What is the secret to maintaining the mental and intellectual fortitude to conduct experiments at age 99? The story of Boyd O’Dell, professor emeritus of Biochemistry, may lend some answers to that question, as the man of the hour prepares to celebrate his 100th birthday.
Repetition, for one. He’s been on the University of Missouri campus for the better part of 79 years, with the exception of a three–year stint in the private sector forming a small blip on his timeline in Columbia. He now takes the less-than-a-mile walk to campus from the same house on Morningside Drive since 1962 — and moved from the house next door after being there since 1950. For most of his career, he rode a bicycle around campus. That was until about 10 years ago when his late wife, Vera, told him to hang it up.
Youthful exuberance and excitement, for another. Behind his wrinkled visage and hazel eyes, there’s a young man who is ready to crack a joke or tell you about his six-month sabbatical to Australia in 1972 or the year he did research in England in 1962, like he just received the biggest sweet treat from the cookie jar. Or perhaps a slice of one of his favorite foods, apple pie. Then there’s that laugh, a cackle of elation that follows various quips.
Question: What is the key to your longevity?
Answer: Well obviously it’s the radiation. (Loud laughter ensues)
Then there’s persistence. Boyd’s work on nutritional research relating to vitamins began as a doctoral student at MU in the 1940s when he worked toward the isolation of folic acid. Work on trace element deficiencies, namely with zinc and copper, began after he became a faculty member. He also went on to answer questions regarding the need for folic acid supplementation to prevent hydrocephalus (the swelling of the brain from too much fluid) in newborn rats, the role copper plays in cross-linking connective tissue proteins and the concept of trace element bioavailability through studies on zinc as an essential dietary component.
His CV includes sabbaticals at the University of Cambridge, Harvard Medical School and the CSIRO in Australia. There’s also a Guggenheim Award and a Klaus Schwarz Commemorative Medal for his pioneering trace element research.
If he had to list his top accomplishment (with reluctance), it would be the discovery he made about how phytic acid interferes with the absorption and utilization of zinc, noting that earlier this year an article on zinc quoted that first paper of his on the topic from 1960. “That observation has caught worldwide attention and they’re still researching it in humans,” he says.
He is quick to also note that he “didn’t do all or very much of the accomplishments with my own hands.” He references the many graduate students, post docs, technicians and other collaborators who have helped him light the darkened path. “I can’t name all of them, so I’ll just say my colleagues and students have always been helpful.”
Still, he cannot fathom hanging up his white lab coat. Since earning emeritus status 28 years ago, he has found plenty of time to turn his job into his favorite “hobby”: researching how zinc deficiency harms cell function by blocking the signal for calcium uptake. “I’d still like to know the answers to the calcium channels as much as anything,” says Boyd, whose CV includes more than 200 articles, with his most recent published in 2013.
A longtime colleague
On Sept. 2 in the Bond Life Sciences Center, Boyd had quite a large pre-birthday party. Although the event, “40 Years of Biochemistry: Bridging Boundaries for the Greater Good,” officially celebrated the 40th anniversary of MU Biochemistry’s current arrangement between the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and the School of Medicine, it also served as a time to honor the upcoming milestone of a man whom everyone can tell a story about with a glimmer in his or her eye. The event also marked the announcement that the bridge that connects Schweitzer Hall and the Schlundt Annex would be named in his honor.
Judy Wall, Curators Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry, remembers shortly after arriving at MU in 1978 as a new professor, having to read a student’s proposal about pursuing further research through the doctoral program and then giving that student some feedback face-to-face. She was one of two faculty reviewers, the other being Boyd, only 10 years from his emeritus status. Judy was not exactly dazzled with the proposal. Boyd offered his comments first by starting out with all of the positives of the proposal before moving onto the areas that needed improvement.
“I was so impressed with how kind he was,” Judy says. “And here he was an established scientist, very successful, and he was giving this student all sorts of credits for the things he had done. I learned from him how to be kind and how to actually formulate comments back.
“It’s something that I do every time I evaluate a paper, every time I evaluate a grant proposal, every time I evaluate someone’s CV for promotion and tenure here or elsewhere… What are the strong points? What are the clever points? And then you can go on.”
Around that same time, Frank Schmidt, professor of Biochemistry, was getting established as a new assistant professor in a temporary laboratory in the Chemistry Building in 1979, after Schweitzer Hall closed for renovations.
“You’re working night and day. You’re trying to get labs going and you’re trying to get experiments to work,” Frank says. “And who do I see but Boyd. His lab was next to mine, and he was there night and day with his people.”
“Boyd will look you in the face and shake your hand with a very vigorous handshake and be very excited about what he’s doing and what you’re doing and it’s remarkable for somebody who’s been doing it this long, that he continues to be excited about it,” says Bill Folk, professor of Biochemistry, who also served as the department’s chair from 1989 to 2000.
Although Boyd served as the Agricultural Chemistry chair (before the merger in 1976) for one year in 1971, he did make several key hires, including Douglas Randall, who is now a professor emeritus of Biochemistry. After becoming the department’s first plant biochemist, Doug went on tofound the Interdisciplinary Plant Group in 1981 and later was appointed by President George W. Bush to two terms on the National Science Board.
“Boyd is old school,” Doug says. “He is a teacher, a mentor and a guider with very high standards. This man walks on water for people, and he’s such a quiet, soft-spoken person. He guides. Some people would just demand something, but he draws it out of people.
“The example I take from him is it’s never just about any one person. It’s about doing good science and training good students. That’s kind of how I tried to run the IPG.”
Xiao Heng is an assistant professor. At the moment, she is the youngest member of the MU Biochemistry faculty, having arrived at MU in 2013. She remembers seeing Boyd for the first time at a seminar on campus. As she looked back at the man sitting quietly, another colleague, Charlotte Phillips, associate professor of Biochemistry, turned to her and said: “That’s our role model. Stay in science until you’re that age.”
Rooted in academics
Boyd O’Dell was born near Hale, Missouri, on Oct. 14, 1916, a little more than 100 miles northeast of Kansas City. The doctor, who traveled 10 miles from town in a horse and buggy to deliver him, incorrectly wrote Oct. 13 on his birth certificate.
“Oct. 14 was what my mother said,” Boyd says. He has believed his mother.
After graduating from high school when he was 16, Boyd made his way to Warrensburg in 1933 and taught elementary school students in a one-room schoolhouse. He also picked up general credit hours at Central Missouri State Teachers College, now called the University of Central Missouri.
“I started in college, and I liked it,” Boyd says. “I don’t think it was ever a big decision. I just kept going.”
When he arrived on the MU campus in 1937, he was a junior in credit hours, allowing him to earn his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in just two years. He went on to earn a master’s degree in Agricultural Chemistry from MU a year later in 1940. He admits that he was not initially interested in the agricultural side of chemistry, but chose it after the department offered him an assistantship.
“I just did what came along in those days. Those were really rough times,” Boyd says of the late ’30s, during the ending years of the Great Depression.
When he began working in the laboratory of Albert (A.G.) Hogan, though, he discovered a passion for nutrition-based chemistry. In 1940, he began working on his doctoral degree under A.G.’s mentorship by focusing on the isolation of folic acid.
A.G., who is credited with discovering folic acid, was recruited to MU in 1920 as a nutritionist in the animal husbandry department (now known as the Division of Animal Sciences), after having studied at Yale University with biochemistry professor Lafayette Mendel, whom Boyd refers to as the “the father of nutrition in this country.”
Upon his arrival at MU, it was recommended that A.G. become chair of the Agricultural Chemistry department — thus moving the department away from its initial analytical focus that was established with Paul Schweitzer at its creation in 1894. The first academic paper on which Boyd would ever be listed as an author, a study concerning Vitamin B6 and chick nutrition in 1941, had A.G. as the lead author. Boyd has fond recollections of his former advisor.
“He was a modest and very quiet man,” Boyd says of A.G. “He was not a blustery or self-acclaiming person, but he was very persistent and wanted to do experiments many times to be sure that he was right. I think if there’s anything, it was the persistence that he had in trying to prove a point beyond a question… Hopefully, he was a good mentor and some good things have rubbed off.”
Another laugh erupts.
At one point, as a doctoral student, Boyd heard that the attic of a house (where Middlebush Hall now stands) housed boxes of notes from Paul Schweitzer. Being a curious young scholar, he asked the family living in the house if he could explore the attic. He indeed found a treasure trove of documents. Later that day, he heard tragic news from Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The day was Dec. 7, 1941.
Boyd’s interest in B vitamins, and folic acid in particular, eventually led him to his first and only job away from Columbia as a senior research chemist at the pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis in Detroit. There, he joined a group of researchers who were determined to learn new aspects about the synthetic qualities of folic acid — and the creation of synthetic tetrahydrofolic acid, after spending countless hours on this pursuit at MU as a doctoral student before completing his degree in 1943.
In 1946, Boyd realized that his time was better spent back in Columbia. So he took a bit of a pay cut to return to academia and begin his career at MU as an assistant professor of agricultural chemistry.
Boyd’s first laboratory took up a large part of the basement of Schweitzer Hall. At one point or the other, he worked with chickens, rats and guinea pigs — keeping the animals on a regimented diet that was void of certain trace minerals and constantly performing various measurements on them.
The working conditions in his laboratory were less than ideal. The basement of Schweitzer Hall was used for the analysis of beef carcasses when the building was constructed in 1912, and Boyd had to keep animals and feed on site. There was an odor. There were cockroaches. But amidst all of that, progress and discoveries were also taking place. The building was eventually renovated in 1985.
“Until recent years, that was my life: Make do,” Boyd says. “We didn’t let little things like dirt stop us from doing research.”
Away from the lab
Boyd does not remember the exact location where he first met Vera on campus. It was “probably a church organization for students,” he says. Vera was born in 1913 in Polo, a town that is about an hour drive west of Hale. When she met Boyd she was working on a degree in home economics, but her real passion could be found in her family roots. “She was an artist at heart,” Boyd says.
Vera’s uncle, Glen Lukens, was nationally known for his ceramic artwork, so it was only natural that she would enjoy painting, water coloring and ceramics as well. Bill Folk recalls the vastness of the O’Dell’s collection of Southwestern and Native American art that about five years ago was on display at the Museum of Art and Archaeology, a place Vera would volunteer for many years before her passing in 2011 at age 97.
“She was a wonderful individual,” Bill says.
“She was a gem,” Doug Randall says.
Another key to longevity? Exercise. Boyd and Vera always maintained an active lifestyle, which included working in their garden, playing nine holes after work at the golf course that used to occupy the land that makes up Stephens Lake Park and playing badminton with other MU faculty and their spouses. That latter activity took place in the building known as McKee Gymnasium. A physics professor named Newell Gingrich started the games as a means of interaction between academics from various disciplines.
What started as a Monday night event became part of a Sunday afternoon social — with some serious badminton being played. “It wasn’t a fly-by-night thing. We did it for a long time. We had quite a group and some of them were excellent players,” Boyd recalls.
Doug Randall remembers the first time he and his wife first attended one of the matches in the early ’70s. “Boyd was probably 55,” he says. “Gosh! These guys would whip your butt, and they were fast. Being a young guy, I thought, sure, I could keep up with these guys. We got beat every time.”
That active lifestyle also continued with bird watching and hiking expeditions where Boyd would take along his trusty Leica camera, which was far from the automatic focusing machines of today. The photos would later be converted to hundreds of slides. “There was a lot of decision making before you could even snap it,” he says of his first camera. “It was more challenging, but I think I got some good photos, too.”
Four years after moving back to Columbia, Boyd and Vera’s daughter, Ann, was born in 1950, followed by their son, David, in 1957. Ann, who has worked as a special education teacher in Columbia for the majority of her career, has a collection of photos that show her parents being highly active grandparents when spending time with her children, Meg and Barry, and David’s two daughters, Kelly and Nicole.
They would stress the importance of fresh air and fitness to their children and grandchildren alike. “My father really is an exercise buff,” says Ann, who adds that he also has always been an avid environmentalist and conservationist.
Ann recalls one gimmick in which her parents would challenge either Meg or Barry — whom he both taught to love rats and other furry specimens — to an arm wrestling contest. The grandparents always won the first time before offering them a glass of milk and a rematch. The younger participants would then win the second time around every time. “My parents would pretend not to move their arm,” Ann says with a laugh. “Kids fall for things like that. It’s just amazing!”
Given the fact that her father’s mother, Flossie, lived to age 95, Ann is not entirely surprised that he is still conducting research at age 99. But aside from genetics, she talks about the persistence that has driven his life for decades. “It works in research, and it works when he is repairing faucets, and it works when he is on the computer,” she says. “He has infinite patience. Whereas if I do it three times and can’t get it, I’m done.”
Ann’s mother, Vera, also had an incredible amount of energy that mirrored that of her father’s continuously running engine. “She was smart and determined and I noticed that when she turned 80, I finally could keep up with her.” When Vera was diagnosed with the initial onset of dementia in the late ’90s, she gained a new appreciation for her father, who began taking on the tasks that Vera used to do.
Boyd quickly began cooking, sewing and cleaning — and completing any other needed tasks around the house. “That’s when I realized what true intelligence is,” says Ann, who holds two degrees from MU. “It’s being adaptable and flexible and able to do lots of things, not just one little sliver of skill. You have lots of skills. He can do anything.”
Part of the cooking assignments included carrying on his wife’s tradition of baking apple pies. David — a neurologist who attended the MU School of Medicine and lives in Walnut Creek, California, east of the Bay Area — recalls trips as a child to Waverly, Missouri, to buy bushels of apples for those pies. In recent years, Boyd has hosted Thanksgivings at his house and supplied the turkey and several types of pies.
Although MU Biochemistry shifted its focus away from nutrition-focused biochemistry several years ago, signs of Boyd’s work can still be found in the research of today’s modern faculty. One of the best examples is the work of Mick Petris, professor of Biochemistry.
Like Boyd, Mick’s research is nutrition-based with a focus on essential trace minerals — especially copper. In addition, Boyd spent six months in Mick’s homeland of Australia to study copper deficiency by observing ataxia (loss of control of bodily movements) and other related maladies in sheep. He discovered that swayback, which is analogous to Parkinson’s disease, is caused by a lack of dopamine production in the brain.
One of the people was associated with in Australia, David Danks, is credited as being the first researcher to connect copper deficiency and the copper transporter gene, ATP7A, to Menkes disease, which can lead to brain damage, retarded growth and death in children. Mick, who was first inspired to enter his current field after listening to a presentation from David as an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne, went onto expand upon David’s research that surrounded this gene. In 2013, he published the first direct evidence that ATP7A is essential for absorbing copper in one’s diet.
Furthermore, Mick’s most recent research focuses on the study of how copper metabolism, or copper in general, might represent a vulnerability in terms of treating cancer, reducing tumor growth or ending metastasis (the spreading of the cancer to other parts of the body).
One of the proteins that Mick and his team are particularly interested in is lysyl oxidase, a copper-dependent enzyme that Boyd first explored in the ’60s in his research on the composition of the aortas of copper-deficient chickens. The aortic ruptures resulted from a lack of crosslinking connective tissues. Lysyl oxidase catalyzes the formation of the crosslinks.
“Since Boyd’s discoveries, many researchers have shown that lysyl oxidase is one of the key players in cancer formation,” Mick says. “It turns out that the copper transporter gene hat we work on (ATP7A) is required to put the copper into lysyl oxidase, and so by blocking or interfering with the copper transporter we work with, it provides a mechanism for blocking it.”
Whenever Mick gives a lecture on the MU campus, he notices that Boyd is usually in attendance.
“He is a frequent member of the audience,” Mick says.
Since arriving in the Bond Life Sciences Center in 2004, Mick has collaborated on many projects with a fellow molecular biologist next door: Gary Weisman, Curators Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry. Before Gary came to MU as an assistant professor in 1985 to join a new cell culture lab, Boyd personally recruited him from Cornell University where he was working as a postdoctoral research associate.
As the head of the department’s hiring committee for a new cell culture lab, Boyd was fascinated by Gary’s work with cell cultures, which would allow MU researchers to speed up the work that was initially animal-based. For years, others in the biochemistry field had doubts about Gary’s research with P2 nucleotide receptors, but not Boyd.
Gary was accompanied to MU by his top lab assistant at Cornell, Kevin Lustig, who went onto earn his master’s degree in biochemistry from MU in 1991. Kevin, along with then graduate student Laurie Erb (associate research professor of biochemistry), would later clone the first human gene for a P2 receptor, putting Gary’s lab on the map in a national and international context.
“Boyd is the reason I came to MU, so I personally feel indebted to him,” says Gary, who maintained a lab in Eckles Hall for approximately eight years before becoming one of the first tenants in the Bond Life Sciences Center in 2004. “No one thought the receptor was real. Boyd was here all of the time mentoring me, and I worked through the problem and basically convinced everybody that it was real.”
Gary, who lives about three blocks from Boyd, started walking to campus in the ’90s after being inspired through Boyd’s daily walk back and forth from campus. “I changed my lifestyle and took nutrition seriously and started walking. To this day, I have not used my car at all,” Gary says. “I walk everywhere around town. Basically, I’m always on my feet following in Boyd’s footsteps. I don’t mean that in a general way. I mean that absolutely literally.”
In 2014, Boyd received word that Gary had a fluorometer in his lab that would be perfect for his work on zinc deficiency and calcium uptake by cells. After reaching out to Gary, he was put in contact with Gary’s head technician, Jean Camden.
“We’ve been working together ever since,” says Jean, who like her colleague is now semi-retired. She has been working at MU since 1980, after earning her degree from the Division of Animal Sciences in 1978. She joined Gary’s lab in 2002 before retiring from her staff position four years ago.
“I knew of Boyd, but I did not know him personally,” Jean says before she started to work with him. “I did not know how old he was. I knew he was retired. I thought maybe he was in his 80s. I was obviously impressed that he was willing to work and able to work at this age. He’s very much the gentleman. He’s what you’d expect from a professor emeritus.”
In the fall of 2014, the two began their arrangement with blood platelets, before it was determined that the platelets had too short of a shelf life. The following spring, Jean suggested they work with human T lymphocyte cells, called Jurkat cells, which can be easily produced millions at a time.
Boyd would walk over from Eckles Hall to the Bond Life Sciences Center to pick up the Jurkat cells before taking them back, measuring the zinc release and then treating them with different compounds to deplete them of zinc. He then would attempt to add the zinc back, following up with Jean by telling her the exact treatments to perform on a separate batch of cells. Jean would then measure the calcium’s uptake using the fluorometer. Last summer, Jean hoped they would be able to publish a paper about their studies within six to nine months.
Although Jean says that Boyd’s continuing research has given her a lot of inspiration, it’s hard for her to imagine conducting research at 99 years of age.
“I don’t know. If I see myself being able to keep up with the science,” Jean says. “At the very least, I’ll keep reading, especially about the science I’ve been doing for the last 35 years.”
Gary, at age 65, has no intention of slowing down and becoming inactive, although at the moment, he cannot wrap his mind around approaching 100. “Don’t worry about your age. Worry about how you feel today. Think about what you’re going to do tomorrow, and I think you’ll stay in the game longer than you think,” Gary says of his mantra. “Life goes fast, but I just don’t see myself as a 65 year old. I see myself as a teenager. And I think Boyd must be that way. He must not see himself as almost 100 years old.”
The same question about working on experiments until age 99 is posed to Xiao Heng.
“Probably I would say yes, because now I feel that it’s become part of my life,” Xiao says. “If all of sudden you take all of this away from me, my life would be empty.”
Such sentiments are music to Boyd’s ears, who has been known to give the following advice at the many retirement parties he’s been to over the years, which may be the most critical factor in the longevity equation: “Keep working.”
“I have one piece of advice, I guess,” Boyd says. “Try to pick something that you’re passionate about and do it. If you like to research, as I do, that’s OK. If you think that you want to spend your time making fishing lures, that’s OK, too. But you have to be passionate enough to really want to get up and go.”