Two 100-year-old biochemistry discoveries will be the focus of this week’s Wednesday Night @ the Lab talk. Dave Nelson, emeritus professor in the Department of Biochemistry and defacto CALS historian, will speak on “The Centennials of the Discoveries at UW of Vitamin B and the Goiter-Iodine Link” on July 12 at 7 p.m. in Room 1111 of the Genetics Biotech Center.

A ferment–and foment—in research into feeds, food and nutrition fueled many discoveries in the early decades of biochemistry at UW-Madison. In 2017, we mark the centennial of two seminal strands of research: the discovery of vitamin B by Elmer McCollum and Nina Simmonds, and the confirmation of the link between goiter and iodine by EB Hart and Harry Steenbock. Nelson will explore the research as well as the people, the personalities and the controversies of the discoveries, and how the discoveries shaped the landscape of research in biochemistry and nutrition on this campus and across the country.

The saga of vitamins at Wisconsin goes back at least to the single grain feeding study with cows from 1907-1911. The experiment showed that feed with plenty of protein, carbohydrate, fat and minerals could still lack something vital for cows to thrive. In 1913, McCollum and Marguerite Davis, using rats as experimental animals, published their research on a fat-soluble factor that became known as vitamin A, giving UW its claim to being among the cradles of discovery of vitamins.

In 1917, McCollum’s and Simmonds’s research, also in rats, found evidence for water-soluble factors which became known as the B vitamins. That same year, McCollum left Wisconsin to head a nutritional sciences department at Johns Hopkins University, but the parting had little sweet sorrow. The following year, McCollum and Simmonds published their work without proper attribution to Harry Steenbock, leading EB Hart to send a letter to the journal Science on the topic of professional courtesy. This episode continues to be a source of controversy and a case study in professional ethics.

Meanwhile, EB Hart and Steenbock had been pursuing research to confirm the link between goiter and iodine. They were able to confirm the link in 1917, and a generation later—in 1939—Hart and other colleagues developed a way to add iodine to table salt in a stable way.

This year, the university is commemorating several major milestones, including the centennials of public radio and Camp Randall Memorial Stadium. To these commemorations we add two stories of biochemistry from 1917 that still influence our lines of research, which in turn continue to yield nutritional insights to help humans (and livestock) thrive.

WN@tL is free and open to the public. It can also be viewed via live webcam at July 12 event is a co-production with the Wisconsin Science Museum, a non-profit science museum co-founded by Nelson.