In His Own Words

by David C. White

Growing Up

I grew up in Rock Island Illinois, "'where the Mississippi flows west," with my sister (Public School Kindergarten teacher for 30 years, IL teacher of the year in 1997). My mother was a Presbyterian, "To whom much is given much is expected," and a Durant Scholar at Wellesley majoring in Chemistry and Bible. My dad was a salesman who could fire a person and have them thank him. He drove a yellow Buick, wore saddle shoes to serve communion, was in movies with Charlie Chaplin, followed the wheat harvest as a field hand, and never got past his freshman year at college.

College Years

My first trip on a train was to Dartmouth College in 1947. At Dartmouth I was a nerd, but won a Dartmouth D in wrestling 120 pound class, majored in Chemistry and Geology, and chose Medical school because my roommate did. After Dartmouth, it was on to Tufts Medical School for an MD.

The White Family

While at Tufts my college and med school roommate's mother arranged for me to meet a young woman named Sandy. It was then that I made my best decision: to marry Sandy—and she was too young to know better. We have three children, all married, and six grandsons and four granddaughters. Two children are entrepreneurs, a daughter whose company (Siren Interactive) makes interactive multimedia products, for example, this web site, CDs, etc., and a son who commercialized microbial testing here in Knoxville, but moved to Carey NC to join a web business application company (Sageworks Inc.); and one is a scientist, a son who is a polymer physicist at NIST studying sealants and coatings and "service life prediction".

The Medical Path

After marriage I did Navy Medical Corps Aviation research with time as a ship's doctor in the Red Sea; this turned out to be a practical course in treating STDs. Next it was on to the new Rockefeller University in New York for a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1962 (Sandy picked up her second Master's and a daughter during this time). We joined the Biochemistry Department at the then new University of Kentucky Medical Center and taught medical students hopefully more clinically relevant biochemistry than I had as a student. In 1972 we moved to Florida State University, where I developed clinical programs for the Program in Medical Science to train students from the rural South to practice family medicine back home. We introduced first year medical students to clinical practice by establishing a clinic in the basement of a church to treat hypertension and diabetes. To make biology more relevant for non-majors we developed a course for 2000 students taught in the FSU Opera House and wrote "Sex, Drugs and Pollution," which was a local hit but now looks out-of-date in the changing world.



At FSU my research shifted to microbial ecology. This science included visits to Antarctica with a team of ice divers, Lizard Island on the barrier reef, and South Africa including a safari. In 1986 I started a nifty job as a Distinguished Scientist at the University of Tennessee/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, part of which includes travel to scientific meetings and having other scientists visit our now empty nest. My current passion is developing rapid methods for detecting microbes with mass spectrometry. For 18 months, I worked part-time at the Jet Propulsion Lab on planetary protection, trying to divert resources from robots to cleaning sample-return spacecraft so if life is detected on Mars it won't actually be contaminants from Pasadena.

Overcoming Obstacles

In 1992 I broke my neck, which cut out the skiing, gardening, running, rock climbing, scuba diving, and kayaking, so I have taken up bowl turning with a new appreciation for surgeons and physical therapy. The experience has been a practical in neurobiology. It is a big deal to walk 10,000 steps every day (We count 'em!). In my latest hobby I have returned to Medicine by studying non-invasive diagnosis by detailed analysis of the volatile and semi-volatile components of expired breath. I told the CIA I could detect deceit in a breath or two. They have yet to call.

Science is like a monastery where we work as replaceable unknowns on the manuscript that is the ever-deepening view of the majesty of interactions in this incredible universe. Did you see the last Leonid meteoroid shower or NOVA on PBS with electron micrographs on the miracle of human reproduction? Isn't knowing the smallest part of this Science majesty more valuable than many things we do?