In 1953, AES researchers began investigating a deadly problem called white muscle disease that was killing off large numbers of calves and lambs in central Oregon. A trio of AES researchers—Jim Oldfield, animal scientist; Herb Muth, veterinarian; and Lemar Remmert, agricultural chemist—found the disease was caused by lack of selenium in the feeds given to pregnant cows and ewes. They noted that the suspect alfalfa and clover hays came from areas in central Oregon where the soil was deficient in selenium. This research led to ways to add the trace element to animal feeds, preventing livestock losses that saved ranchers up to $1 million annually.
Beyond these initial benefits, the study stirred much interest in selenium’s effect on heart disease and in the trace element’s role in animal and human nutrition. Phil Whanger, an AES toxicologist, studied possible links between selenium-deficient diets and cardiovascular disease in humans and the possibility that selenium may play a preventive role with several types of cancers.