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ND-born scientist's discoveries saved thousands of lives

A medical research scientist born in Wahpeton, N.D., likely saved the lives of thousands of Americans because of discoveries that she made. In 1933, Mary Shaw Shorb developed "an antigen that proved to be effective in preventing or treating a num...

Dr. Mary Shaw Shorb. Special to The Forum
Dr. Mary Shaw Shorb. Special to The Forum

A medical research scientist born in Wahpeton, N.D., likely saved the lives of thousands of Americans because of discoveries that she made.

In 1933, Mary Shaw Shorb developed "an antigen that proved to be effective in preventing or treating a number of diseases, including pneumonia." In 1947, she identified and isolated the compound cobalamin, which is found in liver. Cobalamin (vitamin B-12) proved to be the cure for pernicious anemia, a fatal disease that affected nearly 50,000 Americans annually.

Mary Shaw was born Jan. 7, 1907, to Ernest and Mary (McKean) Shaw. Her mother was a schoolteacher and her father was an abstractor, a person who describes parcels of property on plot maps. When she was 3, the family moved to Caldwell, Idaho.

Soon after starting school, Mary met Doys Shorb, the son of Cormac Shorb, publisher and editor of Caldwell's weekly newspaper. Throughout their school years, Mary and Doys remained close friends, largely because of their shared passions of science and nature. During "their teenage years, they often hunted mushrooms together and went on fishing trips with Dr. (William) Boone," founder and president of the College of Idaho.

In 1922, Cormac Shorb died from pernicious anemia. In 1924, after graduating from high school, Mary enrolled at the College of Idaho in Caldwell. She took an active role in editing the school yearbook and graduated in 1928 with a major in biology and a minor in home economics.

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Mary traveled to Baltimore to visit her brother Manley, who was a medical student at Johns Hopkins University. While there, she accepted employment as a dietitian at the university. She then returned to Caldwell and married Doys, and the newlyweds returned to Baltimore to enroll at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. Doys worked on a graduate degree in parasitology and Mary in immunology.

Mary received her doctorate of science in 1933, and as a result of her dissertation research, she developed an antigen, a substance that causes the production of antibodies, for the treatment of pneumonia and other diseases. It was widely used by hospitals until the introduction of sulfa drugs in the late 1930s.

In 1933, the Great Depression was at its depths, and Mary was unable to find any work in her profession, so she took a job as a social worker with the Baltimore Emergency Relief Agency, a program developed by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policy.

In 1936, Mary gave birth to the first of three children, so she stayed at home for the next few years to raise them. With the start of World War II, many of the nation's young men ended up in the armed services, and Mary thought it was her duty to do what she could to help out.

In 1942, she took a position with the Bureau of Home Economics and Human Nutrition of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and her assignment was to find a substitute for the rubber rings used in home canning. Her work with the USDA was conducted on the campus of the University of Maryland.

In 1944, the USDA transferred Mary to the Bureau of Dairy Industry (BDI), and her primary job was to culture (cultivate) various microorganisms. The primary culture medium the BDI used was Lactobacillus lactis Dorner, or LLD, often used to make yogurt and other fermented dairy products. Mary believed that LLD could be utilized to stimulate the reproduction of the compound in liver that appeared to cure pernicious anemia (PA). She became encouraged when she discovered that the LLD "thrived on a tomato juice and liver extract" that she employed in her experiments.

The door to Mary continuing her medical research appeared to close in 1946 when the former BDI scientist returned from the military and was awarded the position that Mary had held on a temporary basis. Even though her paid employment was gone, Mary convinced the president of the University of Maryland to find another location for her to continue her valuable research.

Dr. Mary Shorb was not the only scientist pursuing the liver trail to find a cure for PA. Medical scientists at the pharmaceutical corporation, Merck & Co., were also researching liver as a possible solution. However, they were stymied because they could not isolate the compound in liver that affected PA.

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Learning of Mary's work, Dr. Karl A. Folkers was sent by Merck to the University of Maryland to meet with her. Highly impressed with the progress that Mary had made in her research, Merck provided the needed funding necessary for her to complete her work.

Once Mary had isolated the cobalamin/vitamin B-12 compound, Folkers took her assay samples back to his laboratories at Merck, where they were analyzed, purified and mass-produced. Because of this, the once fatal diagnosis of PA in patients largely became a thing of the past.

Merck was so grateful to Dr. Shorb that "they kept sending funds for the rest of Mary's professional life." In 1949, Mary and Dr. Folkers "received the Mead Johnson Award from the American Society of Nutritional Sciences for their discovery."

Also, in 1949, the University of Maryland made Mary a full-time research professor. Because of her fame, she attracted a large number of graduate students to work with her on future projects.

In 1950, she was "designated as an Outstanding Woman of Maryland," and upon her retirement in 1972, "Merck and associated labs endowed the Shorb Lectureship at the University of Maryland."

In 1987, Mary was inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame, and the following year, a television documentary was made of her life. Dr. Mary Shaw Shorb died in August 1990 from kidney failure.

"Did You Know That" is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net .

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