Stephen Moulton Babcock

Born 1843
Died 1931

Related eponyms

American agricultural chemist, born October 22, 1843, near Bridgewater, New York; died July 2, 1931, Madison, Wisconsin.

Biography of Stephen Moulton Babcock

Stephen Moulton Babcock graduated B.A. from Tufts College in 1866 and received a Ph.D. from the University of Göttingen, Germany, in 1879. After working as a teacher and chemist in New York, he joined the staff of the University of Wisconsin, where was professor of agricultural chemistry from 1887 to 1913 and remained for the next 43 years. He was also chief chemist of the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station.

The test, which bears his name, was an outgrowth of necessity, as is so often the case with inventions. Dairying was becoming an important industry in Wisconsin and its future depended on an accurate and easy method to determine the intrinsic value of milk. When presented in 1890, the test brought international recognition to the University of Wisconsin. Here he established a laboratory that carried out pioneering research in nutrition and in the chemistry of vitamins. Babcock's experimental studies in the food requirements of animals paved the way for the work of the American chemist Elmer Verner McCollum (1879-1967) on vitamin A, and it was in "his" laboratory at the university the biochemist Harry Steenbock discovered vitamin D, the sunlight vitamin. Babcock invented an apparatus to determine the viscosity of liquids. The last two decades of his life were spent in basic research on the nature of matter and its relation to energy.

On March 27, 1901, the governor, Robert Marion La Follette (1855-1925), presented Babcock with a bronze medal from the Legislature as a testimonial for his service to the people of Wisconsin.

Interestingly, Babcock felt that he should derive no personal gain from his testing device, his most famous invention, and no patent was taken out. He also refused to take a cent for anything else he did that might benefit humanity. Fame came to Babcock because he could not avoid it. Not a fluent speaker, he always tried to get out of making speeches.

Away from his laboratory in the biochemistry department of the UW's college of agriculture, Babcock - affectionately known as "the laughing saint of science" - could be found in the grandstands with his bag of peanuts or popcorn watching football or baseball. In his Lake Street home, he refused to install a telephone, claiming it was too much bother to answer the contraption. He did, however, adopt the automobile and enjoyed touring southern Wisconsin before his death in 1931 at age 87.

We thank Ellis E. Youngblood for correcting an error in our original entry.

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