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Earl Sutherland

Earl SutherlandPhysician, Nobel Prize winner in physiology and medicine. Born: November 19, 1915, Burlingame, Kansas.  Died: March 9, 1974.

Earl Sutherland considered his medical research a hobby but his scientific colleagues took the work a little more seriously. In 1971 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his pivotal research in how hormones function.

Sutherland was born in Burlingame in 1915 and decided in high school to go into medical research after reading a book about Louis Pasteur. The start of college, however, coincided with the economic realities of the Depression. Many well-meaning advisors urged a career in the postal service instead. Sutherland chose to follow his dream and enrolled in Washburn University in 1933, followed by medical school in St. Louis, and a stint as an Army medical officer in World War II. In 1958, while he was serving as professor and director of the department of pharmacology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Sutherland first made the discovery that led to his Nobel Prize.

It was at that time that he isolated a previously unknown chemical, called cyclic AMP, and proved that it functioned in an intermediary role in many hormonal functions. In fact, this chemical was the "missing link" in a long series of biological control mechanisms. Sutherland showed for the first time that hormones did not send their messages regarding digestive, reproductive, or metabolic functions directly to the target organs but, instead, they activated the cyclic AMP and it was that chemical that told the organs what to do. Further research showed cyclic AMP also was instrumental in the transmission of genetic information and in abnormal cell growth. When added to cancerous cells, cyclic AMP would either destroy them or return them to normal. Although urging that more research would need to be done, Sutherland believed this discovery could hold the key to the cure of certain types of cancer.

Scientists throughout the world have called Sutherland's discovery "monumental" and many have built their research on his studies.

Earl Sutherland died in 1974 but his hope for the future lives on in his research and in these words spoken when he received the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research:

"I am optimistic about what the scientist can offer, especially in medicine. I am also in favor of expediting medical care to all who could benefit from it but some of us must do our work, not on patients who can be helped today or tomorrow, but those who will be helped a decade from now or even a century from now."

Entry: Sutherland, Earl

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2004

Date Modified: January 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.