June 8, 2001

Nutrition researcher Darby dies

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Nutrition researcher Darby dies

Dr. William J. Darby, professor of Biochemistry Emeritus, former chair of the department, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and one of the leading nutrition researchers of the 20th Century, died Wednesday night after a heart attack.

Dr. Darby was born Nov. 6, 1913, in Galloway, Ark. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Arkansas in 1936, his M.D. degree from that school in 1937, and subsequently earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in biological chemistry from the University of Michigan.

After a fellowship at Columbia University, Dr. Darby first came to Vanderbilt in 1942 as a special fellow in Nutrition of the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation. He briefly left for a faculty position at Duke University, but returned to Vanderbilt in 1944, and made it his home for the remainder of his distinguished professional career.

At Vanderbilt in the 1940s and 1950s, Dr. Darby, Dr. John B. Youmans, a pioneer in nutrition research, and their associates, became among the first researchers to emphasize detailed physiologic studies that essentially revised the standards of assessing nutritional status. Both Youmans and Dr. Darby recognized early on the benefits of folic acid in anemia in Tennessee.

Subsequent collaborations of the nutrition research group assembled around Dr. Darby and Youmans produced quantitative clinical and chemical studies that improved diagnosis and yielded more detailed physiologic profiles of patients’ precise nutritional levels. For example, they correlated concentrations of vitamin A in the blood with clinical signs of deficiency in surveys worldwide.

Other cooperative studies at Vanderbilt that Dr. Darby spearheaded or worked on were landmarks internationally in combatting nutritional deficiencies include the effectiveness of folic acid, vitamin B12 and iron. Indeed, folic acid was earlier identified as vitamin M by Dr. Darby, Dr. Paul Day and other researchers at the University of Arkansas and, when assembled in pure crystalline form, was shown by Dr. Darby, the late Dr. Edgar Jones, and associates at Vanderbilt to combat the anemia and gastrointestinal dysfunction in tropical sprue.

Dr. Darby served as chair of VUMC’s department of Biochemistry from 1949 to 1971, as well as director of the division of Nutrition. He served as president of the Nutrition Foundation, and became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1972.

His deep knowledge of nutrition and nutrition research made him a sought-after advisor, and at various times he served on advisory panels for groups as diverse as the World Health Organization, the National Cancer Institute, and the Navajo Health Authority.

“Bill Darby was a real Vanderbiltian and academic in the finest sense of these terms,” said Dr. John E. Chapman, former dean of the School of Medicine.

“He was many things-scientist, member of the National Academy, teacher, organizer and administrator, as well as world traveler. Through it all, he loved history and made history. He loved rare books and shared them with many like-minded colleagues. He made a positive mark and leaves a rich legacy.”

In his later years, Dr. Darby worked diligently to amass a collection of works on the history of nutrition for the Vanderbilt Medical Center Library, and was an honorary curator of that collection. Through his efforts, which over the years have included the cultivation of friendships and associations with nutrition researchers from around the globe, Vanderbilt has become known as a premiere storehouse of nutrition science information.

“Through his collecting efforts of many decades and his stature in the field of nutritional biochemistry, Dr. Darby built the finest collection on the history of nutrition in the United States today,” said Mary Teloh, special collections librarian at Eskind Biomedical Library, who worked closely with Darby for 28 years to build the collection.

Dr. Darby is survived by his wife Elva, whom he married in 1935 after having met her when he played clarinet in the Little Rock Symphony, where she was a violinist; and their three sons, William J., James Richard, and Thomas Douglass.

The service for Dr. Darby will be at 2 p.m., Saturday, June 9, at First Presbyterian Church, Franklin.