Friday, January 11, 2019

Noted Microbiologist and Vitamin B-12 Researcher Dr. Mary Shorb [otd 01/11]

Dr. Shorb. University of Maryland.
Dr. Mary Shorb, noted microbiologist and vitamin B-12 investigator, was born January 11, 1907 in Wahpeton, North Dakota, about 35 miles south of Fargo.

The family moved to Caldwell, Idaho when Mary was about three years old. There, William Judson Boone, founder and President of the College of Idaho [blog, Nov 5] became a close family friend. Early field trips with Dr. Boone, a skilled botanist, sparked Mary’s interest in biology.

Mary graduated from Caldwell High School, then entered the College of Idaho. There, faculty mentors led her to major in biology, with a minor in home economics … a direction that presaged her later interest in nutrition and the diseases of food animals. She received a B.S. degree in 1928. After two dead-end jobs, she decided to pursue an advanced degree. She married her childhood sweetheart, Doys Shorb, in 1929 and earned a Sc.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1933.

Even with her doctorate, she could only find another dead-end job, so after the birth of a daughter, she stayed home. Two other children followed. However, World War II created a shortage of technically trained people. In 1942, she took a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Two years later, Shorb moved to a position in the USDA dairy products division. Her job was to culture the Lactobacillus lactis Dorner (LLD) bacteria used to ferment milk into yogurt. The bacterial growth media was a mixture of tomato juice and liver extract. “Everyone knew”  that the extract was necessary, but thought no more about it. Shorb pondered the matter and made a crucial creative leap.

Medical practitioners used that same liver extract to treat pernicious anemia. The original treatment, discovered in 1926, involved massive consumption of the liver itself. Prior to that discovery, the disease was almost invariably fatal. Yet even in 1944, after years of study, no one had identified the extract’s active ingredient. Researchers had no direct way to tell if a sample even contained the substance, much less the amount present.
Shorb in the lab, ca 1948.
University of Maryland.

Shorb's observations led her to the hypothesis that the bacterial growth rate might depend upon how much of the unknown “active ingredient” was present in the extract. After a struggle to gain token funding, she quickly and easily verified her hypothesis. More money was soon provided so she could refine her LLD assay method for the anti-anemia “factor.” After that, researchers needed only three months to isolate its crystals from two different sources. We know the substance as vitamin B-12. Dr. Shorb and Dr. Karl A. Folkers, a Merck Company chemist, shared the 1949 Mead Johnson Award for their B-12 work.

That same year, the University of Maryland made Dr. Shorb a full research professor. She rewarded them, and the world, by authoring or co-authoring nearly sixty journal articles on antibiotics, bacteriology, animal growth, and more.

Shorb received a long list of awards and honors: a 1957 Sigma Xi Research Award, Outstanding Woman of Maryland in 1951, Distinguished Alumnus of the College of Idaho in 1966, an honorary Doctorate of Science from the College in 1979, member of Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 1987, and so on. She is further remembered at the University of Maryland by the Shorb Lectureship, with original funding from Merck & Company.

Mary retired in 1972. She and her husband then indulged their love of travel before health problems curtailed that. She passed away in August 1990.
References: Richard A. Ahrens, “Mary Shaw Shorb (1907 - 1990),” The Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 123, No. 5 (May 1, 1993) pp. 791-796.
“Mary Shaw Shorb (1907 - 1990),” Maryland Women's Hall of Fame Online.
“Papers of Mary S. Shorb,” University of Maryland Archives.

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