First Interview Session (April 18, 2008)
Narrator: Bruce R. Johnson
Interviewer: Allison Page
Date: 18 April 2008
Location: Forest Products Laboratory
Transcriptionist: Allison Page (4/28/08)
Auditor: Lauren Benditt (8/15/08)
00:00:00 - 00:12:06 Introduction
introduction, background, education, farming; Amherst (Mass.); military, Korea, University of Massachusetts, Stockford School of Agriculture, wood science; Youngs, Robert L.; Forest Products Lab, University of Wisconsin, wood preservation
Okay, good morning today Friday, April 18th, 2008. My name is Allison Page and I am with the UW-Madison Oral History Program and today I will be interviewing Mr. Bruce Johnson from the Forest Products Lab. Mr. Johnson, if you would like to start off with just talking about your early years and how that kind of prepared you for work at the Forest Products Lab? Maybe, your educational or professional background?
Okay, sure. Actually, I have to say that I ended up at the Forest Products by the backdoor. I had had some interest in wood and woodlands as a youngster, I grew up in the country, but in early years of high school I was in a---well backing up a little bit. In junior high school I had a shop class, most of the boys did, and one of my projects was making a table lamp, I still have that, I looked at it today, I didn't have a future in furniture making, but it was satisfying at the time. But as I got into high school, I had a little trouble adjusting I think, my parents were well educated, but they had chosen to go into farming. We had moved to the country when I was quite young and then went to high school in very much a college town in Amherst, Massachusetts, Amherst College, UMass, Smith, and Mount Holyoake, now Hampshire College all in the immediate area. So my classmates, I was in a college prep group and my classmates were kind of from an academic background, or their families were, and I just found, though I was class president that year and involved in student council president the previous year and so forth, I just felt kind of like a fish out of water or other sorts.
I left high school after the tenth grade and went into the service and so I didn't seem to be on an academic path.
But a year or two later I was shipped overseas to Korea and there I had a sergeant who was barely literate. He could barely read and write and I realized that I was going to be stuck in a pretty low paying, unsatisfying job if I didn't get some education so when I got out of the service a year or so later, I was quite anxious to get to college. I couldn't get into the University of Massachusetts in my hometown, without going back to high school, which I was reluctant to do. I was married and had started a family by then and so I was accepted to the Stockford School of Agriculture, that's a two year technical college offering an associate degree, it's affiliated with UMass [University of Massachusetts]. There were, I don't remember, probably a dozen or maybe more options for study and the only one that had any appeal to me was wood science, or wood technology and so I chose that and so that's why I say I kind of got into the whole area of wood science and technology and ended up at Forest Products Lab kind of by the backdoor. I did go on from there, I was able to transfer to the University after two years, I had a 4.0 at Stockbridge, studied really hard, and was accepted conditionally that I had to at least complete one U.S. history course. Well, it was so tedious I did it by correspondence while I was attending classes at UMass and I just couldn't keep up with it, it was just too boring and fortunately the university got a new registrar and by then I had completed the year at UMass and I had virtually straight A's there too, and so they said well this is silly we'll let it go. So anyway I went on and completed my B.S. [Bachelor of Science] degree at Massachusetts.
In 1965, following my sophomore year, we had a visit in one of our wood science classes, a seminar or something, from a Robert Youngs, a Dr. Robert Youngs who was, I think at that point he was sort of an assistant director, or I think then it was called division chief, at the Forest Products Lab. He came and spoke to us about careers in wood science research and specifically at the Forest Products Lab, and that really appealed to me. And actually, it might have been '64 when came and spoke, because he came and talked about a student trainee program that Forest Products Lab had whereby undergraduates could spend a summer doing some research and get some idea of whether that was what they wanted to pursue.
Well, we did that, by then let's see we had, my wife and I had three children, which started pretty early. My wife,
Sheila, was class Vice President in our sophomore year I guess it would have been in high school, and so we've been partnering for a long time, but anyway, we came out to Wisconsin for the summer and I did work at the Lab doing research and I loved it. We all really liked Madison and the university campus and were really taken with it. And so after I graduated in 1967 I knew I wanted to go on and do more research and I applied to, and was accepted, at three graduate schools North Carolina and University of Washington, and University of Wisconsin. And largely because of the Forest Products Lab, I chose that [the UW].
And so we moved to Wisconsin in 1967 and I started working---I was going to bypass the master's and start right in on a doctorate. I [long pause] fairly soon ran out of gas and seemed to be a pattern in my life. And so---Incidentally, while I was doing my graduate work, class work on campus, I had received my stipend, my graduate stipend, from the Forest Products Lab and so I worked twenty hours a week there and then they employed me through the summer. That was a very good experience and did confirm that I really did want to continue on research, but as I mentioned, after about two years [of graduate work] or nearly that I was kind of running out of steam. I did, there was a language requirement then and I didn't have any language background. I had had Latin I junior high school, but that was the extent of it, I think it was kind of a setup that year, but I decided to learn Russian on my own, over that time while I was taking classes. It just did not go very well. So I wrote a master's degree [thesis] and concluded, for the time being, my graduate work and took a job, a fulltime position at the Lab. That was, I started then, in the fall I guess it was, as a fulltime employee in 1969.
I then, to conclude this business, this question about the higher education, I did several years later, in 1975, I felt rejuvenated, I wanted to make a change. There was some conflict at the Lab, an individual who had been my first project leader, became a colleague only when we [the Lab] reorganized and yet he continued to, although in title he wasn't my boss, he tended to be kind of bossy and I was kind of in competition with him. That was in the general area of wood preservation and so I thought I really needed to find my own niche and going back to school was an opportunity to do that. And so the lab approved my request to go back. It wasn't at that point, and probably still, the objective couldn't be to get an advanced degree, it had to be to get more education to enhance my work performance. Anyway, I did go back for that year and that was wonderful. I had some excellent courses that year and went back to the Lab and was able to do my dissertation research at the Lab and I selected quite a new area of research, it was really pioneering, in the area of wood preservation. Now, I'll probably come back to that a little later, but it had to do with the inhibition of chitin synthesis and a biochemical approach to wood protection, pretty different from the broad spectrum toxicant approach that had been used for fifty or seventy-five years.
So I guess that's sort of how I ended up at the Forest Products Lab. I did, it was in 1980, I did complete my doctorate. It was through the Forestry Department. At that point then I had---and all of the degrees really were---I had, at that point four degrees, in wood science and technology, but they were through forestry departments both at UW and UMass, and yet I had never had a true forestry or silviculture course. I did have one, I think it was called forest mensuration or something like that. It was statistics for people in the forestry field. But that was always, I always got a chuckle out of it that I technically I guess people would call me a forester, but not a dirt forester. Anyway, that's, maybe we're ready with that to go onto another question, or if you have questions about what I said?
00:12:06 - 00:14:55 First Impression, Forest Products Lab
first impression, Forest Products Lab; Tarkow, Harold
Yes, I guess one thing I was wondering is what were your initial impressions of the Lab? I know you said that you got kind of a sense of what the Lab did while you were still in school, but if you could maybe describe a little bit more what your initial impressions were going in to the Forest Products Lab?
Sure. Well it's true, I was kind of setup for a favorable impression, you can't study in wood science or wood technology any time at all without running across reference to the Forest Products Laboratory. For people in that discipline it's regarded, and it was for me, regarded as a Mecca. Much of the pioneering work, the early work, the fundamental work on the nature and properties of wood came out of the Forest Products Lab. It's the only national lab working on wood utilization, at least I should say government lab, a number of universities do have some research departments that work on wood utilization. So it stood pretty tall in my mind and it did after I visited in '65, I was impressed, when I was the student trainee undergraduate, and certainly my working there as a grad student and then employment.
It's an impressive facility, it was in some ways it was good. Meeting and putting faces to names that I had seen on technical papers for example, one that was referenced quite a lot was by Tarkow, Harold Tarkow, who was a division chief and later called assistant director at the Lab. In fact I worked under him for a while, that was terrific, Harold incidentally is still alive, I sure hope somebody is going to get an oral history from him because fascinating guy he's probably 97 now and still sharp as a tack, he always was. So I was kind of in awe of him and still hold in the highest regard. But, so again my impressions of the Lab were very favorable and I guess it continued to be sort of a Mecca for me.
00:14:55 - 00:33:54 Wood Finishing
wood finishing; Miniuti, Victor; Sacks, Irving; Beckler, Roy; American Wood Preservers Association; Gjovik, Lee; public speaking, fundamental research, applied research, ethanol
Well, you said that you started working fulltime at the Lab in 1969, is that correct?
When you started working, could you maybe describe the division that you were in, the people that you worked, any kind of memories that you have of these first initial days and years at the Lab?
Okay, well it was, in one respect, it was a slightly difficult transition because while I was doing my graduate work from '67 to '69 at the Lab, I was working in the general area of wood finishing. I worked with Victor Miniutti quite a lot, he's been retired for, oh gee, at least twenty years now, and it was a great experience I spent a lot of time with the light microscope, Vic taught me a lot about that. I also at that time got to use, both electron microscopes, well I guess at that time it was just a transmission electron microscope, but later the scanning [scope as well], to the kindness and generosity of Irving Sachs, a project leader there at the Lab. Irv is passed away now, but he was, that tickled me and I took great pride in getting to the point where I could use this fabulous electron microscope and have a look at these images that nobody had ever looked at before, and so it was an exciting time. But, when I started in '69 there wasn't---and John Black incidentally who was heading the finishing group with Vic Miniutti's boss, was instrumental in getting me a job and I will always be grateful to John for that---but there just wasn't a fulltime position in that, and so I was put in the wood preservation group. The names and the groupings have changed over the years and so I won't try to establish or keep track of them. It was, and so that was a little bit difficult, it was a different met a lot of different people and most of them became good friends. Roy Baechler, who has also passed away but was really a pioneer in wood preservation research, was just retiring and he, he conducted a number of seminars and in fact had a major input into my very first study at the Lab and one that I continued until retirement, that one study didn't go all that time but related activities, that was in the marine area, and we can talk more about that in a little while. But that was, that was a wonderful experience, Roy was just a terrific man and outstanding, very creative, very original thinker and very generous with his ideas. So, it was, I guess if I had a major disappointment it would be that I didn't get to work under him and have him as a mentor for a lot of years.
But other than that it was a good time I don't know what else to say about it, it was, I jumped right into research and fairly quickly got involved with the AWPA, the American Wood Preservers Association. Lee Gjovik was the project leader at that time and he was, his work tended to be quite applied and he was very involved in AWPA and steered me in that direction. And that was kind of a mixed bag over the years in some respects. And this is, I've scanned down this list of possible topics that you sent a while back, and so this is kind of get into some those areas too. But that enabled me to do quite a lot of travel and attend the annual meetings.
The AWPA was and is composed of---I would say the emphasis---it's an industry group, mostly people either doing wood preserving treatments or marketing the products or in some case users. And users: railroads and utility companies, power companies, and so forth. And a fairly small group or percentage made up of government or university researchers, of course that would be the group I was in. But, I served on a lot of committees and that was a mixed bag, it could be exciting at times but pretty scary too. Part of the job was to present papers and I did there and later on in other places and that was a struggle for me. I always suffered from diffidence or a lack of self-confidence and like most people I fear public speaking, but because I always felt kind of inadequate or I did, for many years. Public speaking was particularly challenging.
So, I developed a lot of good friendships in industry that way and cherished those and did a lot of travel and saw a lot of things and it was an exciting time. But I have to say that over the years, several things happened that kind of changed my view to some extent, of that association. One of the things, not long after that, the Forest Products Lab reorganized. We were, our employment ceiling had been reduced to just about yearly for a long time and it really made sense to consolidate a lot of the work units. We had research work units and then---I don't remember, but it was about half. It went from something like forty down to around twenty, or thereabouts. Those are sort of guestimates. So a lot of the work unit leaders, of projects, they were called project leaders, were demoted, not in grade but in terms of title, yes. As I mentioned earlier, Lee Gjovik then just became my colleague rather than my boss. That was a problem because he still---he knew a lot more than I did and certainly and had a lot more contacts in industry and so forth. So it was difficult for me to work in the same area, applied wood preservation, applied research. And so that was again, that was part of the impetus for me to go back to school in 1980 and that's how I developed this research area of inhibition of chitin synthesis. A good part of was just to be able to get into a field where Lee would not, could not be in competition with me, where I would have my own area.
And so, industry didn't have a high regard for basic research and I regarded this as pretty basic. I recognized that it was a long way away from the point of being able to put something out there that industry could pickup, but my feeling was that as a federal lab---and this opinion was not shared by the administration, by much of it anyway---but my feeling was, and still is, that a federally funded lab, at least the Forest Products Lab should be doing mostly research that industry cannot, or will not do. We shouldn't be doing stuff at their beck-and-call and I began to see---and we had industry came in and the Wood Preservers Association came in every year and we would make presentations and they would give feedback and recommendations. And always they wanted us to be putting out their little brushfires or doing things, in effect, to enhance their bottom line and I saw that as shortsighted and not very productive.
We didn't have the background, and still don't, I don't think, really, to make good judgments about what will move in the marketplace or how it should be carried along. I think while the Lab is still doing mostly applied research, they recognize that a lot of these administrators have a new---and so there is a cutoff point where it is turned over to industry long before---I mean we didn't try to decide how to package and market it, for example, a new product or process. But it seemed to me, and I had a conversation, a brief one, somewhere back there I think around the early '80s, with our research director. I told him that it seemed to me that the Lab really ought to be doing basic, or fundamental, research. That was where we developed our name, the work back then in the '10s, and '20s, and '30s, had to do with fundamental properties of wood, wood moisture relations and electrical and heat conductivity and just the anatomy and morphology of wood. One could stretch and find applications, and certainly that was the basis for a huge amount of applied research later on. But at the time, an awful lot of it was pretty fundamental or basic in the sense that there wasn't a particular product or process in mind.
So, I felt that we should still be doing that, that there was a lot of basic research that could be done. For example, good research on the safe and effective protection of wood from biodegradation needs to rely on a fundamental understanding of, for example, the decay process, the particular enzymes, the extra-cellular enzymes that fungi excrete, in order to degrade cellulose into a lesser extent lignin or wood. Were a long way from that, there's a lot of research that's been done, but there's just a whole lot---and even today it would be extremely important, and that's not to say that there hasn't been some research, but the renewed interest in energy and for example ethanol from biological products. Everyone but the politicians seem to understand that ethanol from corn is not a good thing, from a standpoint of cost or energy and atmospheric effects, global warming. But other cellulosics including wood have potential. The problem is getting the enzymes into the crystalline areas of cellulose where the cellulose chains are pretty tightly bonded. Water doesn't work its way in there and, not very far anyway, and enzymes have trouble. Well, if we had more of an understanding of the whole enzymatic process, then it could contribute hugely to the use of wood products or any number of other grasses and so forth to production of ethanol or fuels, alternative fuels.
There's still a huge amount of basic research that could be done, but when, in the eighties, said that to the research director at the time, and he was a brilliant man he's still alive, I'm not going to mention his name, but he said that, "Well we just don't have the people to do applied research." I probably, I wish I had followed up, but I took that to mean that he didn't think we had people bright enough, or capable of it, I think that's what he meant, but it's quite possible he meant, well we didn't have the people with the proper disciplines. And that part of it is certainly true.
Anyway, I recognize---and again this goes into some topics that are further down in this oral history---but I realized that because we're funded with taxpayer dollars the administration at the Lab needs something to send to the administration in Washington office that can take it in to a congressional sub-committee meeting and pull it out of their pocket, and put it on the desk and say, "Look, we're building a better mousetrap at the Forest Products Lab," or something, a little model of a bridge, or a model of a house with a new type of truss or whatever. A new preservative treatment for example, it would get away from some of the problems we have. They want something that these non-technical congress people that are passing our budget, approving our budget, could look at.
I understand that constraint, but nevertheless I think with the right people in Washington they could have sold that money idea and the need for basic research. Because again, as long as we are doing applied research, the question is going to be well why should taxpayers pay for that much, should the industry be paying for it? So, again it's, I don't mean to criticize FPL as an institution, but I think in terms of mission I guess that's one of the problems and it's probably true for all of government research and it's probably become more of a problem in recent years because of the need for funding. The, early on at the Lab I was excited by it because I had friends from graduate school that had gone into the more academic route and were teaching at universities. For example, I have a son incidentally now who is a full professor out at Colorado State University, in another field. But the appeal of the Lab was that we didn't, as scientists and researcher, we didn't have to spend much of our time doing grant proposals [for outside funding] that we got funded. We certainly had to justify, propose and justify our research, but the funding was pretty much a given and whereas people in academia, universities anyway, tend to spend a lot of time scrounging for money to support their research. The nice thing then at the Lab is that if you were productive and made a decent argument, at least if it was fairly applied, then you could continue on that path fairly well.
But that changed; and as budgets got tighter, not only did the employment ceiling drop at the Lab, but it became necessary for scientists to---they still got their salaries through the government, that was hard money, but we had to rely on soft money. My first study actually, which was on---that Roy Baechler had a lot of input into and one that I continued---the area of research of marine [preservation] assurance. The particular study, my first study, had to do with dual treatment of wood. I don't know if you, Allison, if you want me to meander on this way, because I'm covering some things that are in other topics, or if you'd rather go down the list.
00:33:54 - 00:45:23 Dual Treatment
dual treatment; Beckler, Roy; Gjovik, Lee; creosote, CCA, Navy, fender piling, ACA, treating plant; Davidson, Harley; Guthmer, Dave; American Wood Preservers Association; Key West (Fl.); marine research
Well, since you kind of brought it up we could talk about some of your studies that you did and maybe you could emphasize a particular project that you worked on that gave you a lot of satisfaction or interest.
Okay. Yeah, there are probably a couple of those, but one that I started to get into a minute ago, had to do with this dual treatment. This was my first study at the Laboratory, and again Roy Baechler had a lot to do with that, it was, the project leader at that point was Lee Gjovik, and it had to do with marine exposure. This was at the time---we were using fairly broad-spectrum toxicants: [creosote, pentachlorophenol, and CCA or chromated copper arsenate, were the principle treatments. They were generally very effective in ground contact, even in termite areas in the South where there's a high decay hazard and the high levels of termites infestation. But in marine exposure, in salt water and even brackish water, those preservatives were not nearly as effective. The water borers, the CCA types, were susceptible to one group of borers. Creosote in particular, which had been favored and was very satisfactory in northern waters, failed in southern waters. In fact, a lot of the research at the Forest Products Lab, lot of Roy Baechler's research, had to do with finding out why. And I did quite a lot of research on that, but that first study then---and so I think Roy Baechler had an awful lot to do with the idea of combining two treatments, where if the CCA worked with one group of organisms and creosote worked with another, then why not combine the two, that is you treat with a waterborne preservative, such as CCA. For example for piling, fender piling---back then there was a huge amount of use of that and I don't remember the numbers, but it was a huge amount that the navy alone, the U.S. Navy, alone was loosing each year, spending each year on replacing piling, fender piling. They were used because, as opposed to concrete or steel, partly because they were cheap, but also for fender piling---what that means, these are big vertical piles, like big telephone pole, that would be driven into the ocean bottom along aside piers, and they acted as fenders to protect ships when they came in, and wood was favored, and still is, because of its flexibility. If a ship came in a little too hard against a concrete or steel pier, most would suffer damage, and big damage, when you have thousands of tons, tens or hundreds or thousands of tons of ship coming in, even at a slow speed, if it stops suddenly by that pier you can imagine the damage that can be done. Whereas [wood] fender piling would flex some, it can bend some.
So anyway, for that and for other products, wood was favored but again one treatment wasn't effective and so what we did was to combine an initial treatment with a waterborne preservative, CCA was the principle one but there were several formulations of CCA, and there were some others such as at the time something called ammoniacal copper arsenate or ACA. And then partially dry, dry off the water, and treat with creosote. Well, creosote is a very complex mixture of hundreds and hundreds of organic compounds, some of them aliphatic some of them aromatic and it varied a lot, it's a coal derived product derived from the coking process where they heat coal in the absence, or reduced oxygen, to make coke which is then used in the steel industry. Well a byproduct of that is this heavy tar called coal tar and when that is distilled you get a number of products off and one of them is creosote. But the character, chemical nature, of that creosote varies allot with the distillation process, what fractions you take, that is what comes off in different temperature ranges and even the force and type of retort that's used for example in producing it. This of course was all new to me, I was starting at the Lab, I didn't know much about preservation, so it was pretty exciting and what it consisted of then---There was a huge study, largely empirical, but it consisted of, we used a small test standard, A.S.T.M. [standard for a small] test specimen, and I had three different waterborne preservatives at four different retentions. So there's twelve treatments right there, and each of those treated with three retentions of each of three different creosotes. One of the best high-temperature creosotes that was currently then recommended for marine exposure, the second one was kind of a medium grade, land-grade creosote, and the third one was something called a vertical retort creosote, which was pretty cheap to produce, low-grade, more aliphatic, less aromatic that made it a little less toxic and on its own it wasn't effective marine exposure. So combined all those and then---well it didn't satisfy the statisticians but obviously you have to replicate when you are doing any sort of test like that. So I had thousands, and thousands, and thousands of these small panels. I mean I'd come back at the end of the day from work and my head would be spinning you know and I'd wake up in the middle of the night thinking about this and did I remember this and that. I was exciting and it was scary and it was a great experience.
We had a treating plant there at the lab, they are building a new one now, but the cylinder we used for a lot of---we had several cylinders there, one of them was original to 1910 back when the Laboratory was founded. I had several technicians, Harley Davidson is long retired now, but wonderful guy and very knowledgeable as a technician, and Dave Gutzmer worked with me on that study and continued to for quite a few years after that. So, it was exciting. I did my first presentation at a big meeting, it was an annual meeting [of] American Wood Preservers Association in 1970, no excuse me I'll take that back, that first presentation had to do with research I had done on my, for my master's dissertation. It was a couple years after that, that I gave my first presentation on that dual treatment study, but I subsequently [presented] something on that a couple times and published it a number of times, different aspects of it. It led to a number of other studies, but the sum of the samples---and I think it was, [the findings were] cited a lot, it still is today. It wasn't from the standpoint of an academician, it wasn't outstanding research, it wasn't particularly novel, it was challenging for me as a new researcher, but it had lots of applications. I and others used it in setting national standards and still do. Some of those specimens that study then, quite a few of the treated panel underwent chemical analysis initially and replicates then were exposed in the sea in Key West, Florida. Roy Baechler had done some research down there and so I continued with that. I didn't get to go for the installation, I feel a little bitter about that [laughs], I was disappointed at the time, but I did start going the following year, for the first year to follow-up and went twice a year with some exceptions, occasionally there were conflicts and just technicians or somebody else would go, but I pretty much did it and maintained responsibility over it until I retired. And in fact, when I retired we closed everything down, there were still at that point in 1994 some of the panels that I had installed, that had been treated and installed in 1969, 1970 excuse me. It was a long term study, it spawned a lot of other marine research, I became very interested in that and had some success and branched out into a number of areas and did both some applied and some basic research. A lot of that was funded by the U.S. Navy, Naval Facility Engineering Command.
I was mentioning earlier that we were kind of forced into getting soft money for a lot of research, well the Navy provided that. And industry cooperated with us, often would send somebody down to help with inspections. After I retired in '94 a couple of companies approached me about continuing on a consulting basis and I did that, I concluded that work a year ago this last January, my last contract. I still have a few wood panels and my wife and I go down to Key West now just for vacation in the winter time, but I still have a few panels down there just for my own curiosity and satisfaction that I continue.
00:45:23 - 00:51:23 Chitin Inhibition
chitin inhibition, fungi, wood preservation, CCA, creosote, American Wood Preservers Association
So, that area has been one that certainly a highlight of my research and I guess the other that I take a lot of satisfaction from would be this area of chitin inhibition that I did for my doctoral dissertation and then continued. [I] did a number of other studies on it and it was novel, very new work that nobody had done and it generated quite a lot of interest. I must say though toward the end of it, I was, it was becoming more difficult, I guess maybe if I had been a better team leader or maybe a little more ambitious and self-confident then I would have worked to get approval to bring in some people. But what I ran up against---I'd had one course in biochemistry when I went back to my doctorate and it was very exciting, it really seemed to bring a lot of things together, it came at a good time. I knew a lot about the organisms that degrade wood, but not much on a biochemical level. And I thought this is what we want to do and the reason that chitin inhibition was so exciting was, it was blocking a biological pathway, or a biochemical pathway if you will, that was unique to particular organisms. That is fungi, at least some fungi---and a later part of my research was establishing that it was true of wood decay fungi---and marine borers and termites all possess chitin, that it's very important to their structure and function and yet no vertebrae animals do. It was highly specific and targeted, which is the ideal thing with a pesticide.
As it turns out, it was, in the case of fungi, and that's where I had most of my focus, it was fungistatic rather than fungicidal that is it would stop their growth, but it didn't kill the organism. So it had the potential of being much, much safer and less harmful side effect, it should have been harmless to things that didn't possess chitin. But even there, and there was some research mostly in Japan on chitin inhibition with quite a different area of fungi and not at all related to wood preservation, but I did have that to rely on and there were, some work done on the getting down to the nitty-gritty, the real roots of the biochemical pathways. But for me that biochemistry course introduced me to enzymology, but I came toward the end of my research really was at a point where I just didn't, I needed a degree in enzymology to push it really hard. So that was sort of where I left it and then early retirement came along. But I still take satisfaction in the fact that I did validate the concept. And while the material that I used, it was an isolate from a soil born microorganism, an antibiotic in effect, no potential for use as such in wood protection because it would be terribly expensive to produce, it would be, it's water soluble and so it would be leachable, but quite possibly would be degraded by other organisms, perhaps bacteria.
It's a tall order producing a safe, effective, cheap wood preservative and so I'm not sure how far that will go, I think the trend certainly is away from conventional wood preservation. pentachlorophenol, CCA, and creosote are quite restricted in their use now. In 2007 the American Wood Preservers Association changed its name to the American Wood Protection Association and that reflects the fact that these conventional old time preservatives are slowly on their way out and there is less and less market for it. There are other reasons that that's happening, we're cutting a lot less timber and what timber we do cut is a lot more expensive. And so [there is] a lot less treated wood. Most of it has been used in construction, railroad ties, utility poles, building poles, things of this sort that need to be pretty cheap. And so treated wood to a quite an extent has been used because it is cheap, also because it has properties such as fender piling, the flexibility and so forth, but when the wood gets so valuable the preservative treatment aside, it gets too expensive to use for something like a railroad tie or bridge timber, for example. Well anyway, in terms of those areas that were most satisfying to me.
00:51:23 - 00:57:03 Youngs, Robert L.
Youngs, Robert L.; University of Massachusett; Comstock, Gib; Whyerhowzer Corporation; Beckler, Roy; Tarkow, Harold; wood preservation; Montre, Hank; coffee group, employee buildings and facilities; Caulfield, Daniel F.
Well, I guess maybe switching gears a little bit; do you have any specific memories about working at the Forest Products Lab with certain people or interesting stories, memories that you would like to share?
Well, I'll have a shot at it. Certainly the people, I mentioned Bob Youngs, you know he visited my University of Massachusetts as an undergraduate and he had a lot to do with my getting to the Lab in '65 and then '67 and then '69. He went on to become a director. The work that I did for my master's thesis, I worked in a lab overseen by Gib Comstock, who later went on to Weyerhauser Corporation, but I was dazzled by Gib, he was a very brilliant guy and to this day I regret I don't think I gave him proper due, but he was very helpful and kind and generous in guiding my research then. I mentioned Roy Baechler, in the field of wood preservation, I just hold him in the highest regard. Another fellow was Harold Tarkow and I recognized his name, read about him as an undergraduate, on some of the physics of wood really, or physical chemistry of wood, and some years later, Harold, I think it the second or third reorganization at the Lab I ended up in an area where he was assistant director. I was in wood preservation and one of the things I really liked about Harold was that he would quite often wander down the hall and stop in, and plop down in a chair and ask what was going on and propose ideas.
Of course we were under the gun to publish and while we could spend a little time messing around in the lab just trying out things, we had [laughs] to keep our focus mostly on specific studies to meet obligations and deadlines and get publications. And so quite often I would---I really enjoyed and was stimulated by conversations with Harold, but I would have to say to him, that's a nice idea yeah I'll have to think about that. If he came back a second or third time, then I would follow up and run this little experiment that he had suggested. I always admired Harold and appreciated the fact that as an administrator he still found time to---because it really wasn't in his job description---but he would stop and have a real genuine interest.
Another one that I have fond memories of is Hank Montrey. I didn't know him well, he had been in the engineering area early on when I was at the Lab, I knew him a little bit because we would sometimes play ping-pong over the noon hour and I loved that and he was an outstanding ping-pong player. But he left, he went to industry for quite a while, he then went, rejoined the Forest Service and went to the Washington Office and then came to the Lab as deputy director and head of research. Later went on and took a Forest Service position as I think a station director or something like that. But anyway, Hank was very good for me in that we had some conversations, he pressured me one time to overcome my fear and stand in, be an acting project leader. I didn't really aspire to administration and I very reluctantly agreed to do that, and mostly because he did quite a bit to bolster my self-confidence so I'll always be appreciative of that. But I guess those the main ones, there were a lot of other people, a lot of good friends at the Lab.
I have to mention our coffee group over in building 33 and the wood chemistry and wood fiber people who were in building 33 and 34 as opposed to the main building 1, you know the original. We had coffee breaks twice a day, and pretty much the same group, and it was always really stimulating, I mean topics were all over the place, but lots of times they had to do with work, or politics, or [laughs] or you know one thing or another, it was pretty wide ranging, but real stimulating. Dan Caulfield was one of these, a physical chemist, he's retired but continues to be a friend and an amazing guy, incredible memory and very original thinker, so I really valued those conversations although you know our work didn't overlap much at all. Once a couple of times it did over the years a little bit. So I guess that probably in terms of that question.
00:57:03 - 01:01:27 Retirement
retirement, gardening, home building, enzymology
Well you said that you retired in 1994, what kind of led up to your decision to retire, was it just time or something else?
Oh there were several things in play, when that announcement came out, I thought about it for a few days, almost missed out at it turns out. I was working at home; I had gotten permission to work at home on a book because I was a few years away from scheduled retirement. But the main reason I did was that I had, have, something called polycystic kidney disease that my dad had died of it at an early age and a younger brother had it, at a very early age. So I thought I'm not going to have a lot of retirement time and I knew at that point that I had the disease and I was being to experience some symptoms and so that played heavily. I had, and still do, have an interest in gardening. We had bought some land out here in the country in northwest Richland County; it's about ninety miles, eighty miles from Madison. We have fifty-two acres here and I was interested in building a house on that property, doing it myself, I had learned through studies and coffee group conversations and seminars at the Lab and so forth a lot about home building, but I had never done any of it really, or very little. So I wanted to do that and I wanted to have a chance to practice a little forestry on my fifty-two acres and so all those things really entered into it and I decided it was, for me it was a no-brainer. I guess I'd have to say one other thing was that as I said I was in my chitin research, at a point where I just couldn't do a lot of it on my own, I just didn't have enough knowledge of enzymology, and I had never been very good at delegating and having faith in others work. I really didn't feel like I could adequately oversee the research, without really understanding it and so bringing in enzymologists to work for me, I wouldn't have found personally very satisfactory. I know that's done a lot and there's nothing wrong with doing it, but I wouldn't have worked for me.
So those are pretty much the reasons that I did retire. I have not regretted it at all. I find on a rare occasion when I have a chance to talk about chitin inhibition I get really excited. I mean sometimes push some friends out here who know nothing about basic science like that, I get some strange looks when I get excited and give them a five or ten minute spiel on this area of work and, you know, it kind of surprises me. So I recognize there is still a lot of interest and excitement there, but mostly retirement has been fantastic, my health I'm holding my own, I had an organic kidney transplant seven years ago and well I see doctors a lot and have some problems I'm doing pretty well and enjoying the heck out of life. You know, real grateful to not have to worry about funding. Big cut in pay more than fifty percent to retire early, but its certainly been worth it, having time is much more important than money for me. We just do a lot of things out here that are really exciting, I have a trout pond and I have these woodlands and we plant all kinds of stuff and we get to watch the wood ducks nesting on the pond each morning and evening, you know it's fantastic.
01:01:27 - 01:09:03 Impact
impact, Forest Products Laboratory, technology transfer, bulk heading, chitin, wood preservation
Great. Well I guess one of my last questions is, your general feelings about your time the Forest Products Lab and whether or not you feel that your work has left a mark on the Forest Products Lab, the USDA Forest Service in general, or even beyond?
Well I do think so it's not a major impact you know, it's not going to lead to a solution to cancer or something like that, but it is satisfying. I'm proud of the fact that I retired from the Forest Products Lab. Its still highly esteemed around the world, I don't know at this point if I were starting over if I would probably go that route. I'd be, well, there are other things that have a lot of other interests, but I'll always be proud of being affiliated with the Forest Products Lab, I think it's an outstanding institution and it continues to do a lot of relevant work. It's, oh I don't know, [long pause.]
I can't think what to say about it, I think in terms of impact definitely the marine work, it gets cited and it's relevant. There was one aspect of it that I didn't talk at all about, it was a double-edged sword of working at the Lab, it involved quite a lot of technology transfer in the form of answering phone calls. It was really frustrating because we did not, especially in the early years, but never really got adequate help for our---just a moment. [aside: I'll wind up in about five or ten minutes]. Wife just reminding me that got to hit the road pretty soon---But those interruptions for phone calls about "geeze my mail box is rotting, what should I do?" Or especially calls about, for example, bulk heading, marine bulk heading along the East Coast in Chesapeake Bay, huge losses for people and what to do about it. Well it was frustrating to have to spend the time, but it was wonderful to be able to provide, to solve somebody's problem, give them an answer and tell them the information they really needed and very satisfying, but it wasn't something that we could get much credit for. So, you know, that was an aspect of it and I think the administration was aware of it and tried to deal with it through various extension programs and so forth, the information services group, but that was kind of a mixed bag.
Then in terms of the chitin and that impact I don't know if it will ever lead to something, possibly for protection of packing or shipping crates for example that are in contact with foodstuff something along that line. Or more fundamental research I would hope somebody would pick up on it, I published a fair amount on it and I'm hopeful that somebody will continue that at some point. I know there has been a little interest in it and for example one of the things that I wondered about, well what if we could if we found a fairly simple molecule that would inhibit the synthesis, this chitin synthesis, in that case it was a transfer rate an enzyme that would mediate the movement of a monomer onto the chitin polymer. What if you found a molecule that would block that enzyme and yet we could attach it with a covalent bond, attach it either to wood or to something else that would stick into wood, so it would stay in place and continue any time an enzyme, a fungal enzyme entered the wood, it would block it? That would be fantastic. There are problems with that; it would take me a half hour to go into.
But, so, I think I'm hopeful, I think what I did was good science as far as it went on the chitin work. I certainly hope that someone will pick up on it, it's the direction that wood protection and actually pesticide research and pest control in general have to go that way, we can't spew out broad spectrum insecticides whether we pressure treat them into wood or squirt them into the soil or spray them on trees or whatever, we just can't do that. But if we have something that is highly targeted and doesn't hit non-target organisms and doesn't degrade the environment we are going to have to have some sort of pest control or pest management always I think. So I feel good about my time at the Lab and grateful for it.
Well great, that is pretty much the end of my questions, but if you have anything else that you would like to add.
Nothing comes to mind at the moment and to your end if, as you transcribe this or look it over, if you have questions or you think there are some places that need filling out or fleshing out I'd certainly be happy to speak again. My daughter worked for the Wisconsin Historical society for a long time.
She still works on campus; she's now with the Institute for Research on Poverty, I guess is the proper title of it. But she's long been interested in oral histories; she was excited. She'll want to hear this.
Well, similarly if there's more that you'd like to add, we can always stay in touch.
[End of Interview]