Earl R. Stadtman, 88; Revered Biochemist, Mentor at NIH

Earl Stadtman, in his laboratory at the National Institutes of Health in 1953, using the Warburg apparatus. The device is used in biochemistry to measure respiration by tissues.
Earl Stadtman, in his laboratory at the National Institutes of Health in 1953, using the Warburg apparatus. The device is used in biochemistry to measure respiration by tissues. (Courtesy Of Thressa And Earl Stadtman)
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By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 13, 2008

Earl R. Stadtman, 88, a preeminent scientist at the National Institutes of Health whose research contributed to the understanding of the role of free radicals other reactive oxygen species in diseases, aging and cell signaling, died Jan. 7 of a heart attack at his home in Derwood.

In his 57 years at NIH, Dr. Stadtman gained a reputation as a "chemist's chemist" and one of the great biochemists of the 20th century. Revered as a mentor, he taught more than 100 scientists who became major contributors to the advancement of biomedicine. Among his proteges, 10 were members in the National Academy of Sciences, several others became prominent in industry, and two received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

"Earl was a leader in a generation of scientists who made biochemistry into a discipline," said Michael S. Brown, regental professor of molecular genetics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas and co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1985. Brown was a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Stadtman's lab from 1969 to 1971.

The experience, he said in an e-mail, transformed his life. "In Earl's lab, I experienced a combination of devotion, intensity, and integrity that far exceeded any of my prior experiences," Brown said. "He was passionate for science, and yet he examined every experiment impassionately, and with the highest level of criticism."

Dr. Stadtman's approach to research and teaching came to be known as "The Stadtman Way" among the young scientists who spent two to five years with him at NIH.

Rodney L. Levine, senior chief investigator and chief of the section on protein function in disease at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at NIH, said that Dr. Stadtman taught them the importance of unyielding rigor in assessing their experimental investigations. He also taught the value of persistence and hard work.

"Earl Stadtman could look at results from the laboratory and see in them descriptions of the nature of biology, which the rest of us failed to see," Levine said. "Where most of us saw the ordinary, he deduced the extraordinary."

Dr. Stadtman and his wife, Thressa Campbell Stadtman, were the first husband-and-wife scientists at what was then the National Heart Institute when they joined NIH in 1950. They both oversaw biochemistry labs and conducted research into enzymes, which control all the chemical reactions in living organisms and determine how long and how well those organisms live. Much of his work in aging, fatty acids and amino acids, as well as his wife's in vitamin B-12 and selenium, laid the groundwork for more expansive research in those fields of study.

Early on, Dr. Stadtman received credit for showing a correlation between the age of animals and an increased level of free-radical byproducts. Free radicals are harmful oxidants that damage DNA and proteins in skin cells. The run-amok oxidants have been implicated in diseases such as cancer, stroke and heart attacks.

His groundbreaking work also included research in fatty acid metabolism that helped establish the "energy-rich" nature of acetyl-CoA, an essential substance in making fats as well as breaking down fats, carbohydrates and proteins to generate energy in cells. According to an NIH history, in the 1960s and 1970s Dr. Stadtman and his colleagues discovered some mechanisms of controlling the production of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein.

In the 1980s, while studying how damaged or inactivated proteins are removed from cells in a process called protein turnover, Dr. Stadtman and his co-workers found that the accumulation of damaged proteins is associated with the aging process and may play a role in such age-related disorders as Parkinson's disease.

For his work with enzymes, he received the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor for scientific achievement, in 1979. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1969.

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