Earl W. Sutherland Jr.

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Burlingame, Kansas
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Burlingame, Kansas

American biochemist and pharmacologist Earl W. Sutherland Jr. earned the 1971 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research into the mechanics behind hormone activity. After completing his B.Sc., Sutherland enrolled Washington University School of Medicine to pursue his MD since he had always wanted to be a doctor. Carl Ferdinand Cori convinced him to pursue medical research instead. As a result, he went back to Washington University after the Second World War and started working on epinephrine research. He then demonstrated how adrenaline controls the breakdown of sugar, which gives the body energy. Another one of his notable accomplishments is the discovery of glucagon as a hormone. Later, he discovered the significance of liver phosphorylase (LP) in the glycogenolysis process. His team at Western Reserve University, however, is where he produced his most significant discovery of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (Cyclic AMP), which he used to demonstrate how this “second messenger” aided the actions of hormones like glucagon and adrenaline in reaching the cells. He was not only a distinguished researcher, but he also served as a mentor to many outstanding scientists. The same could be said of his passion for fishing.

Early Childhood & Life

On November 19, 1915, Earl Wilber Sutherland Jr. was born in Burlingame, Kansas. Initially, Earl W. Sutherland Senior, his father, worked as a farmer in Oklahoma and New Mexico. Later, he moved to Burlingame, where he established a business and operated a dry goods store for forty years.

Earl was raised under the close supervision of Edith M. Hartshorn, his mother, who received her education at a “girls’ college” and through some practical nursing training. His parents had six children, making him the fifth.

They had a comfortable beginning and resided in a large home. The Great Depression of 1929 later worsened their financial situation. Despite this, Earl had a fairly affluent life and attended Burlingame Junior/Senior High School, where he eventually graduated in 1932.

During his school years, he was an avid sportsman who excelled in tennis in particular. Another one of his favorite pastimes was fishing. He also spent a lot of time swimming and using his own shotgun to hunt small mammals like rabbits and squirrels.

Sutherland enrolled in Washburn College in Topeka in 1933 and earned a bachelor’s in science there in 1937. He was forced to work as an orderly at a nearby hospital to pay for his college education due to the decline in the family’s wealth. Maybe this is where he made the decision to become a doctor.

Sutherland enrolled at St. Louis’ Washington University School of Medicine in 1937. Carl Ferdinand Cori, a professor of pharmacology at the university at the time, noticed him here. He offered Sutherland an assistantship in his lab, although at a low salary, because of his performance and honesty.

Sutherland had his first-hand research experience in 1940. He published two publications on the subject of his research on the impact of the hormones glucagon and epinephrine on the conversion of glycogen to glucose.

Sutherland graduated from medical school in 1942 and spent a year as an intern at Barnes Hospital while still carrying on his pharmacology department research. After that, he was accepted into the military and assigned to General Patton’s unit as a battalion surgeon.

Earl W. Sutherland’s Career

Sutherland went back to the University of Washington at St. Louis after the Second World War ended in 1945. He was at a crossroads at the moment, unsure of whether to pursue a career in practice or research. He was finally persuaded to enter the field of medical study by Cori.

Sutherland accordingly began working as an Instructor in Pharmacology in the Washington University Medical School’s Biochemistry Department in 1945.
He served in the capacities of Instructor in Biochemistry from 1946 to 1950, Assistant Professor in Biochemistry from 1950 to 1952, and Associate Professor in Biochemistry from 1952 to 1953.

Sutherland’s time at the University of Washington was quite fruitful. He demonstrated that hyperglycemic-glycogenolytic, subsequently dubbed glucagon, comes from the alpha cells of Langerhans by working with Christian de Duve on the molecular effects of hormone. By doing so, he proved that glucagon was a hormone.

As an independent researcher, Sutherland started studying the enzyme phosphorylase extensively over time. He contributed to the understanding of the significance of liver phosphorylase (LP) in the glycogenolysis process and made a number of discoveries about the metabolism of glycogen.

He received an invitation to become a full professor at the Western Reserve (now Case Western Reserve) University in 1953, shortly after finishing his work on LP. As a result, he relocated to Ohio and began working at the organization’s School of Medicine as a Professor of Pharmacology. He eventually rose to the position of Department Director.

From 1953 through 1963, he remained a student at Western Reserve University. Together with Ted Rall, Walter D. Wosilait, and Jacques Berthet, he worked on the LP purification procedure in this location. In a series of studies titled “The Relationship of Epinephrine and Glucagon to Liver Phosphorylase,” they also examined a number of its characteristics.

The final paper in this series was written in 1956 and was named “The Relationship of Epinephrine and Glucagon to Liver Phosphorylase: IV Effect of Epinephrine and Glucagon on the Reactivation of Phosphorylase in Liver Homogenates.” It contained the researchers’ explanation of their utilization of the cell homogenate to hormone pathway.

Using cell homogenate was a unique approach at the time because it was thought that intact cells were required to investigate hormones. Therefore, this was a ground-breaking finding in and of itself. More significantly, the research resulted in the identification of cyclic AMP, commonly known as cyclic adenosine monophosphate.

Western Reserve University was changing in the beginning of the 1960s, and Sutherland did not like it. In order to become a Professor of Physiology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, he left the university in 1963.

Sutherland was most drawn to Vanderbilt University because he was promised extra time for his studies. Using this to his maximum advantage, he discovered in 1965 that bacteria also produce cyclic AMP. It had previously been assumed that germs did not require hormones.

He continued his research on cyclic AMP after receiving financial assistance from the American Heart Association in 1967 through a Career Investigators.
He left Vanderbilt University in 1973 to work as a biochemistry professor at the University of Miami’s Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine.

Sutherland worked on various unique research projects at the University of Miami. Particularly important was his work on guanosine monophosphate and adenosine monophosphate. Additionally, he co-wrote four papers on it.

Sutherland also served on the National Institutes of Health’s Arthritis and Metabolic Disease Program Committee and Pharmacology Training Committee. Numerous Nobel laureates had profited from his counsel despite the fact that he was primarily a researcher and that teaching was not his finest suit.

Earl’s Bigger Works

Cyclic adenosine monophosphate is the discovery for which Sutherland is most well-known. After conducting extensive research, he and his colleagues determined that cyclic AMP serves as a “second messenger system” and is crucial to a variety of biological activities.

He and his team at Western Reserve University were studying liver phosphorylase when they noticed the production of an unidentified heat-stable component when adrenaline and glucagon were present. They discovered later that the factor stimulated the production of liver phosphorylase.

Later, this substance was known as cyclic AMP. He also demonstrated how cyclic AMP helps transfer the actions of hormones like glucagon and adrenaline, which cannot cross the plasma membrane, into cells.

Recognition & Achievements

He received the Torvald Sollman Pharmacology Award and the Gairdner Foundation International Award in 1969.

He was awarded the Dickson Prize in Medicine and the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1970.
Earl W. Sutherland was awarded the 1971 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for his discoveries about the mechanics of hormone action.” He also received an Achievement Award from the American Heart Association that year.

He received the National Medal of Science from American President Richard Nixon in 1973. He was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences in the same year.

Personal Legacy & Life

Soon after graduating from Washburn College with a B. Sc., Sutherland married Mildred Rice in 1937. Two sons and two daughters were born into the marriage. In 1962, they filed for divorce, ending their union.
Sutherland wed Claudia Sebeste Smith in 1964 while she was serving as Vanderbilt University’s assistant dean. They had a lot of similar interests and frequently went fishing. They stayed together till his passing in 1974.

Sutherland passed away on March 9th, 1974 in Miami, Florida, from a severe esophageal hemorrhage that resulted from a surgical complication. His remains were interred in Kansas’ Burlingame City Cemetery.
The Sutherland Memorial Lecture was founded in 1974, not long after he passed away, by the Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami.

The Sutherland Prize was established by Vanderbilt University in 1996. It is given each year to a professor whose work has received appreciation on a national or worldwide level.
The Sutherland Lecture at Vanderbilt University began in 1997, and the Sutherland Chair of Pharmacology was established in 2001.

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