Herbert Dutton (1914-2006)

The Author: Gary R. List

I shall never forget my first impression of Herb Dutton. When I reported for duty at the Northern Laboratory in October 1963, I was introduced to this man with white hair, dressed in a lab coat, in front of a huge coffee pot in the corner of his lab. He looked up, extended his hand and said, “Hi. I’m Herb Dutton. Welcome to the group.” As I was only 21, the 49 year old Herb Dutton, as well as the 50 plus Cy Evans and John Cowan, seemed old and ancient. Now, 50 doesn’t seem old at all.

Although many factors define a great leader, the ability to form teams and get them to work together is extremely important in research because of the temperament and diverse personalities within the group. In Dutton’s group, everyone was given substantial freedom, but everyone knew who was the captain of his team and scientists were expected to keep him appraised of what they were doing, what they were accomplishing and where they expected to go. Herb’s favorite time of the year was January and February when he conducted his “Quo Vadis” seminars. Each scientist and technician in his group was expected to give a two hour seminar covering objectives, progress and future plans for the upcoming year.

Herb, like many scientists, hated paperwork and, as such, had a most unique filing system. Memos and administrative paperwork were piled in the corner of his desk and every month or so he threw half of it into the waste basket. If someone hadn’t contacted him in the interim, the papers were considered no longer relevant. The bureaucracy can be frustrating at times and Herb was a master at cutting through red tape. In the early 1960’s, he realized that computers could be extremely useful to lipid chemists, particularly in the area of hydrogenation kinetics. He drafted a purchase order to the effect, “Needed, 1 computer for research.” It was sent to Washington D.C. for USDA approval and purchase. It was sent back with a cryptic note – disapproved – USDA will pay for computers to be used in research. The resourceful Herb Dutton resubmitted, “Wanted, 1 analog simulator.” Within a short time, a large crate was delivered to his lab containing the computer. Soon afterwards, Herb and Roy Butterfield has written Fortran programs needed to process hydrogenation data.

In the early 1970’s, trans acids had become a focal point for the edible oil industry. Dutton decided to look at their metabolism and reasoned that chickens would be a good place to start, since their eggs would provide a daily biopsy. His plan was to feed chickens tritium-labeled trans fats, collect the eggs and determine the composition of the lipids. At the time, animal research required a special permit. Herb reasoned that, since chickens were fowls, even bureaucrats would realize that the regulation did not apply. Thus, ‘Henrietta’ sat in a cage in the hood in his lab producing radioactive eggs. Everything went well for quite awhile until Henrietta got out of her cage and was seen running down the hall of the south wing of the laboratory. A flustered security guard summoned him to the lab about 2 o’clock in the morning to corral the frightened bird. There were no repercussions from Henrietta’s escape.


Herb Dutton and Henrietta

Travel budgets were extremely tight in Dutton’s era. Even top level scientists took very few foreign trips and, usually, only when a sponsoring agency picked up the expenses. Lower grade scientists were sent to meetings in close cities where flying was not required and the sharing of hotel rooms was standard. Per Diem for meals and room was $16. I had applied to attend the 1974 AOCS meeting in Philadelphia, but the request was denied by the Center Director. I don’t know what Dutton said to him, but I was approved to attend. On another occasion, the paperwork for a promotion was submitted to personnel, but nothing happened for quite some time. Herb asked me what the status was and I told him it was hung up in personnel. Three days later, the promotion became effective.

The 1973-1974 time frame was a crucial point in my career. Dr. John Cowan, who headed the Oilseed Crops Laboratory from the time the lab opened in 1940, retired in 1973 and Herb succeeded him as Laboratory Chief. A year later, my supervisor, Dr. Cy Evans, retired. Herb asked me if I would like to work on alternatives to trans fats and write a project aimed at producing no-trans fat from soybean oil. I eagerly told him I would like to work on the project and went to the library to do a literature search. Much to my dismay, I learned that interesterification was an old technique and considerable work had been done to improve the shortening properties of lard. When I told him that a lot of the work had already been done, he said, “Well, no one has done it lately and I think you should proceed.” At the time all of this took place, I had been converted from a Technician to a Junior Chemist. Herb told me that, “If you expect to advance, you must demonstrate that you are an independent scientist. I have given you your chance. Go for it."

Dutton’s first research at the Northern Laboratory began shortly after World War II ended. This work lead to the solution to the soybean oil flavor problem. His work showed that the flavor problem was caused by the presence of linolenic acid and was oxidative in nature. The addition of citric acid during the cooling stages of deodorization greatly improved stability through the chelation (reversible binding) of metals, rendering them ineffective as oxidation catalysts.

Although Dutton’s career covered many areas of lipid research, one of his most important contributions was that of glyceride structure. He was the first to use countercurrent distribution in the fractionation of triglycerides. His initial publication, appearing in 1950, demonstrated that the even theory advanced by the "giant" T.P. Hilditch required re-examination. The 'even theory', developed over a number of years through fractional crystallization techniques, had indicated that fatty acids within triglycerides tended to be as widely distributed as possible. Under the even theory, simple triglycerides, both saturated and unsaturated, were not permitted. Dutton’s work indicated that soybean oil approached a random or restricted random distribution.

Years later, when accepting the third Hilditch Memorial Lecture Award, Dutton commented that he had received a nice letter from Professor Hilditch congratulating him on his (Dutton’s) contributions in advancing the knowledge of glyceride structure.

Dutton believed that research is advanced by using new techniques to study old problems. In the early 1960’s, he developed the use of tandem gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. The use of computers has already been mentioned to study hydrogenation kinetics. Other areas where computers were used in lipid chemistry include processing of high resolution mass spectrometry data and the monitoring of vegetable oils refineries. Dutton was an early pioneer in these areas.

Dutton completed his Hilditch Lecture (“Some New Approaches in Lipid Chemistry, Chem. and Ind., Sept. 2nd, 1972”) with the following, “Regarding my title, the words of Holy Scripture come thundering down the corridors of time with the rhetorical question, ‘Is there anything whereof it may be said, see this is new? It hath already of old time.' There is nothing new under the sun. Whether new, novel or mundane be the approaches to lipid research, it has been a distinct pleasure to give this third Hilditch Memorial Lecture. In doing so, I make a small payment on my personal debt of appreciation to Professor Hilditch.”

Dutton received numerous national/international awards. They include the Bailey, Supelco, Analytical (renamed to honor him) and Fellow from AOCS. The Society for Chemical Industry honored him with the Hilditch and Lewkowitsch Lectures. He received the Canadian Award of Merit, as well as the Glycerin Producers Prize. Dutton’s awards from the United States Government include a Presidential Award and several Superior Service Awards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1996, Dutton was elected to the Agricultural Research Hall of Fame. Following his retirement from the Northern Laboratory, he went to the Hormel Institute and collaborated with Ralph Holman on various lipid topics. In his later years, he pursued a life long interest in photosynthesis.

Although Dutton had a long and distinguished career, he believed that having supervised and mentored three AOCS presidents and four Bailey Awardees gave him the most personal satisfaction.

Acknowledgement: This document was originally published in Inform, April 2007, Vol. 18. pp. 291-292.