Classmates from 1954 recall Dr. David Sherwood’s gentle heart, and in a scientific twist, his career research may be beneficial to the organ.
For the past 40 years, Sherwood has been an international leader in the reproductive biology research on the hormone relaxin, which plays an important role in lactation and shorter labor in pigs and rats. The hormone’s physiological role in humans is to be determined.
However, the latest research shows that relaxin in humans dilates vessels and tissue within the body, such is the case with the heart.
“I was working with the hope to make labor easier for women and it may end up helping a male live longer because of an effect on the heart,” Sherwood, 77, said. “Sometimes we do work and it’s so hard to know and predict where new knowledge will take it.”
The 1954 graduate of Portage High School discovered his important niche as a scientist, college professor, published researcher and featured lecturer. For breakthroughs in the field of reproductive biology, Sherwood will be inducted in to the Portage High School Hall of Fame on July 27.
“He has done an outstanding job in the field of academia, a very brilliant, brilliant man. And he was such a nice, young man in school. A very nice, quiet fellow,” said Nona (Grotzke) Smith, classmate.
A classy guy
The oldest of four siblings, Sherwood went by his middle name and not the family name of Orrin. His dad Robert worked at the Weyenberg Shoe Factory and his mom Myrna was a homemaker. Robert died in 1950 and the family sustained on two years of government welfare to keep them a float.
“My perception was — although I was acutely aware we were living paycheck to paycheck — that most of my friends’ fathers worked in railroad and shoe factory, so I really do feel that I had a really rich childhood,” Sherwood said.
Robert “Butch” Wheeler, a childhood friend, lived close to Sherwood and his parents worked in the shoe factory. The two boxed in high school with Sherwood’s fighting weight of 92 pounds. He also played basketball.
“He came from a poorer background, just like myself and other classmates. He really was a very, very nice, quiet guy,” Wheeler said. “He led a hard life.”
Although he lacked self-esteem, Sherwood said, he was involved in several singing clubs, football, the school newspaper, the yearbook staff, basketball and senior class president.
“You never heard him say anything bad about anybody, very polite and respectful. And I don’t think he ever spoke out of turn in class,” Smith said.
Sherwood said he learned from his mom that you don’t need to attend a class in order to be classy.
“Behavior was something very important to her. I went on to be a professor and researcher, but mom didn’t have a high school diploma, so there wasn’t much emphasis on school. It was more on behaving yourself and respecting others,” he said.
No longer a city kid
In 1952, Myrna was set up on a date with a bachelor farmer named Royal Mielke. They both enjoyed dancing, later married and relocated the family to a Caledonia farm.
The city kid was moving to the country, Sherwood said, and it was transformative. He was grateful to Mielke for taking the family on and Sherwood worked the farm to demonstrate it.
“I worked hard because I felt an appreciation, or obligation, but I really poured myself in to it. And watching (cows) give birth I was always fascinated ... you become quite keenly aware that life had a beginning and life had an end,” he said.
Sherwood graduated UW-Whitewater in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in science. He was employed as a science teacher in New Richmond, Wis., but within weeks Sherwood was called for active duty with the Wisconsin National Guard. As a second lieutenant at Fort Lewis, Wash., he served as an infantry platoon leader for 10 months during the Berlin Crisis.
Sherwood returned to teach science for a year, but he said there was another path he was itching to take. His wife, Julie, was also a teacher and the two had a “heart to heart” about Sherwood attending graduate school.
“As a high school teacher I just felt that for 30 years not going to a deeper level (of science) might not be for me,” he said.
In 1963, Sherwood enrolled in the Department of Zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to delve in to training in reproductive endocrinology (medicine that identifies and treats infertility in males and females) and biochemistry (the study of chemical processes within, and relating to, living organisms.)
For six years, Sherwood worked toward isolating two large protein hormones produced by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain that control the male and female gonads.
“I found that as I applied myself I had good success. At first it was so novel to me, but found that once you start discovering things others haven’t found before you get turned on by it,” Sherwood said.
At the time, the two largest hormones in the body (Follicle-stimulating and Lutenizing) had not been isolated to a highly purified state until Sherwood. His procedure was conducted from pituitary glands of sheep.
The purpose was two-fold: the curiosity of what the hormone does to understand how the body functions and to utilize it for clinical purposes. For example, Sherwood was isolating these for women who had trouble ovulating.
The breakthrough led to an invitation for Sherwood to present his findings on these hormones to a scientific audience in Belgium. In 1967, Sherwood received a master’s degree with a zoology major and biochemistry minor from UW-Madison. Two years later, he received a Ph.D. in the same fields in the same university.
From 1969 to 1973, Sherwood worked as the senior endocrinologist at Swiss Pharmaceutical company CIBA, now called Novartis, to isolate the reproductive hormone relaxin. It’s a hormone made in large quantities within ovaries during pregnancy. Sherwood said he was intrigued to isolate it because it was discovered in the zoology department at UW-Madison in 1926. His work revealed that its structure is similar to the structure of insulin, however, the project was costly and dropped from the company.
For 37 years, Sherwood was a professor of physiology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Urbana-Champaign. He continued research on relaxin’s purpose in pregnant pigs and rats prepared their bodies for labor and to nurse their young.
“It’s very little used and made in females. It’s physiological role in humans is not well-established yet,” Sherwood said.
Professor Ted Golos, School of Veterinary Medicine UW-Madison, was a member of Sherwood’s lab from 1979 to 1984 when he earned his Ph.D. Golos wrote about his experiences with Sherwood to the Daily Register.
“Dr. Sherwood at that time had a reputation among the graduate students in the department as very serious and demanding. His graduate work on the biochemistry of pituitary hormones gave him an appreciation of precise and exacting work, and he worked to instill an appreciation of that rigor in his students,” Golos wrote. “He also strove to create a research group identity for his students, by opening his home for lab parties, organizing group dinners at conferences, and setting a model for his students on how to foster a positive lab group dynamic despite the stress of a scientific career.”
Sherwood served as primary mentor to more than a dozen Ph.D. students; his research published more than 100 times not including chapters in various scientific journals and abstracts; he’s been a featured lecturer 23 times; and Sherwood was invited to 65 seminars so far. Currently, he’s a professor emeritus teaching at no cost where he retired in 2010.
Although the role of relaxin for female reproduction is not yet solidified, Sherwood said, new functions of the hormone have been detected.
“Relaxin causes a dilation of blood vessels and not confined to the reproductive tract. It could increase blood flow for people with heart failure,” he said. “If the hormone were ultimately useful clinically it would be very satisfying.”
Sherwood’s work on the hormonal regulation in reproductive systems caught attention from his Alma matter and he received an Outstanding Young Alumni Award from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 1971; the National Institute of Health provided a Research Career Development Award from 1976 to 1981; and a Fogarty Senior International Fellowship working at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich from 1989 to 1990.
While Sherwood exercises his mind, he doesn’t let the body have a break. For more than 35 years, Sherwood has conditioned for running and cycling. He qualified and ran the Boston Marathon three times; the most recent in 2001, Sherwood had the fastest time besting 52 men in the category of 65 and older. He has also participated in each of the week-long Wisconsin bike rides; and the couple participate in national and international bike tours. They have two children, David and Steven, and are also grandparents.
Sherwood said the PHS Hall of Fame award means a great deal to him.
“It just felt wonderful and the feeling washed over me and it will last. My wife and I spent our whole careers to public institutions and so one of the things I really care a great deal about is public education, so this award really means something,” he said.
Boiled down, there are two reasons that Sherwood will be inducted to the PHS Hall of Fame.
“A good brain and a good heart,” Wheeler said.
HALL OF FAME
Inductees: into the 2013 Portage High School Hall of Fame class are Laverne Griffin, PHS 1946; the 1973 state champion boys curling team, Geoff Goodland, John Kerr, Jim Watson, Mark Benedict, Tim Pape and coach Russ Gerstenkorn; Cheryl Voight, PHS 1977; Vickie Raymond, PHS 1979.
The event: A banquet will be held July 27 at Dino’s Restaurant. The event begins at 5:30.
Tickets to the PHS Hall of Fame Banquet are $25 each and can be purchased at the Portage Community School District administration building at 305 E. Slifer St., or checks can be mailed to GPYEF Inc., P.O. Box 872, Portage, 53901.
Golf: The 10th annual PHS Hall of Fame Golf Outing Fundraiser will be held at 8 a.m. July 27 at Portage Country Club. The outing helps raise additional funds for the hall of fame plaques and supports Greater Portage Youth Education Inc., which sponsors the Hall of Fame.