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University of Missouri

Lifelong Research

At age 96, Boyd O’Dell is still researching and publishing.

Boyd O'Dell

Twenty‐five years after retiring from the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry Boyd O’Dell, 96, still comes to lab every day to research zinc and copper. O’Dell joined the then College of Agriculture as an assistant professor in 1946. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Boyd O’Dell doesn’t like to reflect on his scientific accomplishments. He always feels his best breakthrough is the one he’s working on now. “Addicted” to discovery, he comes to the lab every day. Currently, he’s determined to uncover how zinc deficiency harms cell function by inhibiting the signal for calcium uptake. He published a research paper on the subject in April 2013 and a review article in May. Although he admits to arriving to work at 9 a.m. these days instead of 8, and to taking long lunches, at age 96, he cuts himself some slack.

O’Dell, BA, MA ’40, PhD ’43, never had a master career plan. His high school in Hale, Mo. (population 450), didn’t offer chemistry, but he still majored in it at MU because a program in bacteriology didn’t exist. He got his doctorate in agricultural chemistry because the department offered him an assistantship. “It was not a matter, in all these choices, of ‘What do you want to be?’ or ‘What do you want to do?’ but ‘Where can I get a job to keep going?’ ” he says.

After graduation, O’Dell spent three years at a Detroit pharmaceutical company. In 1946, he took a pay cut to be an assistant professor of biochemistry at Mizzou. He eventually held every academic position in the department, including chair. Attaining emeritus status in 1988, he has continued his research involving copper and zinc. The work has earned him international recognition, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Klaus Schwarz Medal recognizing major discoveries in trace elements.

But perhaps most meaningful was when MU’s Nutrition and Exercise Physiology Department named one of two lectures during its annual Nutrition & Exercise Research Emphasis Week after him. The other is named for his late mentor, Professor of Animal Nutrition Albert G. Hogan.

It’s very exhilarating to have that honor,” O’Dell says. “In some ways, a local honor like that means more than a national one — those are people looking at a CV or something. But when it’s local people, … it’s more than that. They know you as a person.”

Finding funding is becoming difficult for O’Dell, but he plans to keep at his research until he can’t pay for the experiments anymore. “The search to find something new” compels him. “There are a lot more downs than ups,” O’Dell says about research, “but the high of discovering something new is worth it.”