Noted vitamin researcher Esmond Snell, former biochemistry chair at UC Berkeley, has died at 89

Esmond Emerson Snell, a leading biochemist and vitamin researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who discovered several B vitamins, including folic acid, in the mid-1900s, died Dec. 9, in Boulder, Colo.

Snell, who was 89, died of prostate cancer and congestive heart failure, according to his family. He died only six days after his wife of 62 years, Mary Terrill Snell, passed away on Dec. 3 at the age of 84.

Snell was a nutritional biochemist whose work on vitamins and the chemistry of their actions was recognized internationally. His research was considered by many to be on a par with that of other scientists who received Nobel Prizes in the 1930s and 1940s for their discovery of vitamins A, C, K, B2 (riboflavin) and biotin.

"He was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize, and should have received one" for his work on the coenzyme form of vitamin B6, called pyridoxal phosphate, said Jack Kirsch, professor of molecular and cell biology and of chemistry at UC Berkeley.

Lester Reed, a long-time friend and colleague and professor emeritus of biochemistry at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed. "I consider him to be one of the top biochemists in the world from the 1940s on," he said. "He led the way in using bacteria to study metabolic processes, and that work was some of the best biochemistry and microbiology ever."

"Snell was a giant in biochemistry," concurred colleague Howard Schachman, professor of the graduate school in UC Berkeley's Department of Molecular and Cell Biology.

Especially noteworthy was Snell's development of microbiological assays employing lactic acid bacteria for the identification and isolation of factors essential for animal nutrition. Thanks to Snell and his colleagues, more than half of the known vitamins were discovered first through their action in bacteria.

With colleagues at the University of Texas, including technician Ernestine Wright, he independently discovered and named folic acid, a B vitamin that today is recommended as a supplement for pregnant women to prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida.

In collaboration with other colleagues, he also discovered the B vitamin pantothenic acid and two of the three coenzyme forms of vitamin B6, pyridoxal and pyridoxamine. His work on pyridoxal in lactic acid bacteria, which he proved to be essential for the catalysis of the major reactions involved in amino acid transformations, elucidated the analogous enzymatic pathways involving pyridoxal phosphate in humans.

"Esmond was the godfather on the biochemical side of vitamin B6, showing how B6 actually functions in a coenzyme form to partner with enzymes to do certain catalytic reactions," said Donald B. McCormick, a professor of biochemistry at Emory University who was a postdoctoral fellow with Snell between 1958 to 1960.

Born in Salt Lake City on Sept. 22, 1914, Snell earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1935 from Brigham Young University and earned both his M.A. (1936) and Ph.D. (1938) degrees in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His long academic career began at the University of Texas at Austin in 1939 and included professorships at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1947-51), and the University of Texas at Austin (1951-56).

He met his wife, Mary Caroline Terrill, while teaching at the University of Texas, and they were married in Austin in March of 1941.

Snell was invited to UC Berkeley in 1956 to chair the Department of Biochemistry upon its merger with the Department of Agricultural Biochemistry and served in that role for six years. Partly because of the university's retirement policy, he retired from UC Berkeley in 1976 and returned to UT Austin as professor of microbiology and chemistry and chaired the Department of Microbiology from 1976 to 1980.

He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Institute of Nutrition. He also was a former chairman of the division of biological chemistry of the American Chemical Society and a former president of the American Society of Biological Chemists. Upon his retirement from UC Berkeley in 1976, he was awarded the Berkeley Citation.

In 1945, Snell received the Eli Lilly Award in Basic and Applied Research of the Society of American Bacteriologists, now the American Society of Microbiologists. Other awards include the Meade-Johnson Vitamin B Complex Award and the Osborne Mendel Award of the American Institute of Nutrition, and the William C. Rose Award of the American Society of Biological Chemists.

He served on many national and international committees and editorial and advisory boards. His editorship of Annual Review of Biochemistry lasted for 17 years.

Snell is survived by two sons, Richard Snell of Cumming, Ga., and Allan Snell of Boulder, Colo.; a daughter, Margaret Larkin, of Inverness, Calif.; a sister, Vesta Francis, of American Fork, Utah; and six grandchildren.

He was preceded in death by a sister and two brothers, as well as by his wife and son, Esmond E. Snell, Jr., who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1968. Snell and his wife were buried on Dec. 12 at Sunset View Cemetery in El Cerrito, Calif., next to their son.