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Department of Biochemistry Oral History Collection

Identifier: Ms-2003-009

Scope and Content

The Department of Biochemistry Oral History Collection spans the years (bulk 2001-2005, the period during which the oral histories about the Virginia Tech department were collected). It includes interviews with R.W. Engel, founding head of the department; Juel Albert, early faculty member; Bruce Anderson, department head, 1970-1982; Cecil Cummins, professor emeritus of microbiology and faculty in the Anaerobe Lab; Robert Smibert, faculty in the Anaerobe Lab, Everett L. Wisman, first faculty member; and Roddy Young, early faculty member. The founding of the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition including faculty, facilities and equipment, instruction, and research is given special attention. The founding of the Anaerobe Lab is also discussed.

In the interview of Juel Albert by Robert S. Schmidt, Albert discussed planning for the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition, including facilities and apparatus, such as the Kjeldahl apparatus; department faculty; and research projects, including forage testing and analyses and a multi-state project on nutrition of pre-adolescent girls.

In his interview by Thomas O. Sitz, Bruce M. Anderson spoke of his charge as Head of the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition to convert the department into an independent research oriented department rather than an analytical tool for other agricultural sciences at the university. The interview covered claiming the biochemistry building for the Department of Biochemistry so that it could expand in numbers of faculty and research laboratories. This involved relocating people that were not in the department. Anderson also set up the mass-spectroscopy facility and developed the undergraduate program. The interview also touched on Anderson's research in enzymology.

The R. W. Engel interview by George Edwin Bunce explored Engel's vision for the new department, early faculty, inter-departmental relationships, background on how the department obtained grants and other funding for the new building, and Engel's work with Kendall King on the Mothercraft Centers in the Philippines.

The Robert Smibert interview by John Hess explored the establishment of the Anaerobe Lab at Virginia Tech. Smibert also talked about his work with anaerobes; the Anaerobe Manual; laboratory equipment and techniques; research focus on ruminant disease, nutrition and human health; projects, including working with campylobacter; and achievements of the Anaerobe Lab.

In his oral history interview by Lewis Barnett, Everett L. Wisman discussed the beginnings of the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition, including courses, faculty, and facilities; Virginia Tech in the 1940s; and various changes in Virginia Tech and the campus.

The interview of Roderick Young by Robert Schmidt dealt with the groundwork behind starting the Department of Biochemistry including the role played by his father, Dr. Harold Newell Young; selection of faculty for the new department; the column Roderick Young developed for separating amino acids; research interests of the department; the department's teaching program; the first black female graduate student on campus; and the pesticide program.

The interview of Cecil Cummins by John Hess focuses on the history of the Anaerobe Lab and on some of the research that was conducted in that facility.

Full text of most of the interviews and selected sound clips as well as images and other documents about the history of the Department of Biochemistry and its faculty are available in the Special Collections exhibit, 50 Year Celebration of the Department of Biochemistry, 1952-2003.


  • 2001 - 2005


Language of Materials

The materials in the collection are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Reproduction and Use

The copyright status of this collection is unknown. Copyright restrictions may apply. Contact Special Collections and University Archives for assistance in determining the use of these materials.

Reproduction or digitization of materials for personal or research use can be requested using our reproduction/digitization form: Reproduction or digitization of materials for publication or exhibit use can be requested using our publication/exhibition form: Please contact Special Collections and University Archives ( or 540-231-6308) if you need assistance with forms or to submit a completed form.

Administrative History

The Department of Biochemistry was established at Virginia Polytechnic Institute through the leadership of Dr. H. N. Young, director of the Agricultural Experiment Station. In 1952, he recruited Dr. R. W. Engle from Auburn University. As the first department head (1952-1966) of the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition, Engel pulled together faculty from existing departments with interests in agricultural chemistry and nutrition. Facilities in Price and Smyth Halls soon became inadequate, and with Engel's leadership, funds were acquired from the National Institutes of Health and matched by funds from the Commonwealth of Virginia for construction of the building now called Engel Hall. From 1962, when the building was occupied, through 1967, additions to the faculty broadened the research expertise of the department. Significant impact on basic and applied nutrition and analytical service to the Commonwealth characterized these initial fifteen years.

Kendall King served as head from 1966 to 1968. The department awarded only graduate degrees until the undergraduate biochemistry curriculum was established in 1968. A faculty committee comprised of Clemens Ackerman, Robert R. Schmidt, and Ryland Webb led the department from 1968 to 1970. Bruce M. Anderson provided stable leadership as head from 1970 to 1982. During this period, significant changes in facilities and services accompanied the emphasis on basic research. Thomas W. Keenan (head, 1982-1988) shepherded careers of faculty and growth in the undergraduate program. In 1988, Judith S. Bond, the fifth department head (1988-1992), established significant changes in laboratories, supported new faculty, and facilitated faculty efforts in the successful dedication of the biochemistry building to honor R. W. Engel.

During the 1990s, the university sustained huge reductions in operating funds while undergraduate enrollments increased. Under William E. Newton's leadership (1992-1998), faculties were merged between the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition and the Anaerobe Lab. Subsequently, the present Department of Biochemistry was identified. In 1994, the department was recognized as University Exemplary Department for its commitment to employing research successfully, as a foundation for undergraduate education.

Four new faculty members joined the department since 1998. Faculty in spring of 2003 included a complement of seventeen scientists and educators with John L. Hess as department head (1998-). Two faculty members had laboratories in the Fralin Biotechnology Center, a state-of-the art research and teaching facility adjoining Engel Hall. Faculty employed a broad spectrum of research tools to explore how organisms function and to assess unique attributes which many be developed to serve humankind. Faculty research programs and collaborations were in core areas: functional genomics and proteomics, molecular microbiology, and molecular mechanisms of response to stress and disease. In 2002-2003, faculty provided education and training for 25 graduate and 300 undergraduate majors.


0.8 Cubic Feet (2 boxes)


The oral history interviews in the Department of Biochemistry Oral History Collection were conducted by current and retired faculty as part of the Virginia Tech department's 50th anniversary celebration. Interviews were conducted in the period from October 2001 to June 2002 with department heads, faculty, and staff who played an important role in the founding and development of the Department of Biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Oral history interviews were done with the following: Juel Albert by Robert R. Schmidt, Bruce M. Anderson by Thomas O. Sitz, Ruben W. Engel by George Edwin Bunce, Robert Smibert by John L. Hess, Everett L. Wisman by Lewis Barnett, and Roderick Young by Robert R. Schmidt. In addition an oral history interview of Cecil Cummins about the Anaerobe Lab was conducted by John Hess.


The collection is arranged by format and then alphabetically by interviewee.

Source of Acquisition

The Department of Biochemistry Oral History Collection was donated to the Special Collections in 2001-2003. Individual interviews and oral history transcripts were donated as they were completed and became available.

Rights Statement for Archival Description

The guide to the Department of Biochemistry Oral History Collection by Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech, is licensed under a CC0 (

Processing Information

The processing, arrangement, and description of the Department of Biochemistry Oral History Collection was completed in 2004.

Department of Biochemistry Oral History Collection, 2001-05
Tamara Kennelly, Archivist
2004 (CC0 1.0)
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech Repository

Special Collections and University Archives, University Libraries (0434)
560 Drillfield Drive
Newman Library, Virginia Tech
Blacksburg Virginia 24061 US