The other day, I was actually sitting in the “Dairy Barn” on the campus of the University of Wisconsin. What’s so great about that you may ask? Well, in the area where I was sitting, Stephen Moulton Babcock conducted many of his experiments to develop the tests for determining butterfat content in milk along with his “single-grain experiment” that would lead to the development of nutrition as a science. Of course, I know that to many of you, that may sound like a very uneventful afternoon and the rest of you figure old Pettus really needs to get a life, and you may be right about me needing to find a life, but having been reared on a dairy farm and also being required to do the Babcock test in a college dairy science class back in the late 60s to get a grade that I badly needed, that visit to that barn on that rainy Wisconsin afternoon meant a lot to me. Being in the presence of that old barn was sort of like visiting a shrine to dairy scien ce and agricultural history. Who would have ever thought that cows and farming would give us the formulas for vitamins that we take so much for granted today. Babcock’s efforts led to discoveries like vitamin A and B complexes that had never been heard of before. And all of those discoveries were made right there in that dairy barn on a college campus in Madison, Wisconsin.
His first efforts went into developing a test for butterfat determination in milk. Before the Babcock test, milk was sold primarily on volume and if someone wanted to increase how much milk they were taking to be sold to get a little more money in their pay check, all they had to do was stop by the spring and add a bucket or two of water to the milk cans. His test helped keep everyone honest, plus gave needed information on fat content for processing. Up until the 1890s, if a farmer wanted to be dishonest, he could remove the cream, which he could sell separately for a higher price, plus water his milk down and still get paid by volume. At that time as well, farmers who had dairy herds that produced naturally rich milk were being paid the same as those who had herds that produced milk that was not at the same quality of production as theirs, which meant an unfair compensation for the dairy farmer who was doing a good job. After Babcock’s test was developed, this he lped farmers to be compensated fairly, as well as allowed processors to produce a consistent product for the household consumer. It also kept a few minnows from ending up in milk cans as well since farmers no longer felt like stopping by the creek on the way into town to sell their most recent milking.
If you are like me, you may have thought that nutrition has always been a part of our daily lives, but not until the early 1900s did the ideas of Babcock become fact and the development of nutrition as a science appear. And, thanks to a barn in Wisconsin, along with some agricultural determination, did this science make its way into official records. His “single-grain experiment” revolutionized the science of nutrition in food. By using dairy cows and giving each one different diets he found dramatic changes in each animal, a study that was conducted from 1907 to 1911 in the Dairy Barn. That experiment is credited with the development of nutrition as a science and led to the determination that there are minerals and vitamins in food. That research continued into the 1930s with Babcock and his associates being one of the first groups in the science world to use rats to do other experimentation.
As one UW professor explained to us on that rainy afternoon in Wisconsin, Babcock had determined that cows were too costly to use for the experiments and had gone to his higher ups to request to buy some rats to use in his nutrition experiments. He had tried to catch some of the barn rats, but they were too fast and wise for the professor. His dean said no, fearing if the donors to the university knew they were using rodents for research, since rodents had not been used before in experimentation, they would withdraw their funding. Being a man of determination, Babcock used his own money to buy two white rats to do his own experiments, becoming one of the first to use the rodents and the rest of the story is now history.
Thanks to one man’s desire to make a difference, we all now enjoy dairy products of a consistent nature and our farmers today still receive results from his experiments more than a hundred years ago. Plus, that vitamin you took this morning all began by Babcock wondering in an old dairy barn about the diet of a cow. Simply amazing isn’t it?