John Totter


John Totter
John Totter
Saragosa, TX, USA
Death date
Associated organizations
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Fields of study
Chemical engineering


John Randolph Totter was born in Saragosa, Reeves, County, Texas, January 7, 1914. He was the son of Matthias (Matija) Totter of Griblje, Slovenia (then Austro-Hungary) and Agnes Smith of Manchester, England. His parents met and married in Joliet, Illinois, in 1902. Though Matt Totter left his home to escape from being a farmer, the lure of owning land was too strong. He pooled his resources with his brother John (Janez) and a farm was procured in West Texas through the company formed by Balcomb, Moore and Rhea. The town of Balmorhea was founded by these three men and ultimately became the home of the Totter family.

Matt Totter's family moved to Texas in 1908, arriving by buckboard in a sandstorm that would have daunted less hardy souls. By the time John was born, Matt had moved to a better one-eighth section of land with a small one-story house. There were two older brothers and three older sisters. His oldest sister, Mabel, was teaching school by the time John was 5 and took him along with her. Mabel had a profound influence on John. It was with her encouragement and financial help that John went to Laramie and the University of Wyoming.

During his early years, John's interest in everything around him was stimulated by books and magazines his father had around the house, by the gift of a blowpipe analysis kit from Father Brocardus Eiken and the opportunity to travel with this priest who had an interest in mineral sciences. Aided by an inquisitive mind and a prodigious memory, John learned much science without the aid of skilled teachers. He was able to complete course work for several grades in one year. After completing 7 years of schooling in Saragosa, he finished his schooling in 1 year in Balmorhea and graduated in 1929 at the age of 15. Schooling was interrupted by a year of work on the farm and a filling station in Balmorhea.

John's sister, Mabel, convinced him to come up to school in Laramie. Though he wanted to study mining engineering, he lacked sufficient funds to purchase the drafting equipment necessary for that course of study so turned to chemistry instead. He discovered early he had an aptitude for remembering and visualizing organic formulas which led to his lifelong vocation in biochemistry. He received his Bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1934 and his Master of Science in chemistry in 1935, the same year Eliza Van Sant of Van Tassell, Wyoming received her degree. Through mutual friends, they met and became friends. John, however, was slated to go to the University of Iowa to work on a doctoral degree. Eliza and John corresponded for two and a half years until he received his PhD in chemistry from the University of Iowa. Eliza, who became "Betty" because John thought Eliza was too old fashioned a name for this diminutive, shy schoolteacher, came to his graduation and they were married the following day, August 6, 1938.

John had a one year teaching assignment in Morgantown, West Virginia, a new bride who brought $500 to the marriage, no car and one month to get to his new job at the tail end of the Great Depression. Fortunately, another young couple who had not had the opportunity for a honeymoon had a car and graciously offered John and Betty the opportunity to travel east with them. Ferrin and Hazel Moreland and John and Betty headed north and one of the stops included the Sudbury deposits. His mineral collection began there with a purchase of a few specimens. As they continued on through Quebec and New England he added to his collection and indulged Betty's love of travel.

Through his contacts in the American Society of Biological Chemistry, he found his second position with the University of Arkansas School of Medicine at Little Rock, Arkansas. All three of their children were born in Little Rock, Lorena in 1940, Anita in 1943 and John in 1946.

At Arkansas, he worked for Paul L. Day and thus became an early pioneer in the nutritional functions of folic acid. In 1947, John and Carroll Shukers flew north to Alaska to perform a nutritional survey of the Eskimo population at remote sites such as Kotzebue, Unalakleet, and Point Hope. John learned first hand the treachery of undercut ice to test the paralyzing cold of the Arctic Ocean, sampled the savagery of the Alaskan mosquitoes, and learned to "walk on water" to avoid loosing boots to quicksand.

While in Arkansas, John's lifelong hobby of mineralogy was enhanced by many visits to Magnet Cove, a unique assemblage of pegmatite minerals. He served as President of the Arkansas Mineralogical Society during 1945-46. His mineral collecting and friendship with the state geologist as well as with R. R. Edwards, a Fayetteville campus member of the chemistry department led to discovery of uranium deposits in Hot Springs area, and encouragement which led to the opening of a vanadium mine in the Magnet Cove area. He was elected president of the Arkansas Academy of Science in 1950 and was also President of the Southwest Section of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine.

A five month exchange program with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1950 provided the opportunity to transfer to the lab in 1952. It was here that he became interested in bioluminescence which led to the involvement of Oak Ridge youth (and especially his own children) in collecting fireflies to supply the extracts for his experiments. An interest in purine metabolism and bioluminescence catalyzed by the folic acid work and in conjunction with Bernard Strehler, a student of William D. McElroy, led to studies of oxy-radical effects in metabolism and their possible influence on aging and the senescent causes of death.

In 1956 he joined the Atomic Energy Commission headquarters staff in Washington in the Division of Biology and Medicine, where he served until 1958. Paul Pearson was his immediate supervisor, Charles Shilling, the deputy director and Dr. Charles Dunham was Director of the Division. John was responsible for reviewing requests for funding for research programs from various institutions and laboratories.

Through contacts, he was offered the opportunity by the Rockefeller Institute to spend two years at Montevideo where he was visiting professor on the medical faculty of the University of the Republic from 1958 to 1960. The family moved to Montevideo and found many new friends and associates. He consolidated several small laboratories, enhanced the graduate department of biochemistry and interfaced and directed researchers from industry.

From 1960 to 1962, he was professor of biochemistry and chairman of the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Georgia. He supervised the Departments of Bacteriology, Entomology, Botany, Zoology and Psychology, taught biochemistry and continued his research. He enjoyed his time at the University of Georgia and was in line to become Dean of Arts and Sciences. Meanwhile, he had been urged by Dr. Dunham to return to the AEC several times.

In 1962, he did return to the AEC headquarters staff as assistant director under Dr. Dunham for biological sciences, and from 1963 to 1967 served as associate director for research. In 1968, when Dr. Dunham retired as Director, he was appointed Director of the Division of Biology and Medicine, later renamed the Division of Biomedical and Environmental Research. In that post, he was responsible for planning, developing, and directing the progress in biomedical research, with particular emphasis on the biological effects associated with AEC activities; release of and environmental distribution of radionuclides; and the development of peaceful uses of atomic energy in these and related fields.

In November 1972, he relinquished his position at AEC headquarters and was appointed Associate Director for Biomedical and Environmental Sciences at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, responsible for the Laboratory's biological and medical program and its extensive environmental research effort. Following his two-year appointment, he returned to research in the Biology Division, retiring from that position at the end of 1978. Alvin Weinberg invited him to become member of the staff at Oak Ridge Associated Universities' Institute for Energy Analysis. He continued to work there, studying statistics of cancer mortality, chairing symposia and developing theories of cancer causes. In 1984 he retired again from the Institute. At home he continued to experiment with chemiluminescence and work on papers for publishing.

He was a member of the American Chemical Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Society of Biological Chemists, Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, American Society of Naturalists, Sigma XI, and Society of Nuclear Medicine. He spoke Spanish and read German and French.

Betty, his companion and helpmate of 56 years, died January 31, 1995, as a result of a three year battle with Lyme disease. He married Mary Smith, May 8, 1999. Mary is a native of Oxford, Mississippi and came to Oak Ridge March 4, 1944, to teach school. She retired in the spring of 1979 from Cedar Hill School. John and Mary met at the Oak Ridge Retirement Center. John died February 1, 2001, of pancreatic cancer. Mary still resides at the Retirement Center.

Larson Collection Interview