Skip to main content

Donation of Awards and Scrapbooks Will Lead to New Understanding of the Life and Work of Nobel Laureate Dr. Earl Sutherland

Group photo of (left-to-right), Chris Ryland wearing slacks and blue jackets; Larry Marnett wearing a dark blue jacket and eye-glasses; Bill Sutherland holding a folder; Judith Gilbert holding Earl Sutherland's Nobel Prize medal; and Nancy Carrasco wearing a blue dress.
Dr. Bill Sutherland and his wife, Judith Gilbert, holding the Nobel diploma and prize during their visit to Vanderbilt’s campus to donate the scrapbooks and materials. From left to right, Chris Ryland, curator of the History of Medicine Collections and Archives at the Vanderbilt University Libraries; Larry Marnett, dean of the School of Medicine Basic Sciences; Sutherland and Gilbert, and; Dr. Nancy Carrasco, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics (Photo by Taylor Wood).

By Aaron Conley

In late August of this year, Dr. Bill Sutherland visited the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Basic Sciences dean, Larry Marnett, and Dr. Nancy Carrasco, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, to donate materials from the life of his father, Nobel laureate Dr. Earl Sutherland.

Photo of a scrapbook containing letters of congratulations.
A donated scrapbook opened to some of Dr. Earl Sutherland’s many letters of congratulations from Vanderbilt colleagues and other scientists, including Dr. Helen Taussig, who worked with Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas on the blue baby therapy at Johns Hopkins.

The donated scrapbooks include personal photographs, correspondence from other scientists, institutional correspondence, scientific awards and medals, and programs from speaking engagements according to Chris Ryland, curator of the History of Medicine Collections and Archives at the Vanderbilt University Libraries. “The scrapbooks were annotated by Dr. Earl Sutherland’s wife, Dr. Claudia Sebeste Smith,” Ryland said, “so they provide context to the correspondence and photographs. Of note, is the 1970 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. The Lasker Award is very prestigious and often considered a precursor to the Nobel Prize.”

“It was a privilege and a pleasure for me to visit with Dean Marnett and his colleagues,” Dr. Bill Sutherland noted, “so I could transfer material pertaining to my father, Earl Sutherland, Jr. It was very moving to see and hold the actual Nobel medal which I had never done before. I admire Vanderbilt’s proposed uses of this trove of information, and I feel that biographical exposure of my father’s accomplishments which featured collaboration with many scientists and his kind support of co-workers would be exemplary as well as interesting.”

Earl Sutherland was a Vanderbilt professor of physiology from 1963 to 1973. He won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicinein 1971 “for his discoveries concerning the mechanisms of the action of hormones,” especially epinephrine, via second messengers. Second messengers such as cyclic adenosine monophosphate or cyclic AMP are intracellular signaling molecules that relay messages from receptors to their targets within cells. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Sutherland won the Albert Lasker Award for basic medical research in 1970 and received the National Medal of Science in 1973. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1966.

Image of various photographs depicting Earl Sutherland in his lab with colleagues and receiving awards for his research.
A donated scrapbook open to photographs from Dr. Earl Sutherland’s lab and career.

The new scrapbooks provide insight into Sutherland’s life and research. Sutherland grew up in small-town Kansas working in his father’s dry goods store. To pay for his bachelor of science degree at Washburn College, Sutherland worked as a medical assistant at a local hospital, which led him to pursue a doctor of medicine degree at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. There he worked in Nobel laurate Dr. Carl Cori’s lab to study how hormones stimulate the breakdown of glycogen, the body’s “storage form” of glucose.

Sutherland received his medical degree during World War II and was called into service as an army physician under General George Patton. In 1944, Sutherland was sent to Germany to work in a military hospital. After returning from the war, Sutherland returned to research in Cori’s lab rather than pursue life as a physician. He continued his research in various faculty roles at Washington University and Western Reserve before joining the faculty at Vanderbilt in 1963.

In recognition of Sutherland’s impact, the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust created the Earl Sutherland Prize for Achievement in Research in 1976, which is awarded annually. The prize recognizes “Vanderbilt faculty whose achievements in research, scholarship, or creative expression, particularly in the past ten years, have garnered significant critical reception and are recognized nationally or internationally.”

Photo of a glass tabletop on which are displayed various medals and awards.
Dr. Earl Sutherland’s awards including the Nobel Prize medal and Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, among others.

Ryland spoke about the importance of the new collection of materials donated by Sutherland’s son, noting that Vanderbilt can use this collection in several ways. “We regularly put together exhibits that include Sutherland’s Nobel diploma and a facsimile of the Nobel Prize, but now we can add interesting photographs and scrapbook materials,” Ryland said. “These materials will also be valuable to anyone wanting to write a biography about Dr. Sutherland, as we often get requests for photographs of Dr. Sutherland for stories and publications.”

“It was a pleasure to meet Bill and Judith and discuss Earl Sutherland’s life and scientific contributions,” Marnett concluded. “We are so grateful to the family for donating his papers to Vanderbilt which will provide a fascinating look at a great scientist for generations of students and faculty. We are honored to celebrate his accomplishments.”

The donation provides invaluable insights into the life and science of Sutherland, from his agrarian upbringing and his time as a physician in World War II, to his emergence as one of the top curiosity-driven discovery scientists in the world.