The University of Alabama at Birmingham has a long heritage of involvement in nutrition going back more than 75 years. As is true for the history of any other endeavor spanning a long time, it is now possible to discern a number of periods, often overlapping, during which certain aspects of nutrition science were given preferential attention. This has occurred because of two main reasons: First, preferential attention was, and is, given to nutritional problems of national scope impacting, directly or indirectly, the health of many Americans. Second, it is always possible to identify the involvement of one or a few individuals of keen scientific foresight who linked the problems to nutrition and committed the institution to their solution.
The first such period took place from the 1920s to the late 1940s when two medical doctors, Dr. James S. McLester and Dr. Thomas D. Spies, labored with great zeal to put the recently discovered vitamins nicotinic acid, thiamin, ascorbic acid, and later folic acid to use in the treatment and prevention of the major deficiency diseases: pellagra, beriberi, scurvy, and the megaloblastic anemia of pregnancy. These age-old scourges of mankind were still very prevalent in this part of the country. Dr. McLester, the first professor of medicine of this university and later president of the American Medical Association, did research work on pellagra at the Birmingham’s Hillman Hospital during the 1920s. He subsequently authored a popular textbook, titled Nutrition and Diet in Health and Disease (first published in 1927), that went through a total of seven editions with Dr. William J. Darby, a noted professor of nutrition at Vanderbilt University, as co-author in later years.
During the mid 1930s until the early 1950s Dr. Spies became the standard bearer of clinical nutrition in Alabama. Described by those who knew him as a "human dynamo," a "super public relations man," and a "folk hero," Dr. Spies was, above all, a physician. "Doctor Tom," as his patients called him, became an untiring evangelist in the quest to overcome the resistance of major segments of the medical profession to the unrestrained use of vitamins. He spent most of his time at the old Hillman Hospital treating the still-numerous pellagra patients. He traveled frequently to Cuba and Puerto Rico, where legions of patients with tropical sprue, a devastating malabsorption syndrome, responded miraculously to folic acid. In his zeal to find new knowledge and get the best treatment for his patients, Spies was not to be deterred by what he perceived as legalistic minutia. This is best illustrated by an anecdote related by Dr. Thomas H. Jukes, professor of nutrition from the University of California at Berkeley, formerly from the American Cyanamid Company, where the synthesis of folic acid was accomplished in the mid 1940s. In Dr. Jukes's words, "I took a few grams [of folic acid] with me on a trip to California in August, 1945. While changing trains in Chicago, I went into a drug store and asked for a small box. I put the tube of folic acid powder in the box, addressed it to Tom Spies, and dropped it into a streetcorner mailbox. As a result, an article appeared in the Southern Medical Journal four months later, describing the remission of nutritional macrocytic anemia following the administration of folic acid. The statute of limitations prevents legal action from being taken against me [and Spies] for this violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act."
Dr. Spies, a gifted teacher, trained many young physicians who later had distinguished careers in medical research and education. One of these was Dr. Walter B. Frommeyer, Jr., who became chairman of the institution's Department of Medicine in the sixties following the retirement of the legendary clinician Dr. Tinsley Harrison. Undoubtedly influenced by his former mentor, Dr. Frommeyer created a division of nutrition in the Department of Medicine in 1964 and named Dr. Charles E. Butterworth, Jr., as its director.
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