In memoriam: Boyd O’Dell (1916–2019)

Boyd O'DellBoyd O’Dell, one of the first scientists to reveal the important roles that folic acid and vitamin B12 play in development, died April 21. He was 102.

O’Dell spent about 80 years on the campus of the University of Missouri, and he was a legend there. Indeed, in a 2016 UM article about his 100th birthday celebration, a colleague said, “This man walks on water for people.” There’s even a bridge dedicated to him.

O’Dell was born in central Missouri on Oct. 14, 1916. He told writer Stephen Schmidt that the doctor present at his birth arrived on horse and buggy. Perhaps fatigued by the 10-mile ride or the delivery itself, the doctor wrote the wrong date on baby Boyd’s birth certificate. O’Dell’s mother insisted the correct date was Oct. 14, and so it was.

After attending a one-room rural school, O’Dell went to the University of Central Missouri but decided to transfer to UM in 1937 to complete a chemistry degree. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees at MU in agricultural chemistry and during that time worked on isolating folic acid. Upon graduation, O’Dell took a job in Detroit as a research chemist. He was recruited to UM four years later.

As an academic researcher, he worked on trace element deficiencies and was particularly interested in zinc and copper. In the late 1950s, he was involved in the discovery of how phytic acid interferes with the absorption and utilization of zinc. All told, O’Dell had more than 200 articles to his name and even in so-called retirement was continuing to investigate how zinc deficiency harms cell function by blocking the signal for calcium uptake.

To learn more about O’Dell’s post-retirement research, see “Just like Boyd” in the April 2017 issue of ASBMB Today.