A professor of physiology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center from 1963 to 1973, Earl W. Sutherland Jr. was the first scientist from a southern university to win a Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine. Many observers considered the conferring of the prize on Sutherland in 1971 a sign of the rise of the South as a pacesetter in medical research, education, and clinical service.
In 1956 Sutherland and Dr. T. W. Rall discovered cyclic AMP. Sutherland’s further research demonstrated the ubiquitous nature and prime importance of this chemical and its associated compounds, notably adenyl cyclase, in all living things. As the result of Sutherland’s work and that of those who followed his lead, it became known that hormones are not the sole regulatory substances in the chemistry of living organisms, as had previously been believed. In many cases, necessary cellular reactions are triggered by cyclic AMP, the almost universal “second messenger,” responding to the hormonal signal. Sutherland’s work on hormones opened up new paths of research into diabetes, cancer, and cholera.
Sutherland was born in Burlingame, Kansas, and earned his medical degree in 1942 from the Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. After serving as a doctor in World War II, he returned to his alma mater as a researcher in Nobel laureate Carl Ferdinand Cori’s laboratory. In 1953 he became director of the department of medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where he discovered cyclic AMP. By 1963 Sutherland wanted to limit his duties to research and moved to Vanderbilt.
In addition to his Nobel Prize, Sutherland was named a career investigator of the American Heart Association, which awarded him its Achievement Award in 1971. In 1970 he won the Albert Lasker Award for basic medical research. In 1973 he received the National Medal of Science. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
Sutherland died one year after he and his wife, Dr. Claudia Sutherland, accepted positions with the University of Miami Medical School, he as distinguished professor of biochemistry and she as assistant dean.