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Transcript: Oliver H. Lowry, 1972

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This is Oral History Interview #12, on June 16, 1972 with Dr. Oliver H. Lowry, professor and head of the Department of Pharmacology at the Washington University School of Medicine.  The interview is about the life and work of Dr. Helen Tredway Graham, a member of the Department of Pharmacology from 1925 to 1971.

Perhaps of interest is why Dr. Helen Graham made a switch in her research when she was about sixty years old.  It came about because she was lecturing on histamines to the medical students and got interested and thought she would like to take a crack at it in the laboratory.  Her first interest was in the amount of histamine in the blood and how it was distributed among the different blood elements.  It was about that time that I came to St. Louis and we decided to collaborate on this project.  She first worked out a very sensitive method for histamines and then tackled the problem of what elements in the blood were richest in this material.  By changing methods she was able to separate enriched fractions of the white blood cells and it was quite clear that the histamine was most highly localized in the blood basophils.  This was somewhat of a surprise since it had been believed that histamine was richest in the blood platelets.

One day we had the notion that the mast cells in the tissues looked very much like the basophils and perhaps they, too, might be rich deposits of histamine in the tissues.  We therefore collaborated on this aspect of the problem and, sure enough, the mast cells correlated very highly with the amounts of histamine in different parts of the skin and other parts of the body.  One of the important aspects of her study of histamine was the development of methods for measuring the very, very low levels of histamine in blood plasma.  As she well knew, the important consideration for histamine action might well depend on the levels of histamine in the plasma even [if] those levels were extremely low.  She therefore spent an enormous amount of time working out increasingly sensitive and increasing specific methods for [measuring] histamine.

At each juncture, just as she had determined that the histamine levels were lower than previously believed, she would find that her method was not quite specific enough and it would send her back to the bench to work out a more specific method.  Finally, not too many years before she died, she had finally developed what she believed was a completely specific method and the blood plasma histamine levels turned out to be many fold lower than anyone had believed up to that point.

Dr. Lowry, would you like to tell us something about Dr. Graham’s continuing research under the NIH grants?

Yes.  At one time Dr. Helen Graham had a rather large NIH grant involving two or three technicians and a good deal of funds.  As her age advanced, it became increasingly difficult to manage such a big operation.  On the other hand, she was not willing to give up her research, which meant [she needed] some support from somewhere.  As the years went by, she successively reduced the amounts of her request from the government, but applied on a regular basis for funds.  This extended into a period of time when NIH grants became exceedingly difficult to get, and yet at her age – approaching eighty – she was still able to win out in the competition for what were becoming very tight funds.

Would you care to comment on her informal contacts with others?

Helen was always a very gracious lady and did her best to make her guests feel comfortable.  But in any conversation of any moment she was exceedingly honest and would not make the little insincere remarks that others might often make.  If she did not understand you when you said something, she said, “I do not understand.”  She would never nod her head and pretend that she understood.

She shared this integrity, if you will, with her husband who had a similar manner.  Neither one would ever say they understood something when they didn’t.  Nor did either one have the slightest hesitancy to say they didn’t know – actually, no false pride.  They were more likely to say, “I don’t know” and to question you until they really felt they understood.


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