Bioengineer accepts 2009 Russ Prize Elmer Gaden lauded for lifelong achievements Feb 18, 2009 ByColleen Carow and Jennifer Krisch
To say Elmer Gaden's work made the widespread production of antibiotics possible may be a monumental understatement -- it also saved untold numbers of human lives.
Ohio University and the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) yesterday recognized Gaden as the fifth recipient of the 2009 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize, the world's top honor in bioengineering.
Long considered the "father of biochemical engineering," Gaden is recognized for his pioneering research that enabled the large-scale manufacture of antibiotics, such as penicillin. The engineer accepted his award Tuesday during a gala celebration at the historic Union Station in Washington, D.C. Gaden's wife, Jennifer, their children and families also were in attendance, along with Gaden's former student Jerome Schultz, now professor and chair of bioengineering at the University of California Riverside.
Because Gaden was recovering from a recent illness, his wife took the stage with him and delivered his remarks. "It is a great honor to receive the Russ Prize," she read to the nearly 300-person crowd. "I am very proud and grateful for this recognition. The prize places a capstone on my career."
The engineering equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the Russ Prize is awarded biennially to honor a bioengineering achievement that is of critical importance, advances science and engineering, and improves the human condition. Administered by the NAE, the prize -- $500,000 and a gold medallion -- was established in 1999 with a multimillion-dollar endowment to Ohio University from alumnus Fritz J. Russ and his wife, Dolores.
President Roderick J. McDavis paid tribute to the late Russes during Tuesday's NAE event.
"We are humbled by all they have given to the field of engineering and to Ohio University," he said. "We are very pleased to participate with the National Academy of Engineering in awarding the fifth Russ Prize for a bioengineering achievement that improves the human condition."
McDavis was joined in the nation's capital by Dennis Irwin, dean of the Russ College of Engineering and Technology; Howard Lipman, vice president for university advancement; Arden Bement, director of the National Science Foundation; Russ College board members; former university faculty; Russ Prize committee members; and about two dozen Russ family members.
"The Russes had a profound influence on the engineering profession at national and state levels, not to mention Ohio University," Irwin said, addressing guests at a university dinner honoring the Russes Monday evening. "They truly dedicated their lives to engineering. They wanted the Russ Prize to recognize and promote the profession, and to attract more men and women to the field."
Gaden's work demonstrates exactly what the Russes wanted to recognize by establishing the Russ Prize, he added.
"Dr. Gaden's groundbreaking application of engineering methodologies to the problems of mass-production of drugs has undoubtedly saved many lives and improved those of many others," Irwin said.
Striking a note of humor into Gaden's acceptance speech, Jennifer said her husband credited his success to "good genes, good luck and good timing."
It started with yeast...
Gaden's research began more than 50 years ago while he was a student at Columbia University, working toward his doctorate. During this postwar period, antibiotics were becoming increasingly in demand, particularly penicillin, which had been successfully used to treat battlefield injuries.
Drug companies were looking for methods of quickly growing mass quantities of the mold-derived drug. Chemical engineers began experimenting with a mechanical process of microbial fermentation -- used primarily to produce yeast for food.
Gaden, building on a lifelong interest in biology and medicine, instead decided to focus on accelerating the yeast's growth. Through the engineering concept of mass transfer -- in this case, the movement of molecules and atoms through the yeast cells while in a fluid -- he then introduced oxygen to the yeast. The process provides more fermentation energy that enables yeast to grow and multiply more rapidly, thereby providing the method of large-scale antibiotics manufacturing.
"The greatest single contribution of modern biotechnology to the advancement of human health has been the global availability of antibiotics," Schultz said.
Gaden's work has had a global impact, changing medical practices in nearly every country by the availability of penicillin and antibiotics. His methods remain commonplace today and are still applied to produce numerous drugs, including insulin and interferon. Today, the antibiotic market is estimated at more than $25 billion worldwide.
Gaden's accomplishments also launched a new field -- biochemical engineering.
"Gaden successfully melded engineering with biology, thereby forming [a] new scientific specialty," said Boyd Woodruff, former executive director of biological science for the Merck Research Laboratories. "He has been the creative leader of the field throughout his career."
Other than a brief stint at the drug company Pfizer, Gaden spent his entire career teaching and collaborating in academia, first at Columbia then in teaching and administrative appointments at the University of Vermont and the University of Virginia, from which he retired in 1994.
While honored for his work in the advancement of medicine, Gaden said he considers another achievement equally important to his legacy.
"The lasting friendships with people with whom I have worked, particularly the graduate students, who are leaders in science and engineering today," his wife read for him. "Participating in their education has been perhaps my greatest contribution."