Herbert E. Carter, Pioneer in Linking Food Additives and Cancer, Dies at 97

University Communications
April 4, 2007


Herbert E. Carter, a pioneer in the study of the links between food additives and cancer, died March 4 in Tucson. He was 97.

Carter, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, is regarded as the founder of research in compounds like cholesterol, called "sphingolipids." He was among the first to uncover structures of many antibiotics.

Carter was born in 1910 in Mooresville, Ind. He grew up on a farm in Muncie, attending a one-room school through sixth grade with his brother and three sisters. He received his undergraduate degree from DePauw University in 1930, and went on to earn his doctorate in Professor Carl (Speed) Marvel's lab at the University of Illinois in 1934. He was appointed assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Illinois in 1934, and in collaboration with Professor Will Rose, determined the structure of the amino acid threonine, an essential nutrient in the human diet, as it occurs in nature.

In 1933, he married Elizabeth (Betty) DeWees, beginning a 72-year partnership that lasted until she died in 2005. They had two daughters, Anne (who died in 1997) and Jean.

Carter had a long and distinguished career at the University of Illinois at Urbana. He was promoted to professor in 1945 and served as head of the chemistry department and then as director of the School of Chemical Sciences from 1954-1967. He also served as vice chancellor for academic affairs from 1968-1971.

After his retirement from the University of Illinois, Carter moved to Tucson where he became the first coordinator of interdisciplinary programs at The University of Arizona. Subsequently he established the department of biochemistry and served as department head from 1977-1980. During his career he trained 66 doctoral students in chemistry and biochemistry, inspiring them with his well-known motto: "If research isn't fun, it shouldn't be done." Carter continued to work at The University of Arizona until age 94.

Carter received many honors for his research. He was a member of the Food Protection Committee of the National Research Council and National Academy of Science (1956-60) and was a member of the National Science Board. During Carter's term as chair of the board, the National Science Foundation, or NSF, experimented with the Research Applied to National Needs funding mechanism, a program that was short-lived, but highly effective in enhancing the foundation's budget to support basic research and graduate education. Also during Carter's term as chair of the National Science Board, the NSF greatly expanded its research programs in Antarctica. A mountain ridge in Antarctica was named after him, in recognition of his leadership.

The Environmental Protection Agency was established, Earth Day was first celebrated, ocean exploration was greatly expanded, the first energy crisis occurred, effects of acid rain were documented and enormous technological advances in computing and imaging were realized during Carter's term as chair of the board.

Carter served as chair of the President's Committee on the National Medal of Science and as president of the American Society of Biological Chemists. His scientific insight and ability to span broad fields of science are recognized by all who worked with him. He was a major figure in American science, greatly respected for his scientific accomplishments and administrative acumen, and deeply beloved for his warmth, wit and wisdom.

He is survived by his daughter, Jean Lave, granddaughters Karen Underhill (Pierce Chamberlain) and Rebecca Lave (Sam DeSollar) and great-granddaughters Alyssa Mangelsdorf and Elinor DeSollar.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations in Carter's memory be made to the Herbert E. Carter Award at The University of Arizona, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics (Attn: Kriss Pope), 1041 E. Lowell St., Tucson, AZ 85721-0088 or to the Herbert E. Carter Endowment Fund (Attn: Lea Ann Gross), University of Illinois Foundation, 1305 W. Green St., Urbana, IL 61801.

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