Elmer Verner McCollum Biography (1879-1967)


Elmer McCollum was born on a farm near Fort Scott, Kansas, where he spent hisfirst seventeen years. Money was scarce and the rural community's single school was rarely in operation. But the young Kansan was bright, energetic, anddetermined to get an education. By moonlighting at numerous jobs, he worked his way, first through high school, then through the University of Kansas, graduating in 1903, and finally through Yale University, where he earned his doctorate in 1906.

Throughout his academic career, McCollum's first love was always organic chemistry. Shortly after graduation, however, he was offered a position at the University of Wisconsin as an instructor in biochemistry (then known as agricultural chemistry). With no better job offers in sight, he decided to accept--adecision that was to alter his life. In 1907, when McCollum arrived at the University's Agricultural Experiment Station, a research study was already inprogress. The study was designed to examine the dietary effects of three widely-used grains on the health and reproductive capacity of dairy cattle. Because the three grains were chemically similar, the researchers expected similarresults. To everyone's intense surprise, however, only one grain--corn--keptthe cattle healthy and strong. McCollum immediately resolved to try some nutritional experiments of his own.

Before long, McCollum had set up own laboratory and established the country'sfirst colony of albino laboratory rats devoted to nutritional research. Withthe help of a young biochemist-in-training named Marguerite Davis, McCullumbegan the studies that were to lead to the discovery of vitamin A. By 1913, McCollum was able to report that the laboratory rats failed to grow when fed diets in which lard or olive oil was the only source of fat. These same rats,however, quickly resumed normal growth when ether-soluble extracts of butteror eggs were added to the diet. He concluded that butterfat and egg yolks contained some "growth-promoting factor" missing in other fats--a factor he soonisolated and termed fat-soluble A (to distinguish it from a water-soluble factor previously discovered by Christiaan Eijkman), eventually to be named vitamin A.

In the years that followed, McCollum contributed to the discovery of other fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin D in 1922, and did important work in thefield of trace minerals. In 1917, he went to Johns Hopkins University as professor of biochemistry, remaining there until 1944. In his later years, he lectured widely on nutritional topics, wrote several outstanding textbooks, andreceived numerous awards. Shortly before he died, at the age of 88, McCollummused on his accomplishments and concluded: "I have had an exceptionally pleasant life and am thankful."

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