Emil L. Smith

Born: July 5, 1911 | New York, NY, US
Died: May 31, 2009 | Los Angeles, CA, US

Emil Smith begins by discussing his undergraduate study of biology at Columbia University. He received a Guggenheim fellowship to Cambridge University until the outbreak of World War II. Smith accepted a position at the University of Utah and later University of California, Los Angeles. Smith describes his research interests: peptidases, immunoglobulins, cytochromes, subtilisin, histones, and glutamate dehydrogenases. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0096
No. of pages: 131
Minutes: 423

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
19 June 1991 and 17 March 1994
University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California

Abstract of Interview

Emil L. Smith begins this interview by discussing his family background and childhood in New York City. During high school, he learned to play the saxophone and later earned money for college by playing concerts on weekends and holidays. At Columbia University he studied biology under Selig Hecht. In 1938, he received a Guggenheim fellowship to Cambridge University where he worked in David Keilin's laboratory. The outbreak of World War II in Europe forced Smith to return to the US where he worked at Yale, the Rockefeller Institute, and later, E. R. Squibb & Sons. Smith accepted a position at the University of Utah and was a faculty member in both the departments of biochemistry and medicine. He was later Chairman of Biological Chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine. Smith concludes the first interview by describing his activities after retirement.

In the second interview, Smith describes his research interests, which have included work with peptidases, immunoglobulins, cytochromes, subtilisin, histones, and glutamate dehydrogenases. Smith discusses his involvement with the International Union of Biochemists and American Chemical Society. He concludes this interview with a recollection of his meeting with Chou En-lai concerning scientific exchange between the United States and China. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1931 Columbia University BS Biology
1937 Columbia University PhD Zoology

Professional Experience

Columbia University

1931 to 1934
Teaching Assistant, Zoology Department
1934 to 1936
Teaching Assistant, Biophysics
1936 to 1938
Instructor, Biophysics

University of Cambridge

1938 to 1939
John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow, Molteno Institute

Yale University

1939 to 1940
John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow

Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station

1939 to 1940
John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow

Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research

1940 to 1942

University of Utah

1946 to 1950
Associate Professor of Biochemistry and of Medicine
1950 to 1963
Professor of Biochemistry, Research Professor of Medicine, and Head, Biochemical Section, Laboratory for the Study of Hereditary and Metabolic Disorders
1958 to 1959
Acting Chairman, Department of Biochemistry

University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine

1963 to 1979
Professor and Chairman, School of Medicine, Department of Biological Chemistry

E. R. Squibb & Sons

1942 to 1946
Senior Biochemist and Biophysicist

University of California, Los Angeles

1979 to 1996
Professor Emeritus


Year(s) Award

Distinguished Service Alumni Award, Columbia Universty


Member, National Academy of Sciences


Utah Award, American Chemical Society


Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences


Member, American Philosophical Society


Foreign Member, Academy of Sciences, USSR


Fellow, UCLA School of Medicine


Stein-Moore Award, The Protein Society

Table of Contents

Family Background and Childhood in New York

Parents emigrate from Russia, meet in New York and marry. Father opens tailor shops. Early education. Interest in radio. Learns to play saxophone.

Columbia University

Biology and chemistry classes. Accepts assistantship in biology. Selig Hecht. Doctoral thesis. Presents paper in Leningrad and tour Europe with wife. Collaboration with Simon Shlaer on Warburg's experiments. Begins work on chlorophyll-protein complex.

Cambridge University

History of Molteno Institute and parasitology. David Keilin. World War II. Returns to Columbia to work with Pickels.

Rockefeller Institute

Colleagues. US entry into World War II. Responsibilities and assignments.

E. R. Squibb & Sons

Assists with penicillin research. Frequently asked to solve industry-related problems. Tillman Gerlough.

University of Utah

University receives appropriation for muscular dystrophy research. Douglas Brown. Progress in biochemistry and protein chemistry. Serves on first NIH committee on training grants. Makes rounds with medical students. Relationship between biochemistry and medicine.


Authors several textbooks. Serves on University of Utah committees. Children. Principles of Biochemistry.

Peptidase Research

Work on the role of metal ions in hydrolytic enzyme reactions. Work on side chain reactions. Colleagues. Financial support. Changes in experimental methods in biochemistry. Role of protein in genetics. Nobel Prize politics.

Immunogobulin Research

Work on purification of cow milk antibodies. Immunological experiments during World War II. Decline of interest in intermediary metabolism. Laboratory staff and set-up. Colleagues. Principles of Biochemistry.

Cytochrome Research

Develops interest in Keilin's laboratory. Collaboration with Emmanuel Margoliash. Determines sequence of cytochrome c. Origin of interest in evolution.

Subtilisin Research

Collaboration with Hiroshi Matsubara on cytochrome c leads to new area of study. Importance of subtilisin to the manufacture of synthetic enzymes.

Histone Research

Influence of James Bonner. Colleagues.

Consultation with Industry

Squibb—general biochemistry. Proctor & Gamble—subtilisin. Commercial preparations. History of Japanese fermentation industry.

Glutamate Dehydrogenase Research

Reasons for beginning work. Chicken enzyme. Neurospora enzyme. Colleagues and students.

Other Activities

International Union of Biochemists. Biochemistry section of ACS. Plans international congress. Meets Chou En-lai to discuss scientific exchange between the US and China. Children.


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.