Milkshakes and Miracles

By Morton Cathro

The recent death of a world-renowned scientist and the current flap over medications and "milkshakes" have combined to stir memories of one of the more sensational and far-reaching episodes in the annals of the American Turf.

I was barely into my teens at the time, and making my first visit to the racetrack. So my own recollections of the protagonist in this tale are limited to remembering the names of some of his Thoroughbreds, and still seeing in my mind's eye the dazzling, flamingo-pink colors of his silks.

Yet thanks to newspaper archives, contacts in academia, and other sources, I've been able to piece together the story of prominent California horseman Norman W. Church and his unique contribution to racing a half-century ago. That contribution ultimately was to lead to historic medical miracles and scientific breakthroughs that have been of incalculable benefit to all mankind.

His visage was several shades brighter than pink when Church, a Southern California banker, industrialist, and owner/breeder, learned his horse Proclivity had tested positive for alkaloids after winning the fourth race at Santa Anita Jan. 1, 1937. Red-faced that both his reputation, and that of his veteran trainer, E.L. "Woody" Fitzgerald, had been besmirched, Church, vowing to "see this terrible thing through to the bitter end," hired a young chemistry professor to challenge the stewards' report.

During his feud with the stewards, the California Horse Racing Board, and the track chemist who conducted the saliva test, Church boycotted Santa Anita. He scratched his Riskulus from the '37 Big 'Cap. He took out ads in newspapers and pleaded his case on a statewide radio broadcast.

Professor Arnold Beckman of the California Institute of Technology at Pasadena, whom Church employed, successfully argued that "it is essential to distinguish between a positive test for a stimulant and a positive test for an alkaloid." Furthermore, he declared, "A test showing an alkaloid does not necessarily indicate a stimulant. It might even indicate directly the opposite, a depressant. It is well known that many common weeds contain alkaloids which you can find in the feed or hay fed to horses."

The track's chemist conceded, according to Beckman's report, that "even a mudpack" (such as had been applied to Proclivity's knee) "could produce traces of alkaloid in saliva." The charges were dropped. Trainer Fitzgerald was reinstated by the CHRB, and Church's horses returned to competition. But the story does not end there.

Grateful a Caltech scientist had cleared his name, Church donated $750,000 to the school for construction of the Norman W. Church Laboratory for Chemical Biology. Following his death in 1953 at age 78, Church's will directed that $300,000 be given for additions to the building, and the bulk of his estate be placed in a fund for research in chemical biology.

Over the ensuing decades, countless scholars and scientists have labored in "The Lab That Church Built"--notable among them Arnold Beckman and five of Caltech's 29 Nobel laureates, including Roger W. Sperry and Linus Carl Pauling. Their experiments and inventions literally have revolutionized medicine and changed the course of science.

Sperry, for example, discovered that the left and right hemispheres of the brain each have unique capabilities. Pauling, in addition to his work on DNA, vitamin C, and sickle-cell anemia, discovered how atoms link up to form molecules--called the single most important discovery in the history of chemistry.

Beckman, who as a blacksmith's apprentice once shod horses, blossomed into one of the most influential scientific geniuses of the 20th century. While at the Church lab, or at the private company he later founded, Beckman advanced the study of penicillin, helped create a polio vaccine, and worked on drugs to fight cancer and AIDS. He invented the pH meter, helped develop radar, pioneered smog studies, and invented oxygen analyzers for submarines, aircraft, and infant incubators.

Beckman died this year at age 104. Like his philanthropic client, he left his entire fortune for the betterment of man. By applying the sociologists' law of unintended consequences, one could argue the Santa Anita stewards in the Proclivity case were benefactors as well.

Retired California newspaperman MORTON CATHRO writes frequently about racing, past and present.