Elkan Blout dies
National Medal of Science winner helped develop instant color film at Polaroid and create the field of physical biochemistry
Elkan Blout, a biochemist who helped to pioneer instant color film technology, conducted research at the interface between biology and chemistry at a time when few did, and earned the National Medal of Science award for chemistry, died last month at the age of 87. The cause of death was pneumonia.
Blout's varied career included prominent posts at the Polaroid Corporation, Harvard Medical School, and the Food and Drug Administration. "There were multiple careers in Elkan's life," said Lila Gierasch
, one of Blout's former graduate students at Harvard, now distinguished professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "That doesn't surprise those of us who rubbed shoulders with him, because his vision was so broad."
As a young PhD in chemistry, Blout was recruited by Polaroid Corporation founder Edwin Land to act as research chemist and later vice president of research at Polaroid; Blout eventually led the team that developed instant color film.
In 1950, while still at Polaroid, Blout took a research associate position at Harvard Medical School and The Children's Hospital Medical Center. In 1962, he left Polaroid to join Harvard full-time, where he investigated the structural properties of peptides and the principles of protein systems, Gierasch told The Scientist
. To get at a problem, Blout was "willing to deploy any method, from chemical synthesis
to physical spectroscopy," she recalled.
"Now protein folding
and protein aggregation are considered biologically crucial problems," Gierasch said. But nearly fifty years ago, Blout was "working at the biology/chemistry interface before it was popular. It was a really pioneering approach."
, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto, was a postdoc in Blout's lab during the late 1960s. He credits Blout with helping to found the sub-field of physical biochemistry. "It was strictly curiosity-driven research to understand the biology of how these amino acids combine to produce function in proteins," Deber said.
Blout was "highly respected for the quality and rigorousness of his research," but he was also known as a warm and supportive lab head, said his former graduate student Barbara Brodsky
, now a professor of biochemistry at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. "He was relaxed in a place usually so competitive," she said. "Everyone really loved working with him, [and] he fostered a very good feeling wherever he went."
Blout was chair of Harvard Medical School's department of biological chemistry from 1965 until 1969, and in 1978 became the dean for academic affairs at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). Howard Hiatt, then the dean of HSPH, had worked closely with Blout at the medical school and persuaded him to give up his lab to take the position. "He really had a comprehensive view of science and a strong interest in medical education," Hiatt said.
In 1990, Blout was awarded the National Medal of Science for chemistry. The following year he retired from Harvard and was named senior advisor for science to the FDA. In 1992, David Kessler, then the FDA commissioner, told The Scientist
that with Blout's appointment, the agency was "for the first time forging--in a systematic way--links with the academic community to assure ourselves that we are communicating with those working at the cutting edge of science."
Blout was well suited to tackling a variety of endeavors during his career, said his former postdoc Deber. "It wasn't just that he was good at the science. He had that knack of being able to see the big picture, whether it was financial, organizational, or scientific," Deber said. "He was a person whose advice was sought at all levels."
Blout studied chemistry at Princeton and in 1942 earned a PhD from Columbia. He is survived by his wife, Gail, and four children.
Links within this article:
D.A. Fitzgerald and J.S. Guimbellot, "Peptides, made to order," The Scientist
, October 1, 2001.
M.L. Phillips, "Unraveling protein folding," The Scientist
, April 11, 2005.
S. Veggeberg, "Biotech bottleneck: Can support from Bush, FDA speed things up?" The Scientist
, March 30, 1992.