Digital Collections

Oral history interview with Elkan Blout

  • 1991-May-30 (First session)
  • 2002-Sep-13 (Second session)
  • 2002-Nov-22 (Third session)

Oral history interview with Elkan Blout

  • 1991-May-30 (First session)
  • 2002-Sep-13 (Second session)
  • 2002-Nov-22 (Third session)

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.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 64 pages
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewers

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 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.

Institutional location

Oral history number 0263

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • July 02, 1919
  • New York , New York, United States
  • December 20, 2006
  • Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts, United States


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

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

Children's Hospital (Boston, Mass.)

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

Harvard 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 (U.S.)

  • 1980 to 1990 Treasurer


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

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PDF — 479 KB

The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

9 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads