Lafayette Mendel was an American biochemist who is known for making revolutionary discovery in the field of nutrition. He, together with Thomas B Osborne, studied the value of vitamins and proteins in daily diet as a means for healthy living. Through their research and experiments, they established amino acids and determined the importance of a healthy diet by incorporating vitamin A, vitamin B, lysine and tryptophan in the diet. They also established the modern concepts of nutrition. Through the studies, they revealed the ill effects that a diet devoid of vitamins can have. Did you know that deficiency of vitamin A will not just hamper our daily requirement of nutrition, but also lead us to xerophthalmia, a disease caused by lack of vitamin A? Right from the early years in life, Mendel showed an affinity towards science. Academically brilliant, he garnered for himself a scholarship that helped him gain admission at Yale University. Finishing his studies, he served at his alma mater, eventually becoming Sterling Professor in 1921. He published more than 100 papers in his lifetime, each detailing about his research and findings in the field of nutrition.
Childhood & Early Life
Lafayette Mendel was born on February 5, 1872, in New York, to Benedict Mendel and Pauline Ullman. His father was a merchant by profession. Both his parents were Germans by birth. They immigrated to USA during the mid-19th century.
After completing his preliminary studies, Mendel gained New York State scholarship at the age of 15, which in turn helped him gain admission at the Yale University. Therein, he studied classics, economics and humanities. Additionally, he also learned biology and chemistry. In 1891, he graduated with a degree in honors.
Immediately following his graduation, Mendel received a fellowship that helped him begin his graduate work at the Sheffield Scientific School. At the Sheffield school, Mendel studied physiological chemistry under Russell Henry Chittenden.
In 1893, Mendel successfully completed his PhD. The topic of his thesis was the study of seed storage protein edestin extracted from hemp seed.
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Completing his PhD, Lafayette Mendel started his career with the post of an assistant at the Sheffield School in physiological chemistry. Meanwhile, he moved to Germany temporarily to study about the various aspects of physiological chemistry.
In 1896, Mendel returned from Germany to take up the post of an Assistant Professor at the Yale University. In 1903, he was promoted to the position of full-time professor. With this, he became one of the first high-ranking Jewish professors in USA. Meanwhile, he also received appointments from Yale School of Medicine and the Yale Graduate School.
At Yale University, Mendel, together with Chittenden, became one of the founders of the science of nutrition. He collaborated with American biochemist, Thomas B. Osborne, to establish the essential amino acids. The two researched as to why rats could not survive on diets containing carbohydrates, fats and proteins only.
When Mendel and Osborne were discovering the necessary elements in a healthy diet for rats, American biochemists Elmer McCollum and Marguerite Davis discovered Vitamin A. It was later in 1913 that Mendel and Osborne found out that butter fat contained Vitamin A while water-soluble vitamin B was found in milk. The duo discovered the fact that both vitamin A and vitamin B complex were necessary for a healthy living.
Through their studies, Mendel and Osborne exposed the ill effects that our body could undergo following the deficiency of these vital vitamins. They figured out that a person with lack of vitamin A rich food in his/her diet carries the risk of being inflicted with xerophthalmia.
Together with Osborne, Mendel also established the importance of lysine and tryptophan in a healthy diet. They also recognized the fact that nutritive value of proteins was determined by the amount of essential amino acids that they contain.
In his lifetime, Mendel wrote more than 100 papers along with Osborne. In 1916, he wrote ‘Changes in the Food Supply and Their Relation to Nutrition’. Later in 1923, he published the work ‘Nutrition, the Chemistry of Life’
In 1921, Mendel was appointed Sterling Professor of Physiological Chemistry. He was the only Jew amongst the twenty professors designated to be Sterling professors and the third in the lot to be appointed in this prestigious group.
Mendel’s most important discovery came in the field of nutrition. Together with Thomas Osborne, Mendel made established the modern concepts of nutrition by instituting the importance of Vitamin A, Vitamin B, lysine and tryptophan in a healthy diet.
Awards & Achievements
In his lifetime, Lafayette Mendel was bestowed with numerous honours and achievements. He served as the first President of the American Institute of Nutrition.
In 1913, he became a member of the National Academy of Sciences
In 1927, Mendel was presented with a gold medal by the American Institute of Chemists for his outstanding contributions to chemistry.
In 1921, he was made Sterling Professor at Yale University.
In 1935, he won the Conné Medal of the Chemist's Club of New York for his outstanding chemical contributions to medicine.
Personal Life & Legacy
Lafayette Mendel married Alice R. Friend on April 29, 1917. The couple were child-less.
He breathed his last on December 9, 1935, in New Haven Connecticut from heart condition, after suffering from a long illness.
Posthumously, his house in New Haven was turned into a National Historic Landmark.