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Elkan R. Blout

Elkan Blout

CHF Collections

  • Born: July 2, 1919, New York, New York
  • Died: December 20, 2006, Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0263
Interview Dates: May 30, 1991 and September 13, 2002 and November 22, 2002
Locations: Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts; Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts; and Cambridge, Massachusetts
Interviewers: James J. Bohning and Arnold Thackray
No. of pages: 73
Minutes: 311
Sponsor: Rollin M. Gerstacker Foundation
Rollin M. Gerstacker Foundation

  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 Ph.D. 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.


1939 B.A., Chemistry, Princeton University
1942 Ph.D., Chemistry, Columbia University

  Professional Experience

Columbia University

1939 - 1942 Research Assistant

Harvard University

1942 - 1943 Research Fellow in Chemistry

Polaroid Corporation

1943 - 1962 Chemist, Research Division

Polaroid Corporation

1948 - 1958 Associate Director of Research

Polaroid Corporation

1958 - 1962 Vice President and General Manager of Research

The Children's Hospital Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts

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

Harvard Medical School

1950 - 1952 Research Associate in Pathology

Harvard Medical School

1956 - 1960 Research Associate in Pathology

Harvard Medical School

1960 - 1962 Lecturer in Biophysics

Harvard Medical School

1962 - 1964 Professor of Biological Chemistry

Harvard Medical School

1964 - 1990 Edward S. Harkness Professor of Biological Chemistry

Harvard Medical School

1965 - 1969 Chairman, Department of Biological Chemistry

Harvard Medical School

1990 - present Edward S. Harkness Professor of Biological Chemistry, Emeritus

Harvard School of Public Health

1978 - 1989 Dean for Academic Affairs

Harvard School of Public Health

1986 - 1988 Chairman, Department of Environmental Science and Physiology

Harvard School of Public Health

1987 - 1990 Director, Division of Biological Sciences

National Academy of Science

1980 - 1990 Treasurer


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 D.Sc. (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

Title and Description Page

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 Interviewers

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning is professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he was 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 has 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 the foundation’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. He is currently a visiting research scientist and CESAR Fellow at Lehigh University. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.

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 M.A. and Ph.D. 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.

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