Unsung Heroes: Mary Shaw Shorb and Vitamin B12

She’s probably one of the most interesting women you never read about. And long after her death, she may have just solved a friend’s puzzling health problem.

Her name was Mary Shaw Shorb, and she was born in the wilds of North Dakota on a blustery winter day, January 7, 1907. Women weren’t allowed to vote at the time. And although that, at least, had changed by the time Mary reached her twenties, job opportunities for women were pretty slim. You could be a teacher, a seamstress, a cook, a nurse, or a mom. Women in any other occupations were rare indeed.

Mary Shaw (Shorb), about the time she graduated from college (courtesy of the family).

But Mary Shaw wanted wider horizons than that. A family friend had taught her to recognize wildflowers and edible mushrooms as a child, and Mary was fascinated by botany. And as luck would have it, this same family friend had been one of the founders of the College of Idaho. Mary enrolled there in 1924, graduating four years later with a B.S. degree in Biology — and, just in case, a minor in Home Ec.

Mary’s older brother was studying to be a doctor at Johns Hopkins University and before long Mary enrolled there as well, earning her Doctor of Science degree (Sc.D.) in immunology in 1933. For her dissertation she developed an antigen that proved so successful it became one of the front-line treatments for pneumonia until sulfa drugs came along.

By now Mary was married to fellow grad student Doys Shorb, whom she’d known since kindergarten. Their first child arrived in 1936, followed by two additional children in 1938 and 1942. For a time, Mary stayed home with the kids.

But during the War years, determined to do what she could to help, Mary accepted a technical job with the Bureau of Dairy Industries: culturing a bacillus known as “LLD” used to make yogurt and other milk products. It was a mundane, routine kind of job. But Mary became fascinated when she heard about a well-known quirk in the industry: For some strange reason, in order to properly culture LLD the growth medium had to include a special extract made from liver.

Why was that? What did liver have to do with making these organisms grow? No one could tell her. Then in 1946, even that mundane job evaporated — the employee who’d previously held the position was now back from the war.

But Mary’s curiosity had been piqued. There was something in that liver extract– and it didn’t just help LLD to grow properly. Liver was also the only known remedy at the time for treating pernicious anemia, an often-fatal ailment that had already killed Mary’s father-in-law.

Unappetizing as it sounds, raw liver had indeed proven beneficial for anemia victims. But the treatment required taking nearly a pound of raw liver a day. And so far, the mysterious “active ingredient” in liver had never been isolated and standardized.

Fresh out of a job, Mary was able to wangle lab space at the University of Maryland as an unpaid “research position.” A Merck Company researcher came through with a $400 company grant to fund the upstart young scientist’s efforts. Her brilliantly simple approach: if LLD only grew in the presence of this unknown liver factor, then measuring its growth rate should help pinpoint this mysterious X-factor.

Mary Shaw Shorb

Mary developed a “bio-assay” protocol — and it worked. In just three months, the Merck scientific team was able to isolate the first red crystals of this special active ingredient from liver extract– now known as Vitamin B12. It was a stunning breakthrough, and produced astonishing results for victims of pernicious anemia.

Asked about this breakthrough in a 1954 Idaho newspaper, Mary was her  usual humble, retiring self. “It was such a gradual discovery it’s hard to express my feeling when it was proved the vitamin did cure anemia,” she confessed. “But I will admit that it was a thrill and quite a wonderful experience.”

A tiny dynamo standing just four feet eleven inches tall, Mary was granted a full research professorship at the University of Maryland. Over her lengthy scientific career, she authored or co-authored 58 papers for scientific journals before finally retiring in 1972. Ironically, she passed away at the age of 83 in 1990 from complications of pneumonia, the same illness she’d helped treat with her dissertation.

And how did Mary Shaw Shorb manage to help rectify my friend’s health problem, long after Mary’s own death? Actually, it was her discovery of B12 that did it.

It all started out with a wonky blood result. My friend, a long-time vegetarian, had had chronically low white blood counts for well over a decade. Recently, though,  her WBC number dipped into the “what’s going on” crazy-zone. Her doctor was ready to send her to an oncologist. That’s right: they thought it might be cancer.

My friend thought otherwise. She’d read that vegetarians tend to have lower WBC numbers anyhow. And there were a few hints that B12 might be helpful for improving both red and white blood counts. For three weeks, she took a daily B12 supplement and added nutritional yeast (a B-vitamin source) to her coffee.

And that crazy-low WBC number? It jumped by two full points. She’s back in the “normal” range for the first time in ten years. And she credits it all to Mary Shaw Shorb and her amazing B12.

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(Caution/Caveat/Disclaimer: This anecdotal health story is shared just for reading interest; it’s not intended as medical advice of any kind. Please talk to your own doctor before trying any home remedies or self-treatment!)