When William Welch, the founder of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, and his new assistant director, William Henry Howell, decided to name E.V. McCollum chairman of the Department of Chemical Hygiene, their choice was so radical that it shocked even McCollum himself.
As McCollum later wrote in his autobiography, From Kansas Farm Boy to Scientist: "I could scarcely realize that I, a worker in an agricultural experiment station, with no medical training and no contacts with public health, was the first professor selected to take charge of a department in the new exciting adventure of training medical and nonmedical students to reduce or control, and perhaps to eradicate, the great scourges in the form of diseases which afflicted mankind."
Although the connection between animal experiments and human nutrition is obvious today, back in 1917, when McCollum was called to Baltimore, physicians, pathologists and even public health officials were remarkably uninterested in food. In reaching outside the traditional boundaries of public health--sanitary engineering and bacteriology--to name McCollum, who at the time was at the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin studying the dietary needs of farm animals, Welch and Howell showed themselves to be among the first to suspect that the lives of millions of people in every generation were being blighted by malnutrition simply through ignorance.
Ernestine Becker McCollum, the dietitian who married McCollum during his retirement, said of that era, "The idea of food having anything to do with pathological conditions was incredible. ... If you had enough to eat, you were well-fed."
Born on a Kansas farm in 1879, McCollum was a painstaking and systematic sort. In high school, he bought a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica and eventually read every volume (although he confessed to merely skimming the articles on higher mathematics). After getting his doctorate in chemistry from Yale, he took his first professional job at the College of Agriculture of the University of Wisconsin, where he was presented with the task of finding out why corn-fed animals were healthier than cows fed only wheat or oats--a problem of obvious interest to Wisconsin's dairy farmers.
McCollum soon realized, however, that using cows to study nutritional outcomes was going to be a slow boat to nowhere. Instead, he proposed experimenting on the lowly rat, which, because it has a short life span and can be easily fed and housed, would allow him to conduct many more experiments in a given time and achieve results much faster. Told about this scheme to start a rat colony, however, the dean of the Ag school was horrified, saying in effect that if the alumni heard the Ag school was studying (and feeding!) vermin, they'd have his head.
McCollum went forward anyway, catching rats in an old horse barn on campus and conducting his experiments in secret. When the wild rats turned out to be too vicious to maintain in the laboratory, he traveled to Chicago and bought the more domesticated albino rats from a pet store.
The first rats were in their laboratory cages by 1907; by 1912 McCollum and his colleague Marguerite Davis began a series of elegant experiments proving that young rats would grow fat and healthy on a diet containing butter fat but sicken on the same diet containing lard, olive oil or bleached cottonseed oil. By 1913 they had isolated the first vitamin, which McCollum dubbed "factor A," later known as vitamin A.
It was this research that had caught the attention of Welch and Howell in 1916-17. Howell had originally intended to include nutrition in his own Department of Physiological Hygiene but was so impressed by McCollum's vitamin A work that he and Welch decided to appoint the lanky farm boy to head a separate Department of Chemical Hygiene (later Biochemistry). During his tenure from 1917 to 1944, McCollum built his department into a world-famous center for nutrition research and probably did more than any other individual to improve the diet of the American people.
Harry Day met E.V. McCollum in 1930, when he came to work for McCollum. Day, now professor emeritus of chemistry at Indiana University, reminisced at the April 2000 reunion of the School of Public Health's Biochemistry alumni about his first meeting with the great man. "I could feel his determination and wisdom, and was inspired," said Day, who would go on to develop the first stanisfluoride toothpaste, Crest. "I had come to Baltimore by Greyhound bus from Iowa and met him at his office, and he welcomed me very nicely. As we talked, I noticed an old-fashioned typewriter--it wasn't old-fashioned then, of course!--where he did all his own typing. And he had a rubber eraser and brush attached by a shoestring to the typewriter, as a time-saver. He was a very systematic man."
McCollum's work at the School of Public Health was indeed systematic, patient and productive. He and his team fed thousands of rats on hundreds of carefully controlled diets in order to measure the effects of the presence or absence of many specific nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Over the years, this meticulous man and his students recorded the effects on animals of the inorganic elements calcium, phosphorus, fluorine, magnesium, manganese, iron, zinc, sodium, potassium, boron and cobalt.
McCollum, not his students, defined the problems worth investigating. Because of his firm grip on the research agenda, investigations in the Department of Chemical Hygiene were well-coordinated from the start. (In his succinct Kansas manner, McCollum once said that the successful professor's fitness for the job was determined "by his ability to make his conversations and lectures more interesting than song, dance, drink and fast driving.")
In the course of experiments performed in the early 1920s, McCollum noticed that some rats fed only on cereal grains developed a condition similar to rickets in children. At that time, children with deformed limbs were a common sight on city streets, but the cause of rickets was unknown. McCollum and his associates tested the effects on rats of over 300 different diets while colleagues at the School of Medicine studied bone sections taken from the animals. In time, they discovered that these rats could be "cured" by small amounts of cod-liver oil and became convinced that an "organic factor" in the cod-liver oil was protective against rickets.
Serendipitously, McCollum heard from a New York researcher that nearly all the Italian immigrants in New York City suffered from rickets, and that these people were housed mostly in the back tenements where sunlight seldom filtered in. McCollum immediately began investigating the relationships among diet, sunshine and rickets. Every day, he and his associates carried young rats fed on deficient diets out into the sunshine. The rats got sunburned, and their ears peeled, but they didn't develop any symptoms of rickets; meanwhile, control animals fed the same diet but left behind in the dark laboratory all developed the characteristic deformities of the disease. McCollum's group concluded that the effects of sunlight and cod-liver oil were similar, if not identical, and that both could be used to prevent rickets. The discovery of vitamin D led to a generation of children brought up on cod-liver oil, and to the virtual elimination of rickets as a childhood disease.
Although McCollum certainly embodied Welch's ideal of the dedicated and original scientist whose research had profound importance for the public's health, he went Welch one better by sharing his discoveries not just with other scientists but also with the public. In more than 160 "Our Daily Diet" columns for McCall's magazine between 1922 and 1946, he and his colleagues discussed such topics as, "Are there such things as nerve foods?" and "Green vegetables are unbottled medicines." Also, as a member of Herbert Hoover's Advisory Council on Nutrition, McCollum traveled the country giving public lectures urging mothers to serve more milk, leafy vegetables, eggs, liver and wheat bread, and fewer refined sugars and starches. He summarized the results of his nutrition research in two books--The Newer Knowledge of Nutrition (1918) and, with J. Ernestine Becker, Food, Nutrition and Health (6th edition, 1947)--and throughout his career never stopped criticizing vitamin manufacturers, whom he equated with old-time purveyors of patent medicines.
McCollum moved outside the laboratory in other ways as well. He personally surveyed the health conditions of children in Baltimore's schools and orphanages, organized nutrition classes for underweight students and provided food supplements for those he found were undernourished. In the city's Negro Orphans' Home, for instance, he found the children subsisting entirely on cereals, tubers and roots, a diet inadequate for human nutrition, and provided the boys and girls with milk powder supplements that restored them to normal weight and health.
In 1951 Time magazine reported, "Dr. Vitamin has done more than any other man to put vitamins back in the nation's bread and milk, to put fruit on American breakfast tables, fresh vegetables and salad greens in the daily diet." (Even today, a Web site promising among other things "perfect weight loss" reads in part, "As advocated by the pioneer nutritionist Dr. E.V. McCollum, we should eat those foods which will spoil, rot, sour, ferment, mildew or develop a bad odor, but, of course, we should eat them before this happens. Nature's tiny creatures ... choose their foods without commercial inducement. If they refuse to eat a food, then this can be your signal to avoid it also.")
Although E.V. McCollum "retired" from the School of Public Health in the 1940s, he immediately set up a small laboratory on the Homewood campus and continued experimenting. Well into the 1950s, he was still at it. The last survivor of the School of Public Health's original faculty, he died in 1967 at age 89.
McCollum's research at the School of Public Health came full circle when in the early 1980s the school's current dean, Alfred Sommer, and his colleagues uncovered widespread vitamin A deficiency around the world and established its link with excessive morbidity and mortality in children. Worldwide eradication of vitamin A deficiency has become an important goal of the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
This article draws heavily on the book Disease & Discovery, A History of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, 1916-1939, by Elizabeth Fee (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).