Early Stories from the Lab

The story of basic research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology would be incomplete without a description of what it was like “back then.”

Laboratory research in the 1960s and early 1970s was primitive by today’s standards. There were no desktop computers; not even calculators. Slide rules were common. Advanced computations and statistics were run on behemoth institutional mainframe computers. 

Everything from bench to publication was labor intensive. Drafts for manuscripts and grants were handwritten and laboriously typed on typewriters using carbon paper. With no computer databases, references were gleaned in the card catalogs of the Library. Medical Illustration Services drafted all graphs and made glossy prints for publication. Administratively, innovation and relief came in the form of the IBM correcting Selectric typewriter (1973) and the IBM Mag Card II (1973) with electronic memory.

Patti Hemsell, who joined the Department in 1969, describes the first calculator they used in the lab as being about 12”x9”, costing $1,000, and having one memory (like the pocket calculators we often get for free now). 

Developed by Sony, the calculator was called the SOBAX for solid state abacus. Pictured to the right, it was the first calculator to have floating decimals and a rounding off feature and the first to eliminate zeros to the left of the displayed digits. The SOBAX was also the first to perform percentage computations and reciprocals. 

Later, according to Patti, the laboratory acquired a machine “that used 8-track tapes for recording math formulas commonly used by the labs”. 

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that anything resembling today’s computers (pictured here) became available. 

Patti’s recollection of the research going on in the early 1970s offers a glimpse into what it was like to work in a research laboratory.

When I arrived [1969], we were actually studying several men with gynecomastia, and other problems. This group had Klinefelter’s syndrome. They were genetically different. They all had X and Y chromosomes, but also had at least one extra X. We measured their endogenous levels of hormones, androstenedione, testosterone, estradiol, estrone, and dihydrotestosterone.

To do the studies required 50 ml of blood. Hormones were extracted from the plasma, separated by continuous dilution columns, and purified with thin layer chromatography followed by recrystallization. 

It was called double isotope dilution technique. Carbon 14 isotopes of known amount were added to calculate back to the original amounts in the blood. 

Also infusion studies were done over 4–6 hours. Blood was collected at appropriate intervals and urine was collected for 3 days. Then the samples had their hormones extracted, separated by columns, and purified with thin layer chromatography and recrystallization. 

Although you could do several samples at once, start to finish on one took about 1 month.

We also studied a true hermaphrodite, Turners syndrome patients, non-Klinefelter men with gynecomastia, postmenopausal women, and testicular feminization syndrome.

Over the years, Drs. MacDonald and Siiteri had collected a lot of hormone levels on postmenopausal women and men with liver disease. Dave [David L. Hemsell, M.D.] and I compiled all of this information for Dr. MacDonald and found that age, weight, obesity, and liver disease all contributed to increased estrogen levels and ultimately to endometrial cancer in women.1

These results led to future studies into the location of aromatase (which converts male hormone to female hormones) in the body by our labs.

Frank Herford, technician, circa 1986.

We also ran the pregnancy tests for some patients. Frank Hereford [pictured on the right] actually did the rabbit tests. When commercial products became available, we "tested" those for the Department and ran them until the ER [emergency room] started doing its own. Pregnancy tests were not a routine test at that time.

Dr. Norman Gant worked for years studying toxemia of pregnancy. He and Dr. [Richard J.] Worley developed a "Roll-Over" test2 that could be used in any office setting to predict who would be developing toxemia, besides studying angiotensin levels.

-From a February 2010 email

If you have a story about early research experiences in the department, please email it to Judy Wagers.

1Hemsell, D.L., Grodin, J.M., Brenner, P.F., Siiteri, P.K., MacDonald, P.C. Plasma precursors of estrogen. II. Correlation of the extent of conversion of plasma androstenedione to estrone with age. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1974 Mar; 38(3):476-479.

2Gant N.F., Chand S., Worley R.J., Whalley P.J., Crosby U.D., MacDonald, P.C.  A clinical test useful for predicting the development of acute hypertension in pregnancy. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 1974 Sep 1; 120(1):1-7.