Alumnus shares story of Professor Frank Gurd and the Harbor Seals

I don’t know if the IU Historian heard of the time IU donated two young harbor seals to the Indy Zoo.

I was a graduate student in Dr. Frank R. N. Gurd’s lab (T.E. Hugli, PhD chemistry ’68) in 1967 when he left for a speaking engagement and asked me to take care of any shipment from his contact in Alaska.

As the radio guru Paul Harvey would say ‘now the rest of the story.’

Gurd’s lab had a major effort in characterizing a muscle protein called myoglobin that carries oxygen from blood to the tissue. This protein is abundant in diving mammals, particularly whales, dolphins, porpoises, and seals. We were working on myoglobin from the sperm whale because it has the highest level of this muscle protein. Frank’s contact in Alaska was also sending him tissue samples from other diving mammals that were kept for later studies in a rented freezer locker in an ice plant in downtown Bloomington. I was the grad student who controlled the key to the freezer (that is another story).

Therefore, in the Summer of 1967 when Frank was leaving on his trip he asked me to take care of any shipment from Alaska. Frank’s secretary got an urgent call one morning from the airport in Indianapolis asking someone to come immediately and retrieve these two harbor seals that were causing chaos at the airport. Our Alaska contact had never sent live animals before!

I convinced the maintenance workers to loan me a white IU pickup and drove to the airport where there were two young harbor seals in cages on the tarmac causing widespread disruption at the arrival area. I now had to decide what to do with these animals. If I took them back to Bloomington I would have to kill them and harvest the meat for storage. Being young animals there would not have been very much tissue to harvest, and anyone seeing me butcher two harbor seals might become upset.

A possible option might be to donate these animals to the zoo, if they were prepared to take them. I finally found someone of authority at the zoo and was surprised to learn how welcome my offer was and how highly they valued these animals. There was an unoccupied pool enclosure just perfect for our young seals. Once they had accepted these animals to my great relief, they asked what I wanted in return. They said that we could name the seals, and I suggested the plaque could read Frank and Ruth. Dr. Ruth Gurd was also faculty in the chemistry department. They asked what else they could do for the donation of these valued animals. I asked if they would send us tissue samples should any of their animals like a hippo or alligator died. We might use these tissues because they also contain significant myoglobin. Therefore, I could tell Frank about the zoo’s offer of these futures samples so he might forgive me for giving his valuable seals away.

Once Frank returned and heard the story of the seals he seemed to agree with my actions. What I did not tell him was that I named the seals after he and his wife, because at the time I thought it amusing. Several weeks later Frank came in the lab and told me he had taken his son Charles to the zoo on the weekend. I knew I was caught, and then he told me one of the seals had died. I immediately asked whether it was Frank or Ruth. He said in a rather agitated voice that it was Frank and went back to his office. We never spoke of the seals ever again.

I wonder if the Ice Plant still exists in Bloomington, and if one of the lockers might contain a number of large chunks of very dark meat!

Thought you might enjoy this story! Be sure to watch your grad students carefully, they often undertake questionable activities outside the lab.