Posts tagged: Metabolism

Dr. Eleanor Mason and Early Research on Basal Metabolic Rate of Indian Women

By , March 5, 2019

Portrait of Eleanor Dewey Mason, circa 1956. Image courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

As we prepare to celebrate International Women’s Day, it has been a pleasure to research and highlight Dr. Eleanor Mason, a student and visiting scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, now known as the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Dr. Eleanor Dewey Mason was born in Tura, Assam, India in 1898 to American Baptist missionary parents. After graduating from Newton High School, she earned her BA from Mt. Holyoke College (1919) and an MA from Wellesley College (1921). Her early interest was in zoology as well as missionary work, and after spending a year as a research assistant in genetics with the Carnegie Institute in New York City, she took advantage of an opportunity to become a zoology lecturer in India at Madras University.

On her first furlough from Madras, she came to Boston to pursue an MA (1928) from Radcliffe College. Later, she returned to Radcliffe and earned her PhD (1934). These degrees from Radcliffe involved vital statistic courses taken at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), as well as courses taken at Harvard Medical School (HMS).

It is important to note that at this particular time, women took courses but could not receive degrees from HSPH or HMS. While the Harvard-MIT School for Health Officers (1913-1921) credentialed women on the same basis as men (with certificates in public health), this practice ended in 1921 with the withdrawal of MIT and an establishment of a Harvard degree-granting school of public health. Therefore, it isn’t surprising to see Dr. Mason listed in the 1927 HSPH course catalog as a vital statistics student, even though she is not considered a graduate of the program.

The time Dr. Mason spent at Harvard was seminal to her professional career. Her early interest in studying systemic zoology expanded to an interest in human physiology or, more specifically, how race and climate influenced metabolism. Dr. Mason also met Dr. F.G. Benedict, Director of the Carnegie Nutrition Laboratory, while studying at Harvard. Dr. Benedict had recently become interested in the possibility of racial differences in metabolism, and his lab provided Dr. Mason with financing and equipment for her research project. With this backing secured, Dr. Mason returned to Madras to resume teaching at the Women’s Christian College and complete her thesis–the first to establish basal metabolic norms for Indian women. This research was exceptional for its time, as Dr. Mason focused on non-traditional subjects. Two copies of Dr. Mason’s 1934 thesis, The metabolism of women in South India, with a note on the vital capacity of the lungs in South Indian women, are available at Harvard from the Center for the History of Medicine and the Harvard University Archives

In 1934 and 1940, Dr. Mason published on the basal metabolic rate of South Indian women in comparison to British and American women who travel from temperate to tropical climates. Her Western research subjects were colleagues who had also come to Madras to teach at the Women’s Christian College. Some of the women experienced a 10% drop in their metabolism as a result of the tropical climate, while others experienced no change at all. Dr. Mason’s results did show consistently that weight decreased and pulse rates fell in warmer climates, and that the basal metabolic rate of South Indian women was decidedly lower than that of British and American women.

In 1942, her research focused more on nutrition in rat models, with the intention of demonstrating the inadequacies of the rice diet common among the poor in South India. A 1945 paper examined the supplementary effects of casein, calcium lactate and butter, singularly or combined, on the growth of young rats. Casein and calcium lactate were found to have a highly significant effect in promoting growth, while butter affected both growth and general condition adversely. Casein, when added to butter, counteracted the negative effect of butter and converted it into a positive effect (Mason 1945). In a 1946 paper, she and her team experimented further with ragi (a cereal crop also known as Eleusine coracana, or “finger millet”) and found that, when substituted for rice, it had a marked stimulating effect on growth directly proportional to the amount given.

In addition to her physiological research in basal metabolism, and after years of teaching, in 1948 Dr. Mason became the third principal of the Women’s Christian College. In this role, she pioneered a home science courses for the students. In 1951, Mt. Holyoke College awarded her a honorary doctorate of science. In 1956, Dr. Mason retired from her role at Women’s Christian College and was invited by the University of Bombay to continue her research in the laboratory of Dr. A. Sreenivasan in the Department of Chemical Technology.

She moved into the Missionary Settlement for University Women, an interdenominational hostel comprised of fifty-eight British and Indian colleagues. Dr. Mason’s laboratory was modest: a room with two beds and measuring equipment, and connected to her own bedroom. Research subjects would be asked to fast for twelve hours. Once they arrived at the lab, they were instructed to lie quietly on one of the research beds and breathe into a spirometer for three eight-minute stretches while Dr. Mason and her assistant Mary Jacob, from Travancore, measured pulse, blood pressure, and temperature. After a day’s work, Dr. Mason would spend her evenings at the missionary leading prayers with the other hostel residents. She stayed in the settlement until 1964, then spent several years as a member of the ecumenical Farncombe Community in England before returning permanently to the United States in 1970.

It is clear from newspaper articles and from personal accounts that Dr. Mason returned to Boston to continue her involvement at the Harvard School of Public Health, likely as a researcher but also potentially as an educator. The Radcliffe Quarterly confirms that Dr. Mason was a visiting scientist at HSPH from 1963-1964. Contemporary faculty such as Joseph Brain and James Butler reflect fondly on their brief overlap with her at the school, including her involvement with physiology research and teaching, now considered part of the Department of Environmental Health.

In addition to her career at Harvard, Dr. Mason was a member of the tertiary Anglican Franciscan group, Christa Prema Seva Sangha, of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. In later life, she served as a communicant and a parish receptionist for the Church of the Advent. She was also part of Windham House, the Graduate Training Center for Women of the Episcopal Church, which was a center for women studying theology and other disciplines.

Dr. Mason passed away in 1995 at the age of 97. Her body was donated to Harvard Medical School before being buried at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.

Although the Center for the History of Medicine does not hold any unpublished records from Dr. Mason besides her thesis, records of her professional career can be found scattered across multiple repositories, including:

I wish to thank Jim Butler, Senior Lecturer on Physiology, for sharing stories and resources about Dr. Eleanor Mason, and for connecting me to the archives at the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, whose secondary source materials served as the backbone of this post. Dr. Mason was a colleague as well as a dear friend of his family, and without his persistence her story likely would have remained dormant in the archives. I also would like to thank Dr. Joe Brain, Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Physiology, and Yechaan (Eric) Joo, a graduate student at the Harvard Chan School, for their research on Dr. Mason’s publications and her connection to the Department of Environmental Health.

For a complete list of Dr. Mason’s publications, please visit the History of Public Health at Harvard LibGuide.

The Bernard D. Davis Papers are open for research

By , April 22, 2016

The Center for the History of Medicine is pleased to announce the opening of the Bernard D. Davis papers, 1909-1995 (inclusive), 1939-1994 (bulk). Davis (1916-1994) A.B., Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, M.D., Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, was the Chair of the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology from 1957-1968 and the Adele Lehman Professor of Bacterial Physiology from 1968-1984, both at Harvard Medical School. He was a microbiologist who focused throughout his career on biochemical and genetic mutations, microbial and bacterial physiology, and the impact of science on society and culture.

Davis is most known for his scientific research in microbiology and bacterial physiology, focusing on the ribosome cycle, streptomycin, protein secretion vesicles, studies of Escherichia coli, bacterial membrane transport systems, and mechanisms of drug resistance and chemotherapy. Early in his career, Davis created the penicillin enrichment method for obtaining nutritional mutants of Escherichia coli, as did Joshua Lederberg (1925-2008), independently. While at Harvard Medical School, his key scientific findings included the details of the ribosome cycle; protein secretion vesicles; the dominance of susceptibility to streptomycin (due to the misreading of the genetic code); and in 1987, with colleague P.C. Tai, a unified mechanism of streptomycin killing. His work with Werner Maas foreshadows later findings in genetics, as well, though he did not focus primarily on genetics. Davis authored or coauthored more than 200 scientific papers, most of which are included in the Bernard D. Davis Papers.

In the latter portion of his career, Davis became an advocate for the role of science in culture, the ethics of genetic engineering, evolution and human diversity, the implications of affirmative action, and the defense of fellow scientists accused of fraud and misconduct. Davis was also a passionate teacher, and co-authored multiple editions of a new textbook for medical students, Microbiology (first edition, 1967), along with R. Dulbecco, H. Eisen, H. Ginsberg, and initially W.B. Wood. In his role as advocate, he published a collection of essays concerning contemporary controversies facing science and scientists, entitled Storm Over Biology: Essays On Science, Sentiment, and Public Policy, in 1986. Many of the papers relate to these moral and ethical issues, including correspondence, articles, and manuscript and chapter drafts.

Overall, the papers include correspondence and subject files, administrative, teaching and professional records, unpublished writings and drafts, and reprints and volumes written by Davis, as well as the collected publications of colleagues and students. This includes the manuscript of an unpublished book on the topic of scientific fraud written late in his life, and several chapters of an unpublished autobiography.

The Maximizing Microbiology: Molecular Genetics, Cancer, and Virology, 1936-2000 project is funded by a Hidden Collections grant from the Harvard University Libraries. In addition to the Bernard D. Davis papers, the project will also open the collections of other scientists and professors whose work relates to the origins of molecular genetics, virology, and microbiology: the Luigi Gorini papers, 1922-1988; the Arthur B. Pardee papers, 1949-2001; the  Francesc Duran i Reynals papers, 1913-1960; the Myron Essex papers, 1949-1996; and the Harold Amos papers, 1949-2003. For more information on the project, please contact Emily Novak Gustainis, Head, Collections Services or Elizabeth Coup, Processing Assistant.

Bernard D. Davis Papers Processing Has Begun, as part of Maximizing Microbiology Project

By , July 17, 2015
Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, c1991.

Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, c1991.

In 1953, Bernard D. Davis conducted work on biochemically deficient mutants at a laboratory at the Department of Preventive Medicine at Cornell Medical College, New York, New York, that revolutionized microbiology. The Center for the History of Medicine is pleased to report that the Bernard D. Davis papers (1960-1993), a product of Davis’s professional activities, research, and long career as a teacher at Harvard Medical School, are currently being processed as part of the Maximizing Microbiology: Molecular Genetics, Cancer, and Virology, 1936-2000 project.

Davis (1916–1994) graduated from Harvard College in 1938 and Harvard Medical School in 1940. After time working in laboratories as a research fellow and intern at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and as a commissioned officer of the United States Public Health Service, Davis became Chair of the Department of Pharmacology at New York University. He then served as the Chair of the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology and as Professor in the Bacterial Physiology Unit at Harvard Medical School. Following his retirement from Harvard, he served as a visiting professor at Tel Aviv University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Taiwan University, before being appointed as a Fogarty Scholar at the National Institutes of Health. He was nominated to the National Academy of Sciences in 1967, an organization for which he served as the President of the Nominating Committee. In 1989, he received the Selman A. Waksman Award in Microbiology.

Davis produced important research which led to advances in microbial physiology and metabolism. He co-authored multiple editions of the central textbook of this area of study, Microbiology, first published in 1967. Later in life, he wrote more philosophical texts regarding the impact science has on human life and interactions, including the book Storm Over Biology: Essays on Science, Sentiment, and Public Policy (1986)  and was in the midst of writing a text defending a fellow scientist after false misconduct charges at the time of his death in 1994. The papers, created throughout Davis’s professional, research, and publishing activities, include professional appointments and teaching records, writings and publications, public speaking records, professional association membership and committee records, research records, and collected publications. They are expected to be opened to research by the end of 2015.

The Maximizing Microbiology: Molecular Genetics, Cancer, and Virology, 1936-2000 project is funded by a Hidden Collections grant from the Harvard University Libraries. In addition to the Bernard D. Davis papers, the project will also open the collections of other scientists and professors whose work relates to the origins of molecular genetics: the Luigi Gorini papers, 1947-1980s; the Papers of Arthur B. Pardee, 1950-2000; and the Papers of Francesc Duran i Reynals, 1936-1959 (bulk). For more information on the project, please contact Emily Novak Gustainis, Head, Collections Services or Elizabeth Coup, Processing Assistant.

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