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WSU’s Carlson Trades Administrator’s Pen for Fishing Pole

PULLMAN, Wash. — The Washington State University scientist who solved the mystery of pulmonary emphysema in cattle, contributed to the understanding of lung disease in humans and went on to a career as a university administrator has turned his attention to other pursuits: fishing, traveling and enjoying his grandchildren.

James Carlson retired March 31 as associate dean of the WSU College of Agriculture and Home Economics, and as director of the Agricultural Research Center, ending a 34-year career at the university.

In all those years James Carlson never took a whole month off and never went on professional leave. But as he started retirement March 31, he made up for lost time as he and his wife, Diana, raced to the airport to catch an airplane for a vacation in Mexico.

When the Carlsons return, their calendar is full. “I feel like I’ve had my nose to the grindstone since 1966. I haven’t even taken a whole month off work,” Carlson said. “There always was research to be done and grant proposals to write. We’re going to spend more time together, get to know our five grandchildren better, travel, fish and enjoy our new 24-foot cabin model boat and our cabin on Lake Pend Oreille.”

Carlson grew up on a diversified, irrigated farm near Greely, Colo., and received a bachelor’s degree in animal nutrition from Colorado State University. He did his first animal nutrition research on a Fullbright Scholarship, in the Agricultural College of Norway in 1961-1962.

Returning to the United States, Carlson pursued master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He joined the WSU faculty upon graduation with his doctorate in biochemistry, in June 1966.

At WSU he quickly became involved in research on pulmonary emphysema in cattle. In a series of discoveries, he found that the disease is caused by abrupt changes in the diet of range cattle. Dietary changes associated with bringing cattle down from mountain ranges to graze lusher forages at lower elevations produces a toxic chemical in the rumen. This chemical is carried to the lungs where it kills tissue.

There is no cure for the disease, but Carlson discovered that it could be prevented by dietary management.

His studies of the biochemistry of the process has been helpful to scientists working to understand the causes of lung diseases in humans.

Potential benefits for human medicine was the basis of the National Institutes of Health support of Carlson’s research for 18 years.

Bovine pulmonary emphysema is a world-wide problem and had been known for at least 200 years. Carlson modestly sums up his contribution to science, “We kind of figured it out. We took it through all the stages of animal effects with explanations of the microbiology and chemical causes.”

Because Carlson, and the scientists who worked with him, “figured it out,” cattlemen throughout the world have saved millions of dollars in lost cattle.

Carlson abandoned the laboratory for administrative work in 1982 when he became chair of the animal sciences department. In 1993 he became associate director of the WSU Agricultural Research Center and within a year was named director.

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