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Burroughs, Wise

Published onJul 30, 2021
Burroughs, Wise

(December 19, 1911 - December 16, 1986)

Quick Facts

Burroughs was a professor of animal science and discoverer of feedlot growth-booster diethylstilbestrol. The patent was one of the ISU Research Foundation’s greatest all-time earnings.



Wise Burroughs was born December 19, 1911 to Flora and Otho Burroughs in Tipton, Iowa. Burroughs attended Blackburn College for his bachelors in 1934 and received his PhD in 1939 from the University of Illinois. After graduating, he worked at the experiment station at Ohio State University from 1939-1951.

Burroughs joined the faculty in 1951, coming to Iowa State University (ISU) from Ohio State University as just another animal nutritionist. He became a full professor in 1954 and distinguished professor in 1974. He was honored as professor emeritus in 1983.

His work for Iowa State focused on understanding the relationship between host animals and the microbes in their rumen. His development of artificial rumen made in-vitro studies of rumen function possible, allowing researchers to evaluate nutritional requirements of bacteria separate from the animal. In Solon A. Ewing and Allen. H. Trenkle’s memorial of Burroughs, they said his “ability to communicate complex ideas and research” was what made Burroughs great. He could often see what others couldn’t in research, leading to four U.S. patents, including the creation of diethylstilbestrol.

At one time an estimated 85-90% of all beef cattle being fed for slaughter in the US were treated with diethylstilbestrol, a “miracle” growth-boosting substance that came from the ISU research laboratory of Wise Burroughs. His product resulted in faster, cheaper gains for market beeves, with treated animals gaining 12% faster while consuming 8-10% less feed.

Burroughs’ discover of “stilbestrol” won him wide acclaim as well as a patent that brought him $433,571 in royalties during its 17 year life. At the same time stilbestrol became one of the ISU Research Foundation’s all-time big money-makers tallying $3.9 million in royalties paid by Eli Lilly Co. The Indiana firm sold nearly $70 million worth of this synthetic estrogen product that was given to beef cattle, market lambs, and broiler chickens during the stilbestrol heyday.

The announcement of his discovery was delivered to a packed audience at the annual ISU cattle feeders’ “Hey Day” Program in 1954. The message that warm, fall day was just what the cattle-feeding world wanted to hear – an exciting new development promised to enhance chances for profit-producing beef. Slaughter cattle prices had recently slumped from record Korean War highs and red-ink margins for cattle feeders were commonplace in 1954.

The stilbestrol feeding program came at a time when Iowans led the nation in the marketing of grain-fed beef animals with 4 million head yearly. However, this changed in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the advent of giant feedlots in the High Plains, and Iowa fell from first to fifth in grain-fed cattle, trailing Texas, Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado.

Then government tests with laboratory animals linked Burroughs’ stilbestrol with cancer and this feedlot additive was banned by the U.S. FDA in June 1979. The government did, however, allow continued use of stilbestrol to treat special health problems of women. The effort to ban the use of stilbestrol in food production had begun seven years before the substance was finally outlawed. Defenders of stilbestrol fought the ban to the end, noting that no problems existed with “normal” amounts of the compound were used and arguing that only when abnormally huge amounts were fed did serious health questions arise.

For beef producers, the introduction of stilbestrol was representative of a hope for the same kind of technological breakthroughs farmers saw with hybrid seed corn. During that period, Iowa State saw an increased number of animal nutrition students at both the graduate and under-graduate levels. Burroughs’ work would lead him to become a distinguished professor in 1971 and Emeritus Distinguished Professor in 1982.

Burroughs married Helen Stevenson in 1937; they would have two sons and one daughter. He is honored in the Iowa Cattlemen’s Hall of Fame and as a Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor, 1974.

Later in his life a trust was established for a lecture in his name at the university. Burroughs died December 16, 1986 in Ames after a lengthy illness and he is interred next to his wife Helen (1911-1999) in the Iowa State University Cemetery. An endowment is named in his honor to provide for a grad student in ruminant research.

Selections of text republished with permission from Iowans who made a difference: 150 years of agricultural progress by Don Muhm and Virginia Wadsley, published by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, 1996.

Selected Sources

Wise Burroughs Papers, RS 09/01/02, University Archives, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames, Iowa.

Trenkle, Alan. “Wise Burroughs” in The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 124, Issue 3, March 1994, Pages 317–322.

History of the Animal Science Department, Iowa State University:

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