A Duo's Great Chemistry

By Avram Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 26, 2004

When young research assistant Earl Stadtman first laid eyes on Thressa Campbell in a California laboratory in 1943, he thought she was the new dishwasher and asked her to dinner. She said yes and it was only later, during their dinner in San Francisco, when she revealed that she was also a research assistant -- with a more advanced degree than his.

"He was intimidated," she said.

But that did not get in the way of a romance, a marriage and extraordinary 53-year careers at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, where each runs a biochemistry laboratory abuzz with young scientists.

Their labs have been separate, but together they created an environment known as much for the careful nurturing of new researchers as for the labs' contributions to science. The couple have trained more than 100 postdoctoral fellows, including two Nobel laureates and scientific leaders around the world. Journal articles have been published about the guidance they have offered.

Many of the scientists they trained are biochemists who now have followers. Dozens of those scientists gathered last week to honor Earl and "Terry" Stadtman as NIH opened a historical exhibit about them in the lobby level of its Clinical Center, known as Building 10.

The NIH history staff put the exhibit and additional material on a Web site to celebrate careers that the Stadtmans have said will continue for as long as they can keep going. Terry, 83, and Earl, 84, continue working full time on basic research into enzymes, which control all the chemical reactions in living organisms and determine how long and how well those organisms live.

Their scientific accomplishments in the fields of Vitamin B12 and selenium biochemistry (Terry) and aging, fatty acids and amino acids (Earl) might have been enough to justify all the attention, but NIH officials have said the Stadtmans' legendary mentoring may have had a greater impact.

The Stadtmans went out of their way, they said, to follow the advice of Fritz Lipmann, Earl's mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and a 1953 Nobel laureate in medicine.

"In his opinion, the most important thing was to maintain a good environment in which all the individuals that participated in the research had a familial feeling and liked and interacted socially and scientifically with one another," Earl Stadtman said. "I have always listened to that. I've always adhered to that."

Barbara Alving, acting director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, called the Stadtmans "treasures" and said that scores of young research fellows who worked in their labs have gone on to excel in many fields.

"You have spread the wealth around the country and the world," she told the Stadtmans during a talk to 150 people gathered for the tribute. "You almost originated mentoring . . . and I'll bet you never even used that word."

Arthur Kornberg, a 1959 Nobel laureate in medicine and emeritus professor of biochemistry at Stanford University, told the gathering that a scientific genealogist would find that despite having no children, the couple are near the top of a large "family tree" of proteges.

"There are many illustrious students who have been the progeny of Earl and Terry," said Kornberg, who was chief of NIH's enzyme and metabolism section from 1947 to 1953.

Terry Stadtman, a farm girl from upstate New York who entered Cornell University on a full scholarship at age 16, said she loved science and research so much that children were out of the question.

"I felt I would not do justice with a child," she said. "I either had to do science full time or have children and be a housewife full time. Some people can do [both]. I found that people who did it successfully had money behind them to hire good help in that period. We had no money. . . . Besides, I never felt my genes were so invaluable that they had to be reproduced."

Roy Vagelos, who went to work in Earl Stadtman's lab in 1956, became perhaps the most financially successful of the Stadtmans' postdoctoral fellows. He was chairman and president of the global pharmaceutical company Merck and Co. for a decade, until 1994.

"I was just out of [a medical] residency, so I knew nothing," Vagelos said. Earl Stadtman "had a willingness to take people in, set them up and then walk away and let them run the project," he said.

Earl Stadtman, who excelled as a debater in high school in San Bernardino, Calif., led a "journal club" of scientists who gathered regularly to argue about the ideas presented in work published in peer-reviewed journals. Like many others before and after him, Vagelos was put on the spot.

"He liked to chop up anything that came along that was at all shaky," Vagelos said. "They were there to argue with you."

Their acolytes said the Stadtmans taught them about rigor in their research -- the need to ask and answer all the right questions and to try all possibilities to prove or disprove ideas. But Matt Wolfe, 31, one of two research fellows now in Terry Stadtman's lab, said the working atmosphere is "light" and promotes "free thinking" -- not merely the theories of the mentor.

NIH hired the Stadtmans in 1950 at salaries of $5,400 each, and they came to Bethesda only out of necessity; no university would hire both because of anti-nepotism rules.

The Stadtmans had opportunities to leave NIH and pursue academic glory or wealth in biotechnology, but neither was interested, Terry Stadtman said.

"Everybody has to decide whether you're willing to pay the price," she said. "I don't think we would have been good at all this managing other people and being dictatorial."

Kornberg said that the Stadtmans received numerous offers from universities but that they turned them down because of the intellectual and scientific freedom and support they enjoyed at NIH. The more latitude they had, the more they accomplished, colleagues said.

In considering how they have stayed married for 60 years, the Stadtmans said they have applied the same rational analytical skills they use to break down scientific theories.

"You just have to realize that there are times in a marriage when you don't agree completely with your spouse," he said. "You have to realize those are temporary situations and that there is always an overriding effect. . . . I really can't imagine that I could survive without having a relationship with my wife. There have been times I questioned that, but it's worked out to both of our advantages that we realized this was a very good relationship, and we just continued."

The same could be said of their relationship with NIH. The Stadtmans are so revered there that in 1998, they received perhaps the only honor at NIH that could rival their tributes last week.

They became the only scientists at NIH ever granted a reserved parking space.

The NIH Stadtman exhibit is at history.nih.gov/exhibits/stadtman.