Joseph Shirey Butts was a Professor of Agricultural Chemistry at Oregon State College from 1939 until his death in 1961 and department head from 1946 until 1961. His research interests included metabolism of carbohydrates, amino acids and fatty acids, ketosis, and growth-promoting properties of amino acids. He was also active in nutrition research and peaceful uses of atomic energy.
Joseph Butts was known for his work as a teacher and administrator, soldier, scientist, and scholar. At the time of his death, he was known as one of OSU’s most widely-travelled staff members, having served as a consultant in almost every section of the world. He was an international authority in biochemistry, agricultural chemistry, and the peaceful uses of atomic energy.
Butts was born in Goshen, Indiana on December 14, 1903. He obtained his BS in Agricultural Chemistry from the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida (1926); his MS from Fordham University in New York City, New York (1929); and his PhD in biochemistry from the University of Southern California (1933), under the advisement of Harry J. Deuel, Jr. In 1938, he traveled to the University of Leipzig and was a “visiting worker” at the Cardiff City Mental Hospital in Cardiff, Wales.
Before beginning his studies at the University of Southern California, Butts was an Instructor in Chemistry at Massachusetts State College (1928-1929). In addition to his coursework and doctoral research at USC, he worked as an Assistant in Biochemistry, Instructor in Biochemistry, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, and an Associate Professor of Biochemistry. Butts came to Oregon in 1939 to take a position as a professor of biochemistry. Serving as the head of the Agricultural Chemistry Department from 1946 to 1961, he increased the number of full-time staff nearly five-fold, brought in outside contracts from the Atomic Energy Commission and the Surgeon General’s Office, and enthusiastically supported the expansion of the Physics Chemistry building.
Butts was one of the first civilians to leave OSU when the U.S. entered World War II. He first went to Washington, D.C., to the Surgeon General’s Office, where he served as a Nutrition Officer in an advisory capacity. He seized the opportunity to travel to England with the Eighth Air Force as a Nutrition Officer. While in England, he also acted as a liaison officer with former scientific colleagues who were on the British civilian nutritional advisory boards. After the war, he stayed in Active Reserve and was honorably retired in 1960 after nearly thirty years service. He was one of only a few Colonels in the Medical Service Corps.
Following his return to OSU’s campus after World War II, he was one of three selected from the State of Oregon to go to Oak Ridge to become acquainted with the “Manhattan Project” of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In 1952, Butts was asked to do a two-year assignment in Europe with the AEC’s National Biology and Medicine Laboratory, serving as an Assistant Chief in the Biology Branch of the Division of Biology and Medicine. Immediately following that tour, he was picked to be the U.S. representative at a six-week atomic energy exhibit in Germany for the State Department; the focus was on peace-time atomic energy utilization. During 1957, he was on a one year special assignment in Western Europe, representing the Office of European Economics under the International Atoms for Peace Program; this program was headquartered in Paris and was dedicated to the study of the peaceful uses of atomic energy. Following this assignment, he worked with the office of European Economic Cooperation on the Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy. This position included travelling to 19 European countries to establish research programs.
However, Dr. Butts’ work was not confined to the field of atomic energy. In 1955, he was a member of a special nutrition survey team that reviewed nutritional problems and programs of the armed forces in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Pakistan; he returned to Iran in 1956 as a leader of a special U.S. nutrition survey team. He was also a U.S. representative at the first Armed Force International Nutrition Conference in Turkey. His services as a consultant on a national and international level were varied, including with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), UNICEF, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Interdepartmental Committee on Nutrition for National Defense, and the Surgeon General.
Butts died in New Delhi after contracting a fatal case of amoebic dysentery while working with the school milk program for children. He was in India on assignment for the FAO to establish an accelerated program in foods and nutrition. Butts was eulogized as an unselfish, congenial person who was dedicated to increasing the understanding of science and developing higher standards of living throughout the world.
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