A Death in the Family

Author: Notre Dame Magazine staff

As a young man living in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation BERNARD S. WOSTMANN felt and saw the effects of food shortages personally. After the war he would study the body’s responses to under-nutrition, as opposed to malnutrition, and report that there were actually health benefits to eating less than one wanted. The immigrant, who conducted research and taught graduate students about biology and nutrition at Notre Dame for more than 30 years, died last December at age 84. Wostmann came to the United States as a Rockefeller Research Fellow at the California Institute of Technology in 1950. At Caltech he worked under, among others, chemist Linus Pauling, who in a few years would receive the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. In 1955 Wostmann moved to Notre Dame, living initially in a cottage in Vetville, the campus housing area for married war veterans. He had been hired as a researcher for the University’s Lobund Laboratory, famous for its development of a line of rats free from bacteria. The isolation made the animals valuable for testing biological responses absent of interference from other organisms. Wostmann worked extensively on the nutritional requirements of the germ-free rats, eventually developing a diet now considered standard for lab animals. In one project, growing out of his war-time experience, he found that if rats were fed only 70 percent of their normal caloric intake (but all the vitamins and minerals they needed), they were actually healthier, if ill-tempered. Tall, dignified and self-assured, Wostmann became a researcher-missionary of sorts for Lobund, spreading the gospel of germ-free animal research or “gnotobiology” at conferences and institutions the world over. He retired in 1988 and relocated to Texas to be near family but remained connected to Lobund.