Gladys L. A. Emerson

Gladys L. A. Emerson

Gladys Emerson in the early 1950s. Photo courtesy Merck Archives, Merck & Co., Inc.

Born in Caldwell, Kansas, Gladys Ludwina Anderson Emerson (1903–1984) was an only child, born to parents of Swedish descent. While their daughter was still an infant, the Andersons moved to Texas, and 12 years later to Oklahoma. Emerson was an avid student, showing promise in mathematics, history, Latin, chemistry, and music. After high school, she enrolled in the Oklahoma College for Women (now the University of Sciences and Arts of Oklahoma), with the intention of becoming a teacher.

Offered assistantships in both chemistry and history at Stanford University, Emerson chose history. She received her master’s degree in history, with a minor in economics, from Stanford in 1926. Along the way, Emerson also managed to fit in courses in physical chemistry, never letting go of her interest in the sciences. In 1927, when offered a fellowship in nutrition and biochemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, she jumped at the chance.

Five years later, she received her doctorate from the school in animal nutrition and biochemistry. After a postdoctoral year abroad at the University of Göttingen, Emerson returned to Berkeley, joining the lab of Herbert M. Evans, director of the University of California’s Institute of Experimental Biology. Evans had successfully identified and named vitamin E in 1922 but had so far been unsuccessful in isolating it.

Gladys L. A. Emerson with camera and dog

Gladys Emerson with her camera and dog in 1952. Photo courtesy Merck Archives, Merck & Co., Inc.

For three years Emerson worked with Evans on the isolation of vitamin E from its natural sources. Finally, in 1936, the team successfully isolated from wheat germ oil a pure form of vitamin E, which they named tocopherol. Emerson and Evans went on to identify two more forms in which the vitamin could be isolated, alpha tocopherol and beta tocopherol. Their research paved the way for the subsequent determination of the chemical structure of tocopherol, which made artificial synthesis of vitamin E possible.

That vitamin E deficiency affected levels of fertility in laboratory animals had been known for years before Emerson began her research. While at Berkeley, she conducted studies further strengthening the connection between vitamin E and fertility. Emerson also demonstrated that a controlled dietary deprivation of vitamin E could cause a reaction akin to muscular dystrophy in lab rabbits.

Emerson was invited to join the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Nutrition in Rahway, New Jersey, in 1942. There she began investigating the whole B complex of vitamins. Emerson proved the link between vitamin B–deficient diets and abnormalities of growth and posture, the eyes, skin, liver, kidneys, and other internal organs. She also worked toward more effective methods of administering the vitamins.

In 1956 the University of California at Los Angeles invited Emerson to join their faculty as a professor of nutrition and chairperson of the home economics department. She accepted and, while assuming a teaching role, she also continued as an active researcher. By 1962 she had taken on the vice chair of UCLA’s department of public health as well.

Among many other awards, Emerson received the Garvan Medal, given by the American Chemical Society for “distinguished service to chemistry by women chemists.” She was also appointed as vice chair of the Panel on the Provision of Food in 1969 by President Richard Nixon, and in 1970 served as an expert witness before the Food and Drug Administration in hearings on vitamins, mineral supplements, and food additives.

Gladys Emerson was married to Oliver Huddleston Emerson. She died of cancer in 1984 at her home in California.

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