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Stephen Babcock

agricultural chemist

Stephen Moulton Babcock

Stephen Moulton Babcock was born near Bridgewater, New York, on October 22, 1843. After receiving his B.A. from Tufts College in 1866, he attended Cornell, where he was also a chemistry instructor. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Göttingen, Germany, in 1879. He began his professional career working as an agricultural chemist at the agricultural experiment station in Geneva, New York, where he invented an early method of simple milk analysis in 1881. In 1887, he became a professor of agricultural chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, and spent the rest of his life there. He was also the chief chemist of the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station from 1901 to 1913.

In 1890, Babcock demonstrated a test to show the amount of butterfat in milk. He discovered that by adding acid to warm milk, fat is released as an oil, and that the fat can then be separated easily by spinning the solution in a centrifuge. Simple and reliable, the Babcock Test helped fix standards for municipal milk inspection and set fair milk prices according to quality grading, as the market value of milk depends on its butterfat content; it is still used today to test milk quality.

Although it took a few years for the Babcock Test to gain widespread acceptance, it brought international recognition to the University of Wisconsin, which in turn allowed the university to establish a laboratory where Babcock and others carried out pioneering research in nutrition and the chemistry of vitamins. From 1896, Babcock worked on the biochemistry of casein and its influence on cheese making. In 1897, he isolated the enzyme galactase, which is responsible for the decomposition of protein in curd. In 1900, he discovered the coordinate influence of the enzyme pepsin, and, in 1903, he perfected a cold-curing process for cheese. He also carried out basic research on the nature of matter and its relation to energy, and invented an apparatus to determine the viscosity of liquids.

Babcock refused to patent any of his discoveries that proved beneficial to mankind. He died in Madison, Wisconsin, on July 2, 1931.

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This page was last updated on 10/22/2017.