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Emil L. Smith

  • Born: July 5, 1911, New York, New York
  • Died: May 31, 2009

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0096
Interview Dates: June 19, 1991 and March 17, 1994
Location: University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California
Interviewer: James J. Bohning
No. of pages: 133
Minutes: 240
Sponsor: American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

  Abstract of Interview

Emil 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 U.S. 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.


1931 B.S., Biology, Columbia University
1937 Ph.D., Zoology, Columbia University

  Professional Experience

Columbia University

1931 - 1934 Teaching assistant, Zoology Department

Columbia University

1934 - 1936 Teaching assistant, Biophysics

Columbia University

1936 - 1938 Instructor, Biophysics

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow

1938 - 1939 Molteno Institute, Cambridge University (with David Keilin)

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow

1939 - 1940 Yale University and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (with Hubert B. Vickery)

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow

1940 - 1942 Fellow, Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (with Max Bergmann)

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow

1942 - 1946 Senior Biochemist and Biophysicist, E. R. Squibb and Sons

University of Utah, College of Medicine

1946 - 1950 Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Professor of Medicine

University of Utah, College of Medicine

1950 - 1963 Professor of Biochemistry, Research Professor of Medicine, and Head of the Laboratory for the Study of Hereditary and Metabolic Disorders, Biochemical Section

University of Utah, College of Medicine

1958 - 1959 Acting Chairman, Department of Biochemistry

University of California, Los Angeles

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

University of California, Los Angeles

1979 Professor Emeritus


1961 Distinguished Service Alumni Award, Columbia Universty
1962 Member, National Academy of Sciences
1964 Utah Award, American Chemical Society
1965 Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1973 Member, American Philosophical Society
1982 Foreign Member, Academy of Sciences, USSR
1985 Fellow, UCLA School of Medicine
1987 Stein-Moore Award, The Protein Society

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family Background and Childhood in New York 1

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 9

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 27

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

Rockefeller Institute 33

Colleagues. U.S. entry into World War II. Responsibilities and assignments.

E. R. Squibb & Sons 39

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

University of Utah 43

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.

Retirement 57

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

Peptidase Research 65

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 75

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 84

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

Subtilisin Research 88

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

Histone Research 91

Influence of James Bonner. Colleagues.

Consultation with Industry 94

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

Glutamate Dehydrogenase Research 98

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

Other Activities 100

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

Notes 115

Index 119

  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.

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