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A.B. Hastings, Biochemistry Leader, Dies

September 26, 1987|JANNY SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

A. Baird Hastings, a leader in the field of biochemistry who played a central role in encouraging government funding of biomedical research in the United States, died Thursday of heart failure in La Jolla at the age of 91.

A pioneer in the study of the acid-base balance of blood and in the use of radioactive isotopes to follow biological reactions, Hastings went on to shape the development of UC San Diego School of Medicine and the development of basic research at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation.

"He was a very important figure in the passage of biochemistry from an analytic, static kind of a science into a very dynamic kind of science that was mostly interested in how things change," Manfred Karnovsky, a professor of biological chemistry at Harvard, said Friday.

Helped Shape Science's Course

"He was not only a fine scientist in his own areas, but he was also a person who helped shape the course of science in this country," said Frank Huennekens, a member and former head of the division of biochemistry at Scripps in La Jolla.

Hastings had moved to San Diego in 1959 after 28 years as a professor of biological chemistry, and chairman of the department, at Harvard. He had remained active at Scripps into his 90s, participating in seminars and grand rounds, in which senior staff members accompany interns on their rounds.

He had also kept an office for the last decade in the Physiological Research Lab at UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where colleagues say he served as an important scientific and personal mentor for younger scientists.

"Professor Hastings was a very intelligent, intense and loving man," said Charles Spooner, a professor of neurosciences at UCSD School of Medicine. " . . . He cared about his people, he cared about his science. He taught values."

Born in Kentucky

Albert Baird Hastings was born in Kentucky in 1895 and received a Ph.D. in 1921 from Columbia University. There, he wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the effects of fatigue on munitions workers in World War I.

He moved from Columbia to the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research and then to the University of Chicago, where he did extensive and seminal work on the acid-base balance of arterial blood and research on tissue electrolytes.

"He was a person who at first brought physical-chemical principles to bear on human biology," said Karnovsky, whom Hastings brought to Harvard in 1949. After World War II, Hastings' work shifted to metabolic changes and the regulation of metabolism by hormones.

At Harvard, Hastings studied biochemical changes in aging, the metabolism of carbohydrates and factors affecting bone formation, among other things. In 1940, he discovered a process of carbon dioxide fixing in rat livers previously thought to occur only in plants.

He became an early advocate of admitting women to Harvard Medical School. He is also remembered there as a department chairman who focused primarily on teaching and who dedicated the rest of the department's faculty principally to that mission.

Teaching and Immortality

"Teaching is the only way you gain some immortality," Hastings said on his 90th birthday. "It is the only immortality that I crave. In teaching, you've got a fair chance that some of your students will go into teaching, and that makes an endless chain out of the business of teaching. It is the most honorable religion I know."

During World War II, Hastings served on the federal Committee on Medical Research, charged with speeding the development of treatments for the injured. The committee promoted the development of anti-malarials, antibodies to treat hepatitis and a new technique for purifying and extracting penicillin.

At the request of the State Department, Hastings traveled to the Soviet Union in 1943 armed with a valise full of scientific reports and 10 million units of penicillin. According to biographical material on file at UCSD, he introduced penicillin to Soviet scientists.

Hastings also served as a powerful and credible advocate for federal funding of biomedical research and for the National Institutes of Health's system of external grants--a system that has since fueled much of research in this country.

Focus on Research

"When he started, people were just beginning to understand medicine at the molecular level," said Huennekens of Scripps. "I think he felt that institutions, like universities, did not have quite sufficient funds to do things on a large scale."

"He was one of the very influential people in keeping the scientific aspects of it in the forefront--not letting it become a political brouhaha," said Dr. Irvine Page, former director of research at the Cleveland Clinic and a lifelong friend.

At age 65, Hastings retired from Harvard and became director of the division of biochemistry at Scripps. Until that time, Scripps had had a relatively small research component; Huennekens said Hastings had strongly encouraged its growth.

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