In memoriam: Alfred Harper

Professor Emeritus Alfred “Alf” E. Harper passed away in late March of 2017 at the age of 94. Harper was affiliated with the Department of Biochemistry and also the Department of Nutritional Sciences. His life and work are emblematic of the rich history of nutritional biochemistry in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Born in 1922, the native of Lethbridge, Alberta began studying at UW–Madison under famed biochemist Conrad Elvehjem in 1949 and received his Ph.D. in 1953. Following postdoctoral studies at UW-Madison and the University of Cambridge (England), he joined the faculty in the Biochemistry Department as an assistant professor in 1956. As an associate professor, he left UW–Madison to serve as professor of nutrition and food science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for four years. After his return in 1965, Harper spent the remainder of his career at UW–Madison, retiring in 1990 to the state of Washington.

In 1968, he was instrumental, along with others, in establishing the Department of Nutritional Sciences, where he was the E.V. McCollum Professor of Nutritional Sciences while continuing as a professor of biochemistry. He served as the first chair of Nutritional Sciences for almost 20 years. His research focused on the nutritional biochemistry of amino acids, particularly the branched-chain amino acids. He was also keenly interested in how animals regulate food intake, particularly how they sense whether their diets have adequate or inadequate levels of amino acids.

He mentored more than 50 graduate students in Biochemistry and Nutritional Sciences and published more than 400 research articles. Alumni of his lab remember him as an excellent mentor, willing to allow students to pursue their own research interests in amino acid metabolism and function.

Harper’s work in nutrition spanned not just the university but the nation as a whole. He had a strong interest in national nutrition policy and served on and chaired the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) of the National Academies of Sciences for many years. Over a period of nearly 15 years, his work on the FNB focused on establishing the nutritional requirements for amino acids and overall recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) and requirements. He also served on many other government groups and panels, including a White House conference on Food, Nutrition and Health and led organizations such as the American Institute of Nutrition and Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) as president, the latter being one of the largest organizations of life scientists in the world.

During his career, he received many recognitions and awards, including the Borden Award (1965), as well as the Conrad Elvehjem Award for Public Service in Nutrition (1987) from the American Institute of Nutrition (now American Society for Nutrition) and the Atwater Award from the USDA in 1990, among others. Harper’s long service to the College and UW–Madison was recognized with the Distinguished Service Award from CALS in 1999. His 50 years of contributions broadened and deepened the influence of UW­–Madison on improving the health of Americans through optimal nutrition.