Emerson, Gladys Anderson (1903–1984)

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Emerson, Gladys Anderson (1903–1984)

American biochemist and nutritionist who conducted important research on vitamin E, amino acids, and the B-vitamin complex. Born in Caldwell, Kansas, on July 1, 1903; died in Santa Monica, California, on January 18, 1984; daughter of Otis Anderson and Louise (Williams) Anderson; bachelor's degree in English and chemistry from Oklahoma College for Women, 1925; M.A. in history from Stanford University; Ph.D. in biochemistry from University of Berkeley, 1932; married Oliver Emerson, a biochemist (divorced 1940).

One of the outstanding American biochemists of her generation, Gladys Anderson was born an only child in Kansas, but she grew up in Texas and Oklahoma. As a multitalented student who excelled in mathematics, music, languages and public debating, Gladys graduated from high school in El Reno, Oklahoma, going on to Oklahoma College for Women, which in 1925 awarded her bachelor's degrees in both English and chemistry. With a strong interest in both history and chemistry, she accepted an offer of an assistantship from Stanford University. After earning a master's degree in history from Stanford, she taught for several years at a junior high school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, soon advancing to the position of head of its history, geography and citizenship department.

Despite her considerable professional achievements in Oklahoma City, she continued to be interested in the sciences. A graduate fellowship in chemistry offered by the University of California, Berkeley, was too much to resist, and she moved west to pursue the advanced degree. At Berkeley, Anderson concentrated on biochemistry, particularly the area of nutrition. In 1932, she received her Ph.D. in the fields of biochemistry and animal nutrition. At that time, Germany was still a world leader in research in all areas of chemistry, so Gladys, now married to fellow biochemist Oliver Emerson, signed up for a year of postgraduate study at the University of Göttingen.

At Göttingen, the couple worked closely with two illustrious researchers, Adolf Windaus and Adolf Butenandt. Windaus had already won a Nobel Prize by 1932. (Butenandt's research on hormones would also earn him a Nobel Prize which he would be forced to decline because by then a Nazi decree banned all German citizens from accepting the award.) In the first weeks of 1933, after barely having settled into the academic routine of Göttingen, Gladys Emerson and her husband found themselves in the middle of the Machtergreifung, the Nazi seizure of power.

A swift succession of decrees and hastily drafted laws led to the purging of Jews, liberals, and other members of the Göttingen faculty deemed to be "un-German" in their racial backgrounds or political views. In the streets of Göttingen, Nazi students and brownshirted toughs marched, intimidating ordinary citizens into submission to the new fascist order. As American citizens, the Emersons were not directly affected by the Nazi terror, but Gladys would never forget the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear that within a few short weeks had suffocated the spirit of free inquiry in a once-great center of learning. After the collapse of Nazi Germany, Gladys would renew her professional relationships with many of the scientists she met in the supremely dramatic year of 1932.

Returning to the United States in 1933, Emerson went back to Berkeley as a research associate in the University of California's Institute of Experimental Biology. It was here that she was part of a brilliant research team that included her husband Oliver and H.M. Evans. Working long hours in the laboratory over the next years, Emerson and her colleagues were able to isolate vitamin E. Painstaking work enabled her team to discover three different forms of the vitamin, designated as alpha, beta and gamma tocopherols. One of Emerson's significant contributions to the team's investigative strategy was her choice of wheat-germ oil as a source for vitamin E.

Extensive further investigations of the vitamin revealed its chemical structure, which enabled it to be created synthetically in the laboratory. At this point, additional research proved that natural and synthetic vitamin E had both the same effects and potency. Laboratory research on rats indicated how essential this vitamin was for successful reproduction; one of Emerson's landmark animal studies showed how a diet low in vitamin E resulted in the appearance of muscular dystrophy in baby rats.

After almost a decade of research on vitamin E at Berkeley, a number of major changes took place in Gladys Emerson's life in the early 1940s. In 1940, she and her husband divorced. Two years later, in 1942, she accepted the position of head of the department of animal nutrition at the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research in Rahway, New Jersey. Because of her reputation as a pioneering contributor to the discovery of vitamin E, Emerson was entrusted with major research projects at Merck which included investigations of vitamins B-6 and B-12 as well as amino acids. Some of her research at Merck, including investigations of 5,6-Dimethylbenizmidazole, a component of the molecule of vitamin B-12, would significantly contribute to the momentum of later research on the chemotherapy of viral infections.

Working at Merck with both rats and rhesus monkeys (which she characterized as being "wild, ferocious little beasts"), Gladys Emerson discovered that when the monkeys' diet was lacking in vitamin B-6, they developed lesions closely resembling arteriosclerosis in human beings. Additional research on dogs yielded similar results. Other animal investigations, centering largely on the B-complex family of vitamins, yielded important findings, including the fact that vitamin deficiencies could lead to abnormal growth as well as abnormalities of the liver, kidney, eye, skin, and posture.

As one of the leading nutritional researchers in the United States, Emerson was called on to lecture at most of the nation's major universities. Internationally recognized as well, she lectured in foreign countries including Japan. From 1950 through 1953, she was a research associate with the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York City, where her research concentrated on the effects of diet and hormones on the growth of tumors. In 1957, she left Merck to return to California, accepting a position as professor and chair of the department of home economics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1962, she became head of the nutrition division at the UCLA School of Public Health, a post she occupied until her retirement in 1970. From 1959 through 1964, Gladys Emerson was a member of the food and nutrition board of the National Research Council. As a pioneering woman scientist in her field, she was honored with the Garvan Medal in 1952.

An impressive lecturer, Emerson enjoyed teaching and working with countless students over the decades. Fully aware of the many aspects of discrimination against women in the sciences, she was nevertheless a conservative whose essential philosophy was one of hard work; said Emerson to her female students: "Work and don't gripe." She usually owned a dog, noting, "it was nice to return home and be enthusiastically welcomed." One of her favorite canines was named "Chemie," the German word for chemistry. Her pleasures in life included singing songs with students and old friends and loyally attending UCLA football games. She was also an enthusiastic amateur photographer who won numerous awards. Gladys Emerson died at her home in Santa Monica, California, on January 18, 1984, and was buried next to her parents in El Reno, Oklahoma.


Bailey, Martha J. American Women in Science: A Biographical Dictionary. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 1994.

Evans, Herbert M. "The Pioneer History of Vitamin E," in Vitamins and Hormones: Advances in Research and Applications. Vol. 20. NY: Academic Press, 1962, pp. 379–387.

Folkers, Karl. "Gladys Anderson Emerson (1903–1984): A Biographical Sketch," in Journal of Nutrition. Vol. 115. No. 7. July 1985, pp. 837–841.

Yost, Edna. Women of Modern Science. Reprint ed. West-port, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.

John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Emerson, Gladys Anderson (1903–1984)

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