Penn State mourns John Almquist, pioneering dairy physiologist

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Faculty, staff and alumni of the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences are mourning the loss of one of the preeminent researchers in the college's long history. John O. Almquist, professor emeritus of dairy physiology, died Sept. 6 in his home at the Village at Penn State. He was 94.

"Penn State, the college and the dairy science community have lost a true giant in the field," said Richard Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. "John Almquist's research on dairy physiology and reproduction not only advanced our scientific knowledge and understanding, but it led to new methods and technologies that were adopted worldwide and remain industry standards today.

"We mourn with his friends and family, but we celebrate his contributions, the influence of which will be felt for generations."

Almquist was known internationally for his work in artificial insemination and reproductive physiology of cattle. He authored more than 165 research papers in scientific and professional journals and proceedings, with much of his early work dealing with semen preservation and maximizing the usefulness of genetically superior sires through artificial insemination.

"Dr. Almquist was an extraordinary scientist who did much of the groundbreaking research that launched the artificial insemination (AI) industry," said Terry Etherton, Distinguished Professor of Animal Nutrition and head of the Department of Animal Science. "Over the past decades, the economic impact of this to the dairy industry has been remarkable. Moreover, the advent of AI dramatically accelerated progress in genetic selection. Beyond this, John was a dynamic and engaging individual who mentored scores of students and colleagues, which is a truly noble legacy."

Born in Nebraska, Almquist spent his childhood on a dairy farm in western New York, where he participated in 4-H and eventually became a cattle judge at county fairs. After graduating from high school in 1937, he received a bachelor's degree from Cornell University and a master's degree from Purdue University.

He came to Penn State in 1944 to earn his doctorate and subsequently joined the faculty, spearheading a dairy cattle breeding research program focusing on artificial insemination and dairy cattle fertility. In 1949, he led the establishment of the Dairy Breeding Research Center at Penn State.

One of Almquist's first experiments, in 1946, involved coloring of bull semen to make positive breed identifications easier. In his first groundbreaking studies, he discovered that adding antibiotics to diluted bull semen controlled bacterial growth, reduced the early death of embryos and increased fertility. These breakthroughs were universally adopted by artificial insemination associations.

In 1951, Almquist pioneered the use of milk as a medium to extend the life of bull semen. In 1954, he and his staff developed techniques for freezing bull semen in glass ampules, and by the 1960s, breeding associations had converted their entire inventories to frozen semen in ampules. Almquist's discoveries helped breeding associations offer producers their choice of sires at much lower costs.

In the early 1970s, he developed new antibiotic combinations that controlled bacterial growth without compromising fertility. He also established that the thawing rate was much more important to sperm survival than the freezing rate.

He conducted other research that showed how behavioral preparation of bulls significantly increased the number of sperm that can be harvested for use in artificial insemination.

As a result of his pioneering research in artificial insemination, Almquist in 1981 received the Wolf Prize -- considered to be the agricultural science equivalent of a Nobel Prize. Many techniques Almquist developed for cattle also have been applied to other species, including humans.

Almquist retired as professor emeritus in 1982. In 1999, the research center he established was rededicated as the John O. Almquist Dairy Breeding Research Center.

A historical plaque describing his research is located on the University Park campus on Curtin Road in front of the Borland Building, the former home of the University Creamery. Cherry Quist, a creamery ice cream flavor, is named in his honor.

Among his other honors and awards were honorary lifetime membership to the Association of Applied Animal Andrology; the National Association of Animal Breeders Research Award; the 1998 Penn State Distinguished Alumnus Award; the 1998 National Award for Agricultural Excellence from the National Agri-Marketing Association; and the 1999 Pioneer Award from the National Dairy Shrine, the "Hall of Fame" of the dairy industry.

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Last Updated September 11, 2015