and Reproduction of Rations Balanced from Restricted Sources,” in Research Bulletin. Wisconsin Agicultural Experiment Station, College of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin, 17 (1911), 1–131, written with E. V. McCollum, Harry Steenbock, and George C. Humphrey. Letters and other unpublished materials are held by the University of Wisconsin Archives.

II. Secondary Literature. The most complete biography of Hart is the obituary memoir by C. A. Elvehjem, op. cit., pp. 117–134. See also the sketches prepared by former students for a symposium on his life sponsored by the Institute of Food Technologists in 1954: Henry T. Scott, “Edwin Bret Hart—His Life and Memories of Him,” in Food Technology, 9 (1955), 1–4; C. A. Elvehjem, “Thirty-two Years’ Association with E. B. Hart,” ibid., 4–7; S. Lepkovsky, “Contributions of E. B. Hart to Animal Nutrition,” ibid., 8; E. M. Nelson, “The impact of E. B. Hart’s Contributions on Human Nutrition,” ibid., 9–11; and K.G Weckel, “E. B. Hart’s Contributions to Food Technology,” ibid., 11-13. See also E. H. Harvey, “Edwin Bret Hart,” in Chemical and Engineering News, 22 (1944), 435–436.

Aaron J. Ihde

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