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Dr. Thomas Matney ’49

Doctor of Life

By Donna Parker

Dr. Thomas Matney received two bachelor degrees and a master’s degree from Trinity University – a BS ’48 in biology with a minor in chemistry, a BA’49 in chemistry with minors in physics and mathematics, and an MS ’51 in biology. But Trinity gave him so much more than three degrees.

To put all of this in perspective, Dr. Matney recalls that most of World War II occurred while he was in high school in Devine, just south of San Antonio.  His freshman year began in the fall of ’41 and by December, the country was at war.  After graduating in May ’45, as he was preparing to enter Trinity, atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and World War II came to an end. Peace, he remembers, was punctuated with a polio epidemic and the spring classes in ’46 were dismissed early.  The Korean War began when he started his master’s program and after graduating in August of ’51, Dr. Matney received a direct commission in the U.S Army Chemical Corps. Two months later, he reported for active duty as a 2nd lieutenant to Fort Hood in Anniston, Ala.

Dr. Matney says his classes at Trinity contained numerous World War II veterans who added a “serious spin” that allowed professors to show how good they really were. For example, chemist William McGavock’s test advice included this gem: when encountering a question you don’t understand, rewrite it your own words, and like magic, the intent might appear.  Earl Cooper Smith taught him experimental confidence in a quantitative organic lab:  it had taken two lab periods to complete the analysis of one unknown compound. At that rate, it would take three years to analyze the remaining 14 unknown compounds to complete the course. Before an exam, Dr. Smith wrote his favorite slogan on the blackboard: “Lucidity is in itself akin to high and severe work.” Dorothy Rees in mathematics hired him to tutor a student who had previously failed an algebra course. He discovered that you don’t know a body of knowledge until you teach it:  the student received a B in the course and an A- on the final. Besides Jacob Uhrich in biology, who really whetted his appetite for genetics, there was Tom Sergeant, who offered a course in bacteriology in his first semester at Trinityand hired Dr. Matney to be the laboratory assistant. Because he felt bacterial populations were so easy to manipulate, that was the true beginning of his professional career.

Dr. Matney did his thesis research work as an employee of the Southwest Foundation for Research and Education. He focused on reproduction in cattle and demonstrated that before the fetal pancreas starts producing insulin and fetal glycogen appears in the liver in the beginning of the second trimester, the fetus is protected from hypo- or hyperglycemic shock by a large sugar reserve in the amniotic fluid.  He was involved in three additional research projects that resulted in publications in scientific journals. 

One of these – with Dr. Roy Mefford Jr. – involved bacteria. A mentor, Dr. Mefford was a major in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps and helped him apply for the direct commission.  Dr. Mefford felt Dr. Matney’s scientific background from Trinity and the published research experiences at the Foundation not only made the Direct Commission a good bet but would also result in his being stationed at the Fort Detrick Biological Warfare Laboratories.  “When you get there look up Werner Braun. He has just written the first textbook on ‘Bacterial Genetics.’ One more thing – notice Glenda Oglesby. She was the most popular girl graduate student in the whole Bacteriology Department (at the University of Texas at Austin.)” 

“Talk about a clean sweep,” jokes this octogenarian. “I got the direct commission; I was stationed at Fort Detrick; I met Dr. Werner Braun, in fact he helped me publish my first solo authored paper; I married Glenda Oglesby and we went on to raise three children; Glenda and I returned to her Bacteriology Department at UT Austin where I got my PhD under the supervision of Dr. Orville Wyss.  Glenda passed away in 1990.”

“Upon receipt of my PhD in 1958, I returned to Fort Detrick for four years.  It was a wonderful place to work if you wanted to do a lot of research. You did have to do research which was of interest to the laboratories, but in the case of bacterial genetics, almost anything you chose was acceptable.  The labs were very well equipped.  When you came to work you changed into scrubs and wore lab shoes, not unlike going into surgery.  When you left you discarded the scrubs and took a shower. Whenever possible, basic work was done with avirulent mutants of pathogenic bacteria.  Viruses were studied in a separate building.  The use of hoods with glove ports and rubber gloves are a two way street: obviously, they keep operators from getting contaminated, but I also never had an experiment that got contaminated from an airborne source.  The hoods spoiled you.”

“It’s been said that biological warfare is public health in reverse.  Some 80 percent of the research is defense with only 20 percent being offense.  That means most of the research is in developing vaccines and other means of protecting populations. Biological warfare involving crop agents really illustrates this point.  Many smut or rust resistant grains have been developed in the name of biological warfare, but these have been distributed all over the world to improve crop yields.”

Dr. Matney moved to Houston to join the Biology Department of the M.D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute in September of 1962.  He became the first associate dean of the newly formed UT Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and he is now a Distinguished Professor Emeritus. He is also a member of the M.D. Anderson Steering Committee for Alumni and Faculty.

Dr. Matney, who received the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1988 for his professional contributions to higher education and research in the biological and biochemical sciences, says Trinity was responsible for giving him the courage of his own convictions.

“Trinity’s religion department was so good, it turned me into a Unitarian,” laughs the good doctor.  “It led me to challenge traditional religious theology.  We don’t know how the Universe was created, but we do know that science will eventually understand it.”

Dr. Matney, who spends his free weekends in his late wife’s small hometown of Goldthwaite, loves to hang out in the small barber shop, where good old-fashioned conversation still passes the time.  A fantastic storyteller himself, one can only imagine what tall tales he’s shared with the ranchers who frequent the business.  

“Actually, they told me retirement would be all about fishing, but it’s not that at all.  Sometime around 2002 they stopped paying me for doing the things I’m still doing. Something went terribly wrong.”

“It’s a tribute to Tom Sergeant, department of biology, my Trinity professor in 1946 in bacteriology.  I was his lab assistant and that led directly to my becoming a microbial geneticist.  At 80, I’m still on the course Tom set for me those 63 years ago.”

You may e-mail Dr. Matney at nmatney@hotmail.com.