Elkan R. Blout

Born: July 2, 1919 | New York , NY, US
Died: Wednesday, December 20, 2006 | Cuttyhunk Island, MA, US

Elkan R. Blout attended DeWitt Clinton High School, in the Bronx, earning marks that were high enough to skip three grades. He was still too young to attend college when he graduated, so he enrolled in the Philips Exeter Academy. After a year at Exeter, Blout attended Princeton University, becoming one of only twelve Jewish students accepted in 1935. As a Jewish student, Blout struggled against discrimination from both the University and the students. In 1942, Blout received his PhD in chemistry from Columbia University. He then accepted a fellowship at Harvard University, where he worked with Louis Feiser and R. B. Woodward. After a year, Edwin H. Land offered Blout a position at the Polaroid Company. At Polaroid, he helped develop the instant photographic process and the color translating microscope. At the same time, he received a research grant to study synthetic polypeptides, and established a spectroscopy laboratory at Children's Hospital of Boston. In 1961, Blout left Polaroid for more academic pursuits at Harvard Medical School. In 1991, Blout became the senior science advisor for the Food and Drug Administration. 

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0263
No. of pages: 64
Minutes: 311

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning and Arnold Thackray
30 May 1991, 13 September and 22 November 2002
Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Abstract of Interview

Elkan R. Blout begins the interview with a description of his family and childhood. Growing up in Manhattan as an only child, Blout was cared for by his parents, aunts, and uncles. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School, in the Bronx, earning marks that were high enough to skip three grades. Blout was still too young to attend college when he graduated, so he enrolled in the Philips Exeter Academy. The school was tough both scholastically and socially, but he made it through by attending his classes regularly, and playing bridge. After a year at Exeter, Blout attended Princeton University, becoming one of only twelve Jewish students accepted in 1935. As a Jewish student, Blout struggled against discrimination from both the University and the students. He graduated in 1939, and married Joan E. Dreyfus that same year. In 1942, Blout received his PhD in chemistry from Columbia University. He then accepted a fellowship at Harvard University, where he worked with Louis Feiser and R. B. Woodward. After a year, Edwin H. Land offered Blout a position at the Polaroid Company. At Polaroid, he helped develop the instant photographic process and the color translating microscope. At the same time, he received a research grant to study synthetic polypeptides, and established a spectroscopy laboratory at Children's Hospital of Boston. In 1961, Blout left Polaroid for more academic pursuits at Harvard Medical School. During his long, fruitful relationship with Harvard University, Blout has done much to improve both Harvard's Medical School and Harvard's School of Public Health. In 1984, Blout divorced Joan Dreyfus and married Gail Ferris. In 1991, Blout became the senior science advisor for the Food and Drug Administration. Blout concludes the interview by expressing gratitude for the John Philips Award, which he was awarded in 1998. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1939 Princeton University BA Chemistry
1942 Columbia University PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

Columbia University

1939 to 1942
Research Assistant

Harvard University

1942 to 1943
Research Fellow in Chemistry

Polaroid Corporation

1943 to 1962
Chemist, Research Division
1948 to 1958
Associate Director of Research
1958 to 1962
Vice President and General Manager of Resarch

Boston Children's Hospital

1950 to 1962
Research Associate, The Children's Cancer Research Foundation

Harvard Medical School

1950 to 1952
Research Associate in Pathology
1956 to 1960
Research Associate in Pathology
1960 to 1962
Lecturer in Biophysics
1962 to 1964
Professor of Biological Chemistry
1964 to 1990
Edward S. Harkness Professor of Biological Chemistry
1965 to 1969
Chairman, Department of Biological Chemistry
1990 to 2017
Edward S. Harkness Professor of Biological Chemistry, Emeritus

Harvard University School of Public Health

1978 to 1989
Dean for Academic Affairs
1986 to 1988
Chairman, Department of Environmental Science and Physiology
1987 to 1990
Director, Division of Biological Sciences

National Academy of Sciences

1980 to 1990
Treasurer

Honors

Year(s) Award
1942

National Research Council Fellow, Harvard University

1954

Fellow, New York Academy of Sciences

1955

Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

1958

Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science

1962

A. M. (honorary), Harvard University

1963

Fellow, Optical Society of America

1969

Member, National Academy of Sciences

1970

Class of 1939 Achievement Award, Princeton University

1976

DSc (honorary), Loyola University

1976

Foreign Member, USSR Academy of Sciences

1979

Member, Institute of Medicine

1982

Honor Scroll Award, Massachusetts Institute of Chemists, Division of the American Institute of Chemists

1990

National Medal of Science

1990

Elkan R. Blout Professorship in the Biological Sciences, Harvard University Medical School and School of Public Health

1991

Ralph F. Hirschmann Award in Peptide Chemistry, American Chemical Society

Table of Contents

Childhood, Education, and Marriage
1

Growing up as an only child in Manhattan during the Great Depression. Attending P. S. 52 elementary school and DeWitt Clinton High School. The Phillips Exeter Academy. John Hogg. Princeton University. Running the Campus Sales Agency. Marriage in 1939 to Joan E. Dreyfus. Post-graduate work at Columbia University. NRC Fellowship. Robert C. Elderfield. Working with the Beckman DU. Louis F. Fieser. Robert B. Woodward. William Doering.

Career at Polaroid
13

Quinine work. Jim Sprague and Sharp & Dohme. Edwin H. "Din" Land. Description of early Polaroid Company. Doering and Columbia University. Robert D. Conrad. The color-translating microscope. Julius Silver and the board of trustees. Success with black and white instant photography. Din presses for instant color photography. Howard G. Rogers. Experimenting with dyes. Maurice Pechet. Sidney Farber. Working at Children's Hospital Medical Center. Polypeptide work. Jack Dreyfus. William J. McCune. As vice president and a millionaire. Harvard University. Living with Sidney Farber.

From Polaroid to the American Academy
21

Working to create instant-color film. Polaroid's patent suit against Eastman Kodak. Shock research. As full professor at Harvard. Election to NAS. The CHON Corporation. The Bay Biochemical Research non-profit organization. Pierre Crabbé. As dean of the School of Public Health. Howard H. Hiatt. NAS treasurer and international affairs committee. Frank Press. Samuel O. Thier. Paul Samuelson. NAS study of immune deficiency diseases. The National Research Council. Bruce Alberts. The American Academy's lack of purpose.

The Industry and the Arts
33

Derek Bok. Barry Bloom. Enanta Pharmaceuticals, Inc. The Novirex Company. The IOCD and the IIVD. The Affymax Corporation. Alejandro Zaffaroni. Founding the Journal of Biopolymers. Working as a CBR trustee. The Marine Protein Corporation. The Big Drop with Carl Djerassi. I Remember Mama. Consulting for the Monsanto-Washington University research agreement. Arnold Levine.

Reflections on Life and Career
40

Norman Simmons. Ephraim K. Katzir. Linus C. Pauling. Polaroid's recent decline. Stanley Calderwood. Elkan Blout's current relationship with William McCune. Edwin Land and the American Academy.

Conclusion
45

Marriage to Joan Dreyfus, and their three children. Vacationing in Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts. Nomad and Peptide. Separation and divorce. Marrying Gail Ferris. Adopting Darya. Living in Cambridge and Marion. David Kessler. The positives and negatives of working for the FDA. Hobbies. The Elkan Blout Foundation. Winning the John Phillips Award.

Notes
57
Index
58

About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was CHF’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.  Bohning passed away in September 2011.

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.