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2009 Russ Prize

Dr. Elmer L. Gaden

Long considered the "father of biochemical engineering," Elmer Gaden was recognized with the 2009 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize for his pioneering research that enabled the large-scale manufacture of antibiotics, such as penicillin. Gaden's groundbreaking application of engineering methodologies to the problems of mass-production of drugs has saved millions of lives and improved those of many others.

Gaden is Wills Johnson Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia, from which he retired in 1994. A teacher of chemical engineering for more than 50 years, 25 of them at his alma mater, Columbia University, Gaden's central interest has been the engineering aspects of microbial processes for manufacturing chemical and pharmaceutical products, or "biochemical engineering."

After WWII service as an electronics officer on an escort aircraft carrier in the Pacific, Gaden returned to Columbia for graduate study, receiving his Ph.D. in 1949. He then worked in research and development for Chas. Pfizer & Co. in Brooklyn, N. Y. (now Pfizer Inc.) before returning to Columbia to teach.

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. Gaden's accomplishment ultimately launched the new field of biochemical engineering.

During his illustrious career, Gaden also established the international research journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering, the first of its kind and now recognized as the leading journal worldwide for the profession. He served as its editor for 25 years. After his retirement, the publication established the Gaden Award in his honor, which recognizes the most outstanding paper of the year.

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.

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.

Gaden is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and served several years on the National Research Council's Board of Science and Technology for International Development. During this period he led technical missions to Indonesia, Ethiopia, Portugal, Japan, and China, and also taught at the East China University of Science and Technology (Shanghai) and at the Universidad Nacional de Mexico.