His friends and colleagues call Dr. Lester VanMiddlesworth an icon, an institution and a giant in his field.
Hearing those descriptions was the only time the professor looked uncomfortable during his 91st birthday party.
“I guess you have to tolerate people saying things like that,” VanMiddlesworth said. “You just do your best to do the job you think you can handle, and if they feel that way, then you’re lucky.”
Since 1946 VanMiddlesworth has been a researcher and a professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. He looks the part with his bow tie and pocket protector. He sounds the part, too, with an easy-toned voice that can clearly articulate a complex idea or pull out a quick joke.
“The birthday cake is so big because the word is so long,” he joked about the length of VanMiddlesworth.
But it’s that personal ease and modesty that put a friendly cover on the strength and scope of his work, UTHSC physiology chairman Dr. Gabor Tigyi said.
“[VanMiddlesworth] is probably one of the only physicians at UT that has treated all humankind because his research led to the [Nuclear Test Ban Treaty],” Tigyi said.
VanMiddlesworth specializes in the hormone-producing endocrine system—especially its largest gland, the thyroid. In 1953 he discovered something odd in a cow thyroid he collected from a slaughterhouse, a “hot spot” of radioactivity.
He deduced that tests of nuclear bombs were contaminating the atmosphere and falling on grass, which was eaten by grazing animals. The data propelled the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which slowed the Cold War arms race and reduced the amount of nuclear fallout in the atmosphere.
VanMiddlesworth’s original data on the subject are on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
While that work is likely his best known, VanMiddlesworth also worked on the Manhattan Project and studied an unidentified substance called “Z,” which was ultimately declassified as plutonium.
Dr. Ken Brown, UTHSC’s executive vice-chancellor and chief of staff, said VanMiddlesworth’s longevity is a testament to his dedication to his work and the university.
“To have someone who has made this place and their life’s work one in the same is huge for us,” Brown said. “That’s the model we’d like all of our faculty here to emulate.”
VanMiddlesworth, or “Dr. Van” as he is affectionately known, has worked in a UTHSC lab for the last 63 years. For the last 20 years, his wife, Rue, has been his volunteer assistant.
“We work well together and I know he’s the boss and he knows he’s the boss,” she said, noting her background as a registered nurse prepared her for lab work.
“Her paychecks are actually pretty expensive,” VanMiddlesworth said, jokingly. “It’s a kiss.”
Asked if he ever considered full retirement, VanMiddlesworth said, “I wouldn’t know what else to do. I’d have to take my lab with me.”
Copyright, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN. Used with permission. (www.commercialappeal.com)