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Van Slyke, Donald Dexter


(b. Pike, New York, 29 March 1883; d. Garden City, New York, 4 May 1971)


Van Slyke was the son of Lucius Van Slyke, a noted chemist who spent most of his career at the agricultural experiment station in Geneva, New York, and Lucy Dexter. After attending high school in Geneva, he studied for a year at Hobart college before entering the University of Michigan, where he received the B.S. degree in chemistry in 1905. He continued his studies at Michigan and in 1907 received the Ph.D. in organic chemistry under Moses Gomberg. From 1907 to 1914 Van Slyke was a research chemist in the biochemistry laboratory of Phoebus A. Levene at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. In 1914 he became chief chemist of the hospital of the Rockefeller Institute, a position he held until 1949, when he moved to Brookhaven National Laboratory. He continued his chemical research at Brookhaven almost until his death. Van Slyke also edited the Journal of Biological Chemistry from 1914 to 1925. Among the honors that he received were the Willard Gibbs Medal (1939), the George M. Kober Medal (1942), and membership in the National Academy of Sciences (1921).

Van Slyke’s remarkable ability to develop analytical apparatus and methods, especially gasometric methods, proved extremely useful in biochemistry and clinical medicine. For example, in 1911 he developed his famous nitrous acid method for determining the number of free amino groups in a peptide or protein. The method is based on the fact that amino groups react with nitrous acid quantitatively to release gaseous nitrogen, which can be measured. Van Slyke’s manometric apparatus for the analysis of gases in blood and other solutions was adapted to the quantitative determination of numerous constituents of body fluids and was widely used in biochemical laboratories. His collaborative effort with John Peters, Quantitative Clinical Chemistry (1931–1932), was a classic in its fields. Many of the analytical methods presented in the work were developed in Van Slyke’s laboratory, and most of the other procedures described were tested there before inclusion in the volume on methods. To honor his contributions in this field, the American Society of Clinical Chemistry created the Donald D. Van Slyke Award and appropriately selected Van Slyke as the first recipient in 1957.

Most of Van Slyke’s research concerned acid-base, gas, fluid, and electrolyte equilibriums in body fluids and the relation of these equilibriums to disease states. His post at the Rockefeller Institute hospital probably was largely responsible for focusing his attention on problems of clinical biochemistry. His first in this area involved the study of acidosis, a condition that aroused his interest because it often develops in diabetes. In 1914 Lawrence J. Henderson and Walter W. Palmer had defined acidosis as a decrease in the bicarbonate concentration of the blood. In 1917 Van Slyke and Glenn Cullen introduced the term “alkaline reserve” to describe the bicarbonate concentration of blood and developed a quick and accurate method, which became the standard procedure, for determining the level of plasma bicarbonate. The definition of acidosis as a decrease in the body’s alkaline reserve actually applies only to metabolic acidosis, however, and not to the condition known as respiratory acidosis. Van Slyke also established the normal and abnormal variations that may be encountered in the acid-base balance of the blood, and developed an exact mathematical definition of buffer value.

In 1919 Henderson and his associates began an investigation of the physicochemical equilibriums of the constituents of blood. Van Slyke’s collaboration was solicited for this project; and it was agreed that the equilibriums of the gases, fluids, and electrolytes of blood would be studied in his laboratory. Van Slyke and his co-workers estabilished that the distribution of electrolyte ions between plasma and corpuscles occurs in accordance with the Gibbs-Donnan law. They determined experimentally the buffer values of oxyhemoglobin and reduced hemoglobin, determined that hemoglobin is responsible for much of the total buffer value of blood, and showed how the Gibbs-Donnan law and the acid-base properties of hemoglobin explain the unequal distribution of diffusible ions between red cells and plasma (the chloride-bicarbonate shift).

Van Slyke’s other important contributions include his studies on nephritis, his discovery and identification of the amino acid hydroxylysine, and his establishment of the fact that urinary ammonia is derived largely from glutamine rather than from urea.

Van Slyke and his colleagues introduced the concept of “blood urea clearance”–the cubic centimeters of blood per minute cleared of urea by renal exceration–as a measure of the functional ability of the kidney. The urea clearance test that they developed proved to be exceedingly useful in clincial work and in laboratory investigations.


I. Original Works. There apparently is no published bibliography of Van Slyke’s works. The five books that he wrote alone or in collaboration are Cyanosis (Baltimore. 1923), written with Christan Lundsgaard; Factors Affecting the Distribution of Electrolytes, Water, and Gases in the Animal Body (Philadelphia, 1926); Observations on the Courses of Different Types of Bright’s Disease and on the Resultant Changes in Renal Anatomy (Baltimore, 1930), written with nine others; Quantitative Clinical Chemistry, 2 vols. (Baltimore, 1931–1932; 2nd ed., 1946), written with John Peters; and Micromanometric Analyses (Baltimore, 1961), written with John Plazin. Almost all of his important papers were published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Particularly noteworthy publications in this journal include the series “Studies of Acidosis,” 30–106 (1917–1934); and “Studies of Gas and Electrolyte Equilibria in Blood,” 54–105 (1922–1934).

II. Secondary Literature. The most substantial biographical article is A. Baird Hastings, “Donald Dexter Van Slyke, 1883–1971,“in Journal of Biological Chemistry, 247 (1972), 1635–1640. See also the biographical sketch in Current Biography (1943), 50–51; and Van Slyke’s autobiographical article in Modern Men of Science I (New York, 1966), 495–496. George Corner, A History of the Rackefeller Institute, 1901–1953, Origins and Growth, (New York, 1964), discusses the work of Van Slyke and his associates at the Rockefeller Institute and hospital–see esp. 274–280, 483–488. A. Barid Hastings. “A Biochemist’s Anabasis,” in Annual Review of Biochemistry. 39 (1970), 3–7, describes some of the work carried out in Van Slyke’s laboratory during the 1920’s. Van Slyke was interviewed in detail under the Oral History Program of the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Md., and the transcript and tape of this memoir are on file at the library.

John Parascandola

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