Skip to main content

A Walk Down Memory Lane In Biochemistry

By Marlene Jayne

Secretary to Department Administrator 1970-2013


Note: The following Vanderbilt Biochemistry Department history is from a Student Colloquium presentation given by Marlene Jayne on December 13, 2016 to the Biochemistry Student Association [Lorena Infante Lara, President; Rachel Ashley, Vice President; Monica Bomber, Secretary].


I have enjoyed walking down memory lane as I prepared this talk, first about the department and then a bit about Stan Cohen.

When I began to think about what I was going to tell you all, suddenly I realized that I had been at Vanderbilt for almost a half century. On September 29th, 1970, I was driving down 21st Avenue headed home. On the Vanderbilt/Peabody campus I saw a sign that said “Human Resources” and literally not thinking, and certainly not planning to go to work at Vanderbilt, turned in the driveway, went in, completed an application followed by a typing test and a very short interview. I then went home, and as I opened my door the telephone was ringing, and Peggy Stillman in Vanderbilt HR was on the phone asking if I would come back, which I did. I was hired that afternoon and began work in Economics and Business Administration the next morning.  When would that happen nowadays?

One of the girls I worked with in Economics and Business Administration kept talking about two Biochemistry graduate students who had an apartment next to hers. She was very distressed and said that they were making beer and she was afraid they would have an explosion and set the place on fire. I assured her that was not going to happen. Recently Fred’s [Guengerich] wife, Cheryl, told me that it was really awful beer.

Two years later, deciding to go full-time instead of 30 hours a week, Dr. Leon Cunningham, the Associate Dean of Research, who would be coming back to Biochemistry as the new Chairman on January 1, 1973, interviewed me, and I started work in Biochemistry on January 2, 1973. He was the first of five more Chairmen with whom I would work in Biochemistry:

Dr. Leon W. Cunningham 1973-1988
Dr. John G. Coniglio (Acting) 6 months while Cunningham was on sabbatical
Dr. James V. Staros 1988-1992 (Interim)
Dr. Conrad Wagner (Interim) 1992
Dr. Michael R. Waterman 1992-2010
Dr. F. Peter Guengerich (Interim) 2010-2012
Dr. John D. York 2010-present [2017]

My first assignment in Biochemistry was an NIH grant. I had an electric typewriter, and our duplicating equipment consisted of a ditto machine [duplicator]. This was a machine that you had to type the information on a form, mistakes were corrected very badly with a razor blade, then the form was placed on a drum, and where the typewriter had cut through the paper, purple ink would flow. Because Dr. Cunningham was so precise, I typed that grant 24 times before he felt it was okay to submit, then had to make the proper copies. Nearly every file of the older faculty (and even some old dissertations) has at least one copy of ditto duplication. I then heard about the “memory” typewriter and begged for one, and actually we were the first department at Vanderbilt to have an IBM memory typewriter. Juanita Frazor, our financial person, did her budgets by hand and then typed them. Dr. Neal in the Toxicology Center purchased the first computer for the Department, which was bought at Radio Shack, and things became immediately easier. Budgets still did not go out of the department electronically. Telling you this so that you can see how far we have come!

Everyone advised me that I was making a mistake transferring to Biochemistry because Dr. Cunningham had a terrible temper. I could not resist the challenge. It was really fun and challenging. I actually saw him drop-kick a trash basket across an office, beat on metal file cabinets with his fist, denting them, slam doors that I thought would come off their hinges. The first time I was really challenged, I was out of the office and he was looking for something that I had out of the file. He took all the files on my desk, about 20 or so, and dumped them on the floor. When I walked into the office, I thought a bit before I decided to stay. Then I started to laugh, and that was how I handled problems from then on.

Our second challenge, and one of the reasons Stan Cohen became my best friend, was when Stan and Leon were going to attend the FASEB [Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology] conference in Atlantic City, NJ. I made their reservations, not realizing that I had to give a credit card number to insure the reservation, and I did not have a credit card at that time anyway.  In the meantime the Howard Johnson Hotel in Atlantic City burned, and no one told me about that either. Dr. Cunningham had planned to interview candidates for Biochemistry; however, when he got to Atlantic City, he found that he and Stan had no place to stay. They finally found a hotel (as he told me) under the boardwalk—a real dump. He said the police circled every hour shining lights in the window. He tried to interview candidates using the lobby of other hotels, but gave that up. Everyone who returned from the meeting made a stop by my office to tell me that I had better be prepared as he was very angry and planned to fire me. In the meantime, Stan thought this was so funny and enjoyed every minute of it. He finally convinced Leon that this had been the most adventurous and non-boring meeting they had attended, so Stan saved me, and I was always grateful for his wonderful sense of humor.

I was also assigned to take care of the graduate students. Dr. Cunningham appointed Dr. Conrad Wagner as my first Graduate Director. He taught me what I needed to know about assisting the students and what they needed to graduate. Thanks to him, I never had a graduate student who completed their studies and did not have all they needed to get their degree.

Our Department was divided into three sections: Nutrition, which had been the former chairman’s field (Dr. Darby, Dr. Harry Broquist took his place as director), Toxicology (Dr. Robert Neal was the director) and when he left to take a position at the Nutrition Foundation in 1980, Dr. Fred Guengerich who was recruited back to Vanderbilt in 1975, was finally convinced to take the directorship. Dr. Darby had established a study in Cairo Egypt called NAMRU3, United States Naval Medical Research Unit #3, which led to development of a decades-long program of nutrition surveys of many developing countries leading to discovery of many dietary deficiencies. His very large collection of research, books and most of his correspondence are housed in the Archives of the Medical Library. Biochemistry was Dr. Cunningham’s field.  Dr. Cunningham was very interested in Toxicology, and when he came down as Chair of Biochemistry, brought a promise from the administration of space, 3,000 to 5,000 when it became available.

What an exciting small group of faculty, some of whom I will mention here. There was Dr. Frank Chytil. Earlier both he and his wife had been star basketball players in Czechoslovakia. They survived the German occupation in WWII but had problems with the communist who took over. He was virtually a prisoner of the communist in Czechoslovakia. He was finally allowed to attend a meeting in Vienna to which he took his eleven-year-old son, but left his wife, Lucy, and two daughters behind. He developed a plan to get Lucy and their children out of the country. With help from friends Lucy and girls were smuggled across the border by a friend who rushed the border. In 1966 he was hired at Brandeis, then at San Antonio, and Dr. Bert O’Malley recruited him to Vanderbilt. Dr. Chytil did write an article about this before he retired. He was one of Biochemistry’s stars, eventually becoming General Foods Distinguished Professor in Biochemistry, one of only two Distinguished Professors in the University.  His research centered on Vitamin A metabolism. There is a copy of this article in his file and a link on the Biochemistry web site.

There was Dr. Tadashi Inagami who had survived WWII in Japan. As a fourteen-year-old boy he was conscripted to work in an airplane factory making fighter planes. He later came to the U.S. where he received his Ph.D. from Yale University. In 1966 he became the Director of Hypertension (SCOR), a center that encompassed not only Biochemistry but other departments.  Later, before he retired, NIH told him they would no longer fund this Center, as he had discovered the cure for high blood pressure.  They did leave the training grant with us for the students and postdocs supported on this grant to complete their study.

And, of course, there was Stan Cohen whom I will tell you about later.

Dr. Bob Neal had been a student in Biochemistry and later became President of the Nutrition Foundation. Dr. Conrad Wagner was also Science Director of the VA [Veteran’s Administration Hospital, attached to the Vanderbilt Medical Center] and who designed and supervised the building of the Acre Building attached to the VA.  And there was Dr. Harry Broquist, who had been Director of the Nutrition division in our Department and received many honors for his work.

In 1975, Dr. Neal was in the [Air National Guard] reserves and flew fighter plans on weekends. One day he decided to buzz Dr. Cunningham’s house. He got so low that Leon’s neighbor was able to get the number off the plane and reported him. He was almost tossed out of the reserves, but eventually went on to become a four-star general in the Air Force reserves.

There was Dr. John Coniglio who also received his Ph.D. from Biochemistry/Vanderbilt under Dr. Darby, but when I came to Biochemistry he was a full professor.  He had come from the atomic bomb project at Oak Ridge, Tennessee before coming to Vanderbilt. He was a great teacher and organized the teaching of the medical students. We had a large laboratory at the end of corridor B. There were two medical courses: Biochemistry 321 and 322 (a laboratory course which was later dropped). Biochemistry 321 was the longest running medical biochemistry course of any university in the country. The handouts, syllabus, etc. of this course, are kept in the Archives of the Medical Library. When Dr. Coniglio was forced to retire because of the 65 year old federal law, Dr. Neil Osheroff took over the course, and we all know that it has continued to be better and better, and I think it has now developed to the point that it covers most first year courses which were taught to medical students by the basic sciences in the School.

Our graduate program went from three students in 1950 to more than fifty when I came to the department, and it has fluctuated through the years according to the support available for the students.  We were rated as the top graduate program in the School. We did our own recruiting, paying for the expense of students visiting. We supported our students through training grants or on research grants held by their mentor. The expense of recruiting was eventually taken over by Roger Chalkley’s administrative department [Biomedical Research Education & Training – BRET].

Dr. Guengerich does not like for me to say this, but he was my first student to graduate after I came to the Department, and you know how good he is now. Also, Dr. Sam Santoro received his M.D./Ph.D. with Dr. Cunningham as his mentor, and you know where he is now—back at VU as Chair of Pathology Microbiology and Immunology. Dr. Cheryl Guyer was one of the top students. She worked with Dr. Jim Staros, and when he left Vanderbilt, she also left. She is married to Dr. Neil Osheroff. When I left, there were more than 500 students who had received their Ph.D. or M.S. in Biochemistry, some also earned a M.D. Prelims were given over two days, the first being a written prelim which began at 8:00 a.m. and lasted until the student finished answering the questions. Lunch and drinks were provided. The questions were submitted by the tenured faculty. The second day was a question and answer exam from our tenured faculty about anything scientific they wanted to ask. It was really grueling.

Our department was housed in Medical Center North in the B corridor, opening on the Chapman courtyard. The offices were on the first floor, and we had a small area in Learned Lab (U corridor) and the T corridor for a total of 16,752 net square footage and a promise of 3,000 to 5,000 nsf for Toxicology when the space became available.  Stan Cohen’s lab was on the second floor of B corridor. Stan built a run for the rats he was using in his laboratory around the top of the lab so they could get exercise, so I refused to go near.

Dr. Cunningham fought hard for space and money to run his department. When he came down as Chairman in 1973, his budget was $1.66 million in research grants and $180,000 from the administration. Most of the salaries for faculty and research were financed by grants, and the hard money was for staff, equipment, teaching, etc. In the first five years the money increased five-fold, with grants and hard money having about the same ratio.

The first four floors of Light Hall had been built, and floors 5 through 8 were incomplete. Dr. Cunningham convinced the administration that Biochemistry did not presently have enough space and asked for space in Light Hall. He felt that because of our increased national recognition of Biochemistry programs and on the depth of our need we should have some of this space. They agreed if he could find some way to build the floor out he could have the space. He finally contacted Bud Patterson, a 1962 graduate student who was vice president of the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Oklahoma who convinced the foundation to help with the build out of the floor (5th floor, later changed to 6th) that was matched by Vanderbilt and NIH. So in 1979 we moved into Light Hall.  Toxicology had to be left behind and was not moved until 1987; however, I know that Dr. Cunningham never forgot that Toxicology and Biochemistry needed to be together, so Tox was moved when the MRBII (Ann and Roscoe Robinson Research Building) was completed.

With the added space we were able to hire a small number of faculty. Doctors Dixie Frederiksen and Carl Hellerqvist were hired while we were in Medical Center North as was Dr. Lubomir Hnilica who was hired as the Mary Geddes Stahlman Professor of Cancer Research. Unfortunately Dr. Hnilica was killed in 1986 when he was visiting his family in Texas as he and his daughter were putting in the trunk of his car blue bell flowers his daughter and he had just picked. This left a real void in our Department. This vacancy was later filled by Dr. Larry Marnett as the Mary Geddes Stahlman Professor of Research.

In 1981, by the time, we were in Light Hall we had total space of 27,615 nsf and a budget of $3.3 million of which $360,000 was hard money from the administration. The Ann and Roscoe Robinson building was completed in 1987. Because of our increased success we were given the 6th floor, and Tox and Biochemistry were together again. Dr. James Staros and Dr. Peter Gettings had been hired after our move to Light Hall. Dr. David Ong (Frank Chytil’s postdoc) and Dr. Graham Carpenter (Stanley Cohen’s postdoc) were promoted from research status to tenured status.

In 1986 Dr. Cunningham developed a proposal to the Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust with Dr. Cohen as the director. We shared this with two other departments: Cell Biology and Medicine. This grant was used to hire young faculty, establish a mouse lab and a nucleic acid sequencing laboratory. It was administered by Tom Barnes who worked in the Research Dean’s office, but later was turned over to me (Marlene Jayne) to administer and to write the final report.

Dr. Cunningham retired in 1988, and we were friends for the remainder of his life. Dr. Jim Staros became our acting chairman for three years and three months. He was able to bring another endowed chair to Biochemistry, the Stanford Moore Chair in Biochemistry given to Dr. Tadashi Inagami and which later split into two chairs—The Stanford Moore Chair (Richard Caprioli) and the Tadashi Inagami Chair (Fred Guengerich). He also hired Dr. Wayne Anderson in 1988, which was started under Dr. Cunningham and Dr. Marcia Newcomer in 1989 who have left the University.

Then for nine months Dr. Conrad Wagner served as Acting Chairman. He did not make many changes but tried to keep everything together before the new chair would come in. By this time SCOR had closed but we did retain the training grant. No one wanted to write it, so Dr. Staros gave it to me, and we were given an extra slot more than was requested. That was the first time that I actually wrote a grant by myself. Baptism under fire! Our stars in Biochemistry continued to get national recognition, and some of the younger faculty also were rewarded with honors.

In 1992 Dr. Michael Waterman, from The University of Texas, Southwestern Medical School, became our chairman. This was quite an exciting time. Dr. Waterman immediately hired six young faculty (five men and one woman, Dr. Jennifer Pietenpol). The men left within two to three years, one even lasted a little longer, but we were lucky enough to retain Dr. Pietenpol and you all know who she is and where she is now [Director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center]. One of these new hires, Dr. Joachim Ostermann, an Assistant Professor obtained a laboratory retriever, called Buster. He did not ask to bring the dog on campus, but Buster came to work with him every day, and he very rarely went anywhere without Buster. One day President Bill Clinton and his crew from Washington visited Vanderbilt. I got a frantic call from Dean John Chapman asking if we had a dog on campus. It seems the FBI had brought their dogs from Washington, and they were put on what is now the third floor, which was Clinton’s home away from home for the day.  When the dogs boarded the elevator they went crazy sniffing and barking as they apparently smelled Buster. Dean John Chapman did not ask whose dog it was, but told me to get the professor and his dog out of Vanderbilt as quickly as possible. Peace was restored.

Dr. Waterman hired a number of faculty at the rank of professor: Dr. Richard Armstrong, Dr. Richard Caprioli, Dr. Walter Chazin, Dr. Bruce Carter, Dr. Scott Hiebert, Dr. Martin Egli, Dr. David Cortez, Dr. Charles Sanders, Dr. Kevin Schey, and last but certainly not least, Dr. Steve Fesik. So now we have another group of stars in our Department. Dr. Waterman was able to get money to establish Centers, which were across department lines but under the Biochemistry umbrella: Structural Biology Center, Mass Spectormetry Center, Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology, and at that time we still had the Toxicology Center. Each of these Centers had their own administrative staff who handled their own budgets, so our Department really grew.

Dr. Waterman also decided we would continue the Thanksgiving luncheon, which, as the department got larger and space became more precious, ended after about ten years. How grateful I was for that! He then decided we would have a retreat off campus. We went to Fall Creek Falls, Henry Horton State Park and to Montgomery Bell State Park. Our last off campus retreat was at Montgomery Bell State Park where we spent two days and nights. The days were used to present research from each lab. In the evening we would have a big meal, and our students would put on a play, or we played games. Alcohol was always limited to the meeting room; however, my clever students would distract me and slip the alcohol to their cabins, and in this case to their room in the Inn. This particular time, our students decided in the afternoon before everything started that they would play beer pong. Some visitors to the park reported them, and they lost their table and what beer they had, and they were reprimanded by the hotel personnel but I was not informed. Then after the get-together and the play which was put on by the students they went upstairs to their rooms and continued with the beer they had cleverly taken from my store.

When they tried to bring the empty bottles down, the garbage sack was so large, they had trouble getting it out of the elevator which opened opposite the sign-in desk, so again hotel personnel caught them, but this time, they also called me along with the police from Burns, Tennessee, a little town near the park.  I convinced them that I had everything under control. Again the students being bored and wanting more fun, broke into the swimming pool, took off their jewelry and put the contents of their pockets on the side of the pool and had a good old drinking time. Of course they were caught by the hotel security, and the police were called again. I begged again. All of their belongings were taken from them including the beer pong table by the hotel administration. I spent my night begging the police not to take them to jail. The next day I was called into the park office where I was informed that there would be no more Biochemistry retreats at Montgomery Bell State Park, and all my students belongings were given to me. I took them back to my office, lined them up on my desk, and each student had to claim their belonging from me. There was a lovely silver whiskey flask with initials on my desk for about two months before it was claimed.

We also had a Christmas party with a band off campus. The younger people danced the night away and we found that we had some pretty good dancers in our faculty, but most of the older faculty went home early because of the noise made by the band or DJ. This went on for about ten years until money got short and budget restraints were enforced by the University Administration, and all departments were told no more big parties. Dr. Waterman then agreed to follow the rules and we went to a different type of party, University Club, afternoon reception with snacks and Dr. York has continued, and all of us thank him very much for allowing us this opportunity to visit among ourselves.

One of the best things I ever did for the Department was to hire Robert Dortch as my Administrative Officer in 2001. Brenda Bilbrey, and Peggy Fisher remained with the Department along with Melvin Fitzgerald, but we lost Susan Heaver to retirement and lack of work for her to do as professors were mostly doing their own grants and administrative work. Times were really good. We ran our department with only five administrative people.  I think the faculty were happy with our department.

By 1999 funding from NIH was in excess of $12 million. Our total research funding was more than $15 million, placing us in the top or second department in the country over a few years.  We continued to have picnics for our faculty, students and staff. Dr. Darby welcomed us to his farm, which had a Civil War era home. We had great times playing games, visiting and eating bar-b-que.

Dr. Fred Guengerich took over as Interim Chair when Dr. Waterman stepped down in July 2010. He served for two years until June 2012. Dr. David Cortez was our DGS (Director of Graduate Studies), serving a much longer term than any DGS before him. It was a fun time, and nothing was out of control. Fred was given some extra hard money to use for the department, our budgets were balanced and all lived together peacefully. We hired one faculty during this two-year period—Dr. Nicholas Reiter.

Dr. Larry Marnett was appointed chair of the search committee to identify a new chairman for Biochemistry. He found Dr. John York from Duke University, who accepted in March of 2012. So many of our faculty were retiring or passing on. We had very few young faculty. Dr. York asked for enough money to hire young faculty, and I understand that he has hired five new, young faculty. Things were really changing in the Medical Center. Early retirement was offered to staff, most of who took the early retirement. As I had just turned 81 years old, I felt it was time for me to retire, and two of my staff joined me. Dr. York has done a wonderful job of bridging the changes that have been made, and I am sure this is the hardest part of his job, but because of his foresight he has money to bridge the waters.  After I left, he brought Jennifer Smith into his office to assist him with the change-over and to continue the work that was started before he came to Biochemistry. Dr. York has helped to continue Stan’s research by establishing the Stanley Cohen Seminar Series, bringing many to Vanderbilt to share their research. Dr. Marnett has set up the Stanley Cohen Innovative Grant Program with seed money from Dr. Tom Daniels, ex-Vanderbilt faculty member, to further Stanley’s research.

There are many stories and faculty I have not mentioned as time would really not allow me to talk longer.

1973 through 2013 were exciting times for me. I met some of the most wonderful people in the world that I would have never known if I had not come to Vanderbilt.  When I think about coming to Vanderbilt, and the way it happened I feel very blessed.

Stanley Cohen

I worked with Stanley Cohen for 38 years at Vanderbilt in the Department of Biochemistry, not in the laboratory but doing his administrative work, which he did not love to do. Each professor was allowed to pay a portion of a secretary’s salary in order to have the use of an administrative assistant. I was hired as Dr. Leon Cunningham’s administrative secretary in 1973. Stan was Leon’s best friend, so he asked if he could use my administrative services. Leon agreed and told Stan that he could not pay any of my salary because if he ever decided to throw him out of the office, there would be no complication. This worked for as long as Stan was at Vanderbilt. Earlier I mentioned how Stan and I became friends, later as friendships grew, Stan and Jan Cohen became my best friends.  I will tell you a few of the stories about them as opposed to discussing his research.

Stanley Cohen’s parents came to this country as Jewish immigrants from Russia. They came through Ellis Island settling in New York. His mother came with a group of girls when she was 16; his father was already in this country. His father was a tailor and mother a housewife and as Stan told me neither had a formal education but were adamant that their children be well educated. In his early years, Stan came down with polio (infantile paralysis). He was one lucky young man as children were dying or living in iron lungs for the remainder of their lives as a result. His leg was paralyzed and as he grew, his leg did not, eventually becoming about 6-8 inches shorter with almost no muscle. He certainly overcame his disability, and if you mentioned to him that he had a disability, he would get very upset. He did not see it as such. Stan attended public school in Brooklyn working in the afternoon for a drugstore, delivering orders on his bicycle. He will also tell you that he attended Brooklyn College, which was a public university, and there was no charge to attend. He has told me that this is the only way he could have attended college as his parents would have never been able to afford sending him. He was interested in science, especially cell biology and the mysteries of embryonic development. He took a job as a bacteriologist in a milk processing plant where he saved enough money and along with a fellowship was able to attend Oberlin College where he received his Masters degree in Zoology in 1945. In 1948 he received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Michigan on an American Cancer Fellowship. His Ph.D. thesis concerned the metabolic mechanism, in which the end product of nitrogen metabolism in the earthworm is switched from ammonia to urea during starvation. He told me of the nights that he spent collecting over 5,000 earthworms from the University campus green for his research.

In 1952 he was offered a job at the University of Colorado in Pediatrics and Biochemistry by Dr. Gary Gordon where he was involved in metabolic studies of premature infants.

Also in 1952 he accepted a postdoc position at Washington University to work with Dr. Martin Kamen in Radiology. The American Cancer Society supported him, and here he learned isotope methodology. He has told me that he received a priceless education participating in a journal club led by Dr. Arthur Kornberg.  In 1953 he took a position in the Department of Zoology under the leadership of Dr. Viktor Hamburger working with Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini to isolate nerve growth factor (NGF). His interest changed to epidermal growth factor (EGF).

In 1959 he was invited to give a seminar at Vanderbilt where the then chairman, Dr. William Darby, after the seminar, offered him a job as Assistant Professor in Biochemistry. He accepted immediately and thus began his career at Vanderbilt. Working with six different chairmen over the years, I know that they allowed the researcher to follow their dreams and they did not interfere.          

Stanley supported himself with a 4-year start up grant from NIH. After that he applied for an NIH grant, which was assigned to the Child Health and Human Development Division. This grant was funded and continued for 38 years. The number of the grant was 007, entitled EGF. I often teased him that his 007 gave more to the world than James Bond’s as 007. He really liked that. This number indicated that he had received the 7th grant ever given by this division. He refused to write the final report, so I wrote it for him and he signed it without even reading it.

If a faculty member asked for a reference, he would tell them to write the letter and give it to him, then he would pass it on to me. We would edit it and send along. I wrote his other letters for him, which he signed.

Brenda Crews, who worked for him, always loved to trick him on April 1st. On one of the tricks she borrowed a suitcase from Jan [Stanley’s wife] along with some of his shirts, a book, and an extra pipe. She had my husband call Stan to tell him that American Airlines had found a suitcase in their storeroom that they identified as his. Brenda’s husband put on a yellow cabbie hat and delivered the suitcase to my office while Stan was sitting there and asked him to check to see that it was his. He opened the suitcase and started pulling things out.  Along with the things that Jan had contributed, Brenda put black women’s undies in the suitcase. By that time a crowd had gathered. He started pulling things out of the suitcase, but was really embarrassed when he got to the undies and kept denying that any of the stuff was his. Finally Brenda said “April Fool’s!” She came up with something different for many years. She is working for Dr. Marnett now, and I can bet that she does not do April Fool on him.

We moved to Light Hall, and each professor was allowed to design his own laboratory.  Stan drew his plans up and made his office so small that a regular desk would not fit. He spent most of his office time in my office, sitting in a chair in front of my desk with his work on the corner of my desk. During this time I got numerous calls from people outside of Vanderbilt asking for his CV, which I would not send until they told me why they wanted it. Most told me to keep the information to myself, which I did; that it was to recommend him for the Nobel Prize.

He had received the Albert Lasker Award, which was usually followed by the Nobel Prize. Dr. Cunningham decided to nominate him for the Nobel. He did not win that year, but Dr. Sidney Harshman (from Vanderbilt) called me. He told me he did not have a secretary but would like to recommend Stanley for THE AWARD. I agreed to help him. Dr. Sidney Colowick, a renowned researcher who was in the hospital in bad condition, and Dr. Grant Liddle, the Chairman of Medicine who had a stroke and was in a wheel chair, both signed the recommendation, and by golly, he won the prize. Stan and Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini shared the prize for their work in NGF and EGF.

What an exciting day, Stan received a call early in the morning of October 10, 1986, and he immediately called me, waking my husband. When Bill handed the phone to me, the first and only thing Stan said was, “We won the prize!” which he repeated three times. I was so sleepy that I did not realize what he was saying until he said, “Marlene, the Nobel Prize, now get to the office as quick as you can!” Dr. Cunningham also called asking me to get to the office ASAP. I beat them both there as I was there before 6 a.m. that morning, and for the next few months it was very hectic. The phone never stopped ringing nor visitors dropping in to congratulate Stan. Stan would not talk to anyone on the phone unless it came through my office. Jan, Stanley’s wife, came into the office volunteering her help. That day Brenda Crews asked what she could do to help and Dr. Cunningham sent her out after fruit and donuts for everyone.

Nashville Banner – Front Page
Nashville Banner – Page 8

Reporters and research friends from all over the world were calling. At that time there were three Stanley Cohens in the country. One professor at Stanford called saying that he felt he was the winner and that Stanley had been called in error. Stan was very diplomatic but we both knew different.

The British and Swedish presses came to Nashville to take his picture and follow him around. The picture that appeared in their papers was the cowboy boot downtown advertising country music and Nashville. They also had a picture of him walking his dog, Heinzie, that Jan had rescued on the highway. Newspapers were coming in from across the world. I turned this collection over to the archives of the Medical Library. We also received threats on his life for using animals in his research. I made copies, which were turned over to the police and convinced them that he needed an escort to-and-from his parking place back-and-forth to the office.

Stanley was allowed to take 10 family members to the award plus Doctor Leon Cunningham and wife Jean, Dean John Chapman and his wife Jean, and Vice Chancellor Rosco Robinson and his wife Ann. I filled a plane full of people from Nashville, got them all set up in Sweden with the committee, and away they went.

Karolinska Lecture
Nobel Lecture
Nobel Prize
Cohen Receives Prize

One funny thing happened to Jan and Stan, which they did not expect. They were sound asleep in their room when the door burst open, and a group of lovely blond girls with white robes, flowers in their hair, and wearing wings, came in to serenade them. It literally scared them as they thought the angels had flown down to take them off.

When they came back, Dr. Cunningham contacted Dean Chapman about a substantial increase in salary for Stanley in view of his accomplishments and stature. Dean Chapman replied, and I quote, “That’s a great idea, Leon! Can you afford it?” which of course we could not, but Stan received the last payment from the Nobel Foundation, which was not taxed by the US. I saw and held the check, which was pretty large both in size and dollars. I went to Dean Chapman and asked for a special parking place for Stan, and he gave it to me and paid for it until the University took it over later. It was paid from the Chancellor’s office until Stan retired.  The Medical Center did commission a portrait of him that Ann Street painted. He was holding his corncob pipe in the picture. I think the portrait is somewhere in Light Hall now with the picture of Earl Sutherland, our only other Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine awardee.

Later when smoking became a no-no on campus, Stan sucked on his pipe, but never lit it. Someone reported him, and Dean Chapman wrote Stan a letter telling him no smoking. Dr. Cohen answered that it was just a pacifier. The Dean gave him 4 stars written on the bottom of the letter.

When Stanley retired in 2000, he did not tell us immediately. He and his technician began to clean his lab, dumping the notebooks that had been kept. I rescued a few, which are in the Medical Library.

In the meantime, Stan, Jan and I went jeeping [four-wheeling in a Jeep] every chance we got. From the Outer Banks, to Big Bear, California. From Illinois to Alabama. What fun we had together, fording rivers, climbing rocks, driving through mud—we did it all. After they moved to Tucson, I visited, and we went to Big Bear, California for a jeep jamboree. We would not allow Stan to drive much in the jamborees, but he finally talked us into it. He was perched behind the steering wheel when instead of stepping on the brake to slow down while climbing a large obstacle rock, he hit the accelerator. That jeep jumped over the rock, hit the jeep in front of us and went flying to the edge of the mountain, followed by us. We almost ended it for two jeeps. All in the group immediately got us back from the edge and chewing gum was passed out with an order for us to chew. The gum was used to patch our radiator and get us back on the road. We limped back to Tucson with Jan being assigned the task of buying the stop leak and me filling up jugs of water.  I felt like we were the Clampetts. We crossed the desert in 114 degree heat and got within one mile of their home when that jeep just quit. Off road jeeping is not covered by insurance, and it cost Stan a good penny to patch up his jeep, plus damage he did to the other vehicle. That was the last time we allowed him to drive in a jamboree.

Stanley continued to work with many people around Vanderbilt, developing theories that he shared willingly. He also trained students, worked with postdocs, most of whom have gone on to have very successful jobs and have carried his work forward, often consulting with him. He was very generous traveling the world, sharing his work and even visiting Cuba when it was closed to Americans to talk research.

His work has led to treatment and cures in lung, breast and other cancers, and I am sure that as time goes forward and men and women continue to work with EGF and its receptor that we may even eradicate some of these terrible diseases.  There are physicians who have taken this in other directions, beginning at Vanderbilt with Dr. Lloyd King, curing the sores from diabetes. Others growing skin in petri dishes to help burn patients, those at the University of Kentucky who have used his research to further eye problem treatments and even eye surgery being improved. I have recently read in The Reporter that experiments are being done on EGF and the gut (i.e. Dr. Keigh Wilson in Medicine and his graduate student, Dana Hardbower who have received a two year grant from NIH).  

Though he is out of the laboratory, his research goes on. The pharma companies have 87 treatments and cures due to his discoveries. Here in Biochemistry,stq Dr. John York, the present chairman, has established the Stanley Cohen Seminar Series, bringing many to Vanderbilt to share their research. Dr. Larry Marnett has set up the Stanley Cohen Innovative Research Fund to support awarding one to two grants a year to researchers at Vanderbilt seeded by Dr. Tom Daniels. Stan recently received the Tennessee Health Care Hall of Fame Award, honoring him for taking his research from the lab to the bed. It is my belief that his work will go on until maybe someday some of our dreaded diseases will come to an end. That was Stanley’s wish; not making a lot of money but helping humanity.

I agreed to talk about the Department and Stanley and others so that you will know that many, many good men and women have gone before you to make this one of the best departments in the country. You have a chance to make a real mark in research. Just look what our faculty, staff, and students have made possible for you. Go and make them proud of you, as I am proud of you.

Thank you.

Marlene Jayne


Further Reading

Great Researchers at Vanderbilt

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine Laureates

VUMC Through Time: A Photographic Archive

Stanley Cohen’s Nobel Prize: 25 Years of Progress

History: Vanderbilt School of Medicine