August 2010

Retrospective: Bert Lester Vallee (1919–2010)


Bert Lester Vallee, the Paul Cabot professor of biochemical sciences emeritus at Harvard Medical School, passed away in his sleep on May 7, a few weeks short of his 91st birthday. He was especially well known for his identification of zinc in various metalloproteins and enzymes, and was considered by many to be the “father of metallobiochemistry.”


ValleeBert Lester Vallee, the Paul Cabot professor of biochemical sciences emeritus at Harvard Medical School, passed away in his sleep on May 7, a few weeks short of his 91st birthday. A brilliant biochemist, Bert left a legacy of many significant discoveries and a large cadre of scientific collaborators. He will be remembered as a passionate scientist, dedicated to finding the answers to important questions. A remarkably generous and kind colleague, Bert could be a formidable opponent when discussing science. He had a wonderful sense of humor and would often start out his scientific talks with a joke. In private, he frequently exchanged jokes with friends— always looking for new material. He enjoyed good food and wine (particularly Alsatian)— a visit with Bert was a guarantee to gourmet dining.

Bert was born in Germany on June 1, 1919 and grew up in Luxembourg. He received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Bern in Switzerland. He came to the United States in 1938 as the first (and only) fellow of the International Student Service of the League of United Nations. He was fortunate to be taken under the wing of Richard Courant, founder of the New York University Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, and ultimately received his medical degree from the New York University College of Medicine in 1943. Although he was an able physician who actively helped his friends with their medical problems throughout his life, his true calling was biomedical research. During World War II, he was assigned to the joint Harvard Medical School-Massachusetts Institute of Technology blood-preservation project directed by the protein chemists Edwin Cohn and John Edsall. This experience shaped his future career in biochemistry and biophysics. 

At MIT, Bert became interested in the metabolism of iron and other metals such as zinc and copper. He quickly recognized the potential of spectroscopy, particularly emission and arc spectroscopy, for the detection of metals in biological systems. At that time, assessing the role of metals in biological systems was a quagmire for two reasons: inadequate purity of biological materials and the lack of sensitive methods to analyze for the metals. He was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship in 1948 to pursue both of these challenges in the world-famous spectroscopy laboratory affiliated with the physics, chemistry and biology departments of MIT. In 1954, he established the Biophysics Research Laboratory at Harvard Medical School and Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. This laboratory became the locus of Bert’s scientific prowess. At Harvard, Bert was named assistant professor of medicine in 1956; he rose swiftly through the ranks to become the Paul C. Cabot professor of biological chemistry in 1965.

Bert believed that scientific discovery relied heavily on technical advances. Throughout his career, he either developed his own technologies or was an early adapter of techniques developed by others. Consistent with this philosophy, he proceeded to build a flame spectrometer designed to detect and quantify sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium in biological samples. This early instrument was prototypical of later instruments that are used for monitoring these elements in clinical samples and the detection of diseases associated with their dysregulation. Very quickly, Bert’s laboratory became the world center for the analysis of trace metals in biological samples. These analyses depended on two factors: the ability to obtain an uncontaminated biological sample and the unique equipment available in his laboratory. Trace metals were found in unexpected places, and, in some cases, the putative role of metals in biological mechanisms was ruled out after careful analysis.

Visiting Bert’s laboratory in the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital was an adventure. To gain entry, it was necessary to wander through the basement of the hospital, among the steam pipes. Upon opening the door to his lab, a wondrous transformation occurred— a modern laboratory equipped with every conceivable instrument used in biophysics emerged, with people scurrying about, hard at work.


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Great piece about a great man. My father, Gustave Dammin cohabited and bowels, dusty pipes and basement of the Brigham. He admired Bert Vallee and talked about him frequently at our dinner table. Tris Dammin


I miss Professor Vallee greatly as his postdoctoral student! He is my memto as a great scientist. He was always kind to me and showed me how to do "science" with exact accuracy. In addition, he emphasized application of science to real world such as to cure human diseases. Soo-Ik Chang (Cheongju, Repulic of Korea)


Bert approached me after I gave talk at MIT in 1952 on eosinophils, and encouraged me to pursue a method for centrifugal separation of white cells from blood. We eventually published a paper together (my first) on the method. I am indebted to him for his friendship and encouragement early on in my career.Bernard W. Agranoff


I knew Bert Vallee in his early days at MIT. He was always a kind and insightful person and he pursued his interest in metalloproteins with great vigor and imagination. Robert Sinsheimer



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