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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
possibilities to prove or disprove ideas. But Matt Wolfe, 31, one of two
research fellows now in Terry Stadtman's lab, said the working
"light" and promotes "free thinking" -- not merely the theories of the
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
The Stadtmans had opportunities to leave NIH and pursue academic glory
or wealth in biotechnology, but neither was interested, Terry Stadtman
"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
and being dictatorial."
Kornberg said that the Stadtmans received numerous offers from
universities but that they turned them down because of the intellectual
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
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
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
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
that could rival their tributes last week.
They became the only scientists at NIH ever granted a reserved parking
The NIH Stadtman exhibit is at