Biotechnology has brought us better fabrics, improved plastics, and new medicines, to name just a few successful applications. Rensselaer alumni for years have been making important discoveries and contributions in this ever-growing field.
One major contributor was Guido Hilbert 24. Beginning in 1948, Hilbert served as the chief of the Bureau of Agriculture and Industrial Chemistry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he directed a research program that included more than 350 different projects and employed some 1,600 people. Throughout the 1940s and the early 50s, he directed what was seen as the greatest effort anywhere at the time to find new uses for agricultural products, such as corn, wheat, and straw.
The more efficient production of penicillin is one of the most noted contributions of the bureau under Hilberts direction. The project, undertaken during World War II, resulted in yields 150 times greater than production methods employed at the time.
Using higher-yielding molds and adding milk sugar and corn steep liquor (a byproduct of corn processing) greatly increased the drugs production. The bureau tested molds from around the world, but the natural variety that turned out to be the best producer of penicillin was one found on a rotten cantaloupe at a market in Peoria, Ill.
Hilberts bureau also was the first to reveal the medicinal value of rutin, a nutrient obtained from green buckwheat plants found to restore weakened capillary blood vessels and to assist in lowering blood pressure. By 1950, about 15 pharmaceutical companies were producing rutin as a health supplement. Hilbert also headed research that involved making paper pulps partly from straw. The idea was to reduce the amount of straw 40 million tons burned or otherwise wasted every year in America.
Hilbert graduated from Rensselaer in 1924 with a bachelors degree in chemical engineering. He joined the Department of Agriculture in 1930 as the head of the Organic Fertilizer Section of the Fixed Nitrogen Laboratory. Following the disastrous surplus crop years of the 1930s, Hilbert focused on increasing the use of agricultural commodities in industry.
In 1957, President Eisenhower appointed Hilbert to the Commission on Increased Industrial Use of Agriculture. A year later, Hilbert became the research director of the newly created Foreign Agricultural Research Division. For the next seven years, the division awarded several hundred grants to foreign research institutes and universities for agricultural research. Hilbert retired in 1965.
|Rensselaer Magazine: September 2002|
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