From country girl to author
on most-cited paper:
Nira Rosebrough Roberts

Nira Roberts Roberts

“I was a little country girl who really didn’t know much of anything. But I was very good at what I did, and we made a good team.” That is Nira Rosebrough Roberts, the technician who worked with Oliver Lowry and two others to develop the Lowry method, a famous way of measuring the amount of protein in a solution.

The Journal of Biological Chemistry paper that describes the method is the most cited paper in publishing history. By late December, the paper had been cited 305,782 times. Roberts’ maiden name, Nira Rosebrough, is second on the paper.

Roberts, now a vivacious 87-year-old widow living a life packed with games of bridge and other fun at an independent seniors’ home in Lexington, Ky., landed in Lowry’s laboratory at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis by “pure happenstance,” she says.

Roberts grew up in the small town of Bolivar, Mo., where she excelled in school. “I got very good grades, so I was the valedictorian of a very small class,” she says. “There were 44 students.” Her parents didn’t have money for college, so when she graduated from high school, Roberts first went to a junior college called Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar for two years. She was the first one in her family to head to college. But Roberts wanted more, so she next decided to enroll at Drury University in Springfield, Mo.

When she got to the university, Roberts weighed her options. She loved math. But in those days, the only avenue open to a woman with a math degree was teaching. “I didn’t want to be a teacher,” says Roberts.

So, because she had enjoyed a chemistry course in high school, she opted to pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in math. The degree was a four-year program, which Roberts completed in two, graduating magna cum laude in 1948.

Notably, “I’m probably the only B.S. in chemistry who got through school without taking physical chemistry!” she says with a laugh. “My chemistry professor allowed me to take a brand-new course called atomic physics instead of physical chemistry, and they gave me a bachelor’s degree.”

Roberts can’t recall how she found out about the technician job at Washington University, but she and three young men headed to the university after they graduated from Drury University. The men entered the medical school, and Roberts began to work for Lowry.

Lowry had been at the institution for a year as the head of the pharmacology department. “We’d meet in the mornings and go over whatever results we had in the afternoons,” recalls Roberts. “I had no idea about biochemistry or anything else when I got there, but I was a good technician.”
She and Lowry had a daily routine. Lowry outlined the experiments needed to be done for the day in the mornings. Roberts made the solutions and did the experiments. Lowry came by to look at the results and discuss them in the afternoons.

Roberts describes Lowry as always brimming with ideas and being an excellent teacher: “I had no idea about biochemistry. But he explained everything to where I could halfway understand it.”

Plus, she says, with a delightful chuckle, “He was very handsome!”

The protein measurement method described in the JBC paper relies on a solution called the Folin phenol reagent. The reagent, which consists of phosphomolybdic-phosphotungstic acid, binds proteins treated with copper. The reagent gets reduced, causing a quantitative color change from yellow to blue. The amount of color change is used to calculate protein concentration.

The two other people who pitched in with the protein measurement method were an M.D. named Lewis Farr and another technician, Rose Randall. Farr left research to practice medicine, and Randall was in the Lowry laboratory for only a few months. Roberts lost touch with them when they left the laboratory. Our staff’s attempts to find Farr and Randall have failed so far. Lowry passed away in 1996.

In 1951, Roberts left the Lowry laboratory. She and her soon-to-be husband, DeWayne Roberts, whom she had met at Washington University, had been eking out life on technician salaries that were less than $2,000 a year. To make more money, they headed to Cactus, Texas, to work at an ammonium nitrate plant. Roberts’ husband worked in the plant, and because women weren’t employed there, Roberts became the administrative assistant to the plant’s personnel director.
In 1953, the couple was back at Washington University, with Roberts resuming her technician position in Lowry’s laboratory. She focused on micromeasurement methods while her husband pursued his Ph.D. in pharmacology.

Lowry already had written up and published the protein measurement paper in the JBC by the time Roberts returned to his laboratory. He gave her a reprint of the paper in an olive-green envelope, which Roberts still has somewhere among her possessions. She and her husband left the university in 1957 after he got his Ph.D.

Roberts says she had lost track of the JBC paper in the 1960s and 1970s while she was busy raising three children. She had become a homemaker. Her husband’s work was her only connection to science.

But after Citation Classics mentioned the JBC paper in1977, a coworker of her husband’s noticed it and told them about the paper’s citation record. The paper’s fame clued her family in that Roberts had played an important role in science.

“They were very impressed, but they didn’t understand it,” she says. “My family didn’t realize what I was doing. They didn’t know what chemistry was or anything. I was just fortunate enough that it was easy for me and I could make good enough grades.”

But even if they don’t understand what exactly Roberts accomplished with Farr, Randall and Lowry, “they are very proud, and so am I.”

Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay is the senior science writer and blogger for ASBMB. Follow her on Twitter, and read her ASBMB Today blog, Wild Types.