Robert Crane, Biochemist Whose Discoveries Led to Treatment of Cholera, Dies at 90

Courtesy of the American Physiological Society

Robert K. Crane
January 02, 2011

Robert K. Crane, a biochemist whose discoveries about how the body absorbs salt and sugar helped provide the scientific rationale for oral-rehydration therapy, has died. The therapy has helped save the lives of millions of people, particularly in developing countries, where the shortage of clean drinking water often leads to cholera or severe diarrhea,

He died, at age 90, on October 31 at his home, near Memphis.

As a researcher in the department of biological chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis's School of Medicine, Mr. Crane determined that the small intestine absorbs sodium and glucose most efficiently when they are mixed together.

"This gave us a way to treat cholera," says Nancy R. Stevenson, a professor of physiology and biophysics at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, who worked with Mr. Crane. "If you can keep a person hydrated, they didn't die of cholera."

But decades after that 1960 discovery, and long after his retirement, Mr. Crane was still dogged by questions about whether he had, in fact, been the first to come up with the "co-transport" theory, which the British medical journal The Lancet described in 1978 as "potentially the most important medical advance this century."

Peter D. Mitchell, a British researcher who attended the 1960 symposium in Prague where Mr. Crane announced his hypothesis, developed the co-transport idea further and ended up getting a Nobel Prize in 1978 for his work.

"Dr. Crane was the one who came up with the idea, but someone else ran with the ball and popularized it," says Ernest M. Wright, a professor of physiology and medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles's David Geffen School of Medicine.

Mr. Wright, who also studies co-transport, received a transcript of the Prague symposium proceedings back in 1961, the day he started graduate school. "Everybody was reading it avidly," he recalls.

Mr. Crane's career as a scientist took off after he served in the Navy during World War II.

Although his first love was English, he was turned on to chemistry in college by a succession of inspiring teachers, one of whom helped land him a job at a laboratory that trained leaders for TNT plants.

After serving in the Navy, he went on to receive a doctorate in medical sciences from Harvard Medical School in 1950. He spent the next 12 years at Washington University's medical school, where he studied glucose metabolism. He was later chair of the departments of biochemistry at Chicago Medical School and of physiology and biophysics at Rutgers Medical School (now known as Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, a component of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey). He stayed at Rutgers, which was just developing its medical school, for 20 years.

Ms. Stevenson worked as a postdoc and later as a faculty member under Mr. Crane at Rutgers, beginning in 1968. "What most of us remember are the big Cajun dinners out in the quonsets where we worked," she says of the early years at the new medical school.

Mr. Crane, who lived for a time on a boat moored in East Brunswick, "ran a relaxed department and was very supportive of his students," she says. "It was a time of great promise with a top-notch faculty."

After he retired, in 1986, he and his wife, Laura Jane Crane, built horse farms in New Jersey and Tennessee, and he largely disappeared from academic life.

Eleven months before his death, Mr. Crane was interviewed at his Tennessee farm by Martin Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Society, as part of a "Living History of Physiology" series.

The retired researcher, who cooked dinner for his guest before their talk, "was a very charming man," Mr. Frank says.

In the interview, Mr. Crane expressed frustration that a cloud still hovered over the origins of the theory he had dedicated his career to.

"He made significant contributions to our understanding of co-transport. Whether or not he was the first, scientists will determine," Mr. Frank says.

At the end of the interview, he asked Mr. Crane what advice he'd give young scientists.

After a pause, Mr. Crane answered: "Work hard, focus, don't fear making a mistake, pay attention to the possibility that you could be right, although most frequently you'll be wrong, and for that, you'll need a lot of resistance to frustration."