Campus & Community

Irvin H. Blank, Leader in Dermatology, Dies

4 min read

Irvin H. Blank, a former research fellow at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and physician on the Dermatology Service at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), died in his Belmont home on April 19, at the age of 98.

In a research career spanning more than 75 years, Blank made major contributions to the understanding of the physical and chemical properties of skin and helped to explain the mechanisms of action of many skin medications and cosmetics. He continued his teaching and research activities at MGH well into his 95th year and remained active as a consultant and advisor to the Department of Dermatology at HMS until very recently.

Blank was born on February 20, 1902, in Mount Carmel, Illinois. He trained at the University of Cincinnati where he received a degree in chemical engineering in 1924 and a Ph.D. in bacteriology and mycology in 1928. After a few years as a research chemist in the leather industry, Blank returned to the Department of Leather Research at the University of Cincinnati from 1931 to 1934 as a research associate. From 1934 to 1935 he was a research fellow in botany at Harvard. In 1936 he moved to HMS as a research fellow in dermatology, and in 1938 he became a member of the Dermatology Service at MGH. After a 32-year association with Harvard Medical School, Blank retired as a faculty member in 1968.

He continued to go to his office every day for the next 30 years, adding to a curriculum vitae of nearly 100 publications. He actively joined the research of the MGH Wellman Laboratories of Photomedicine and the Dermatology Clinical Investigations Unit, affording both his keen scientific acumen and the fruits of decades of experience. One of his last scientific publications was a 1987 paper concerning controlled removal of human stratum corneum by pulsed laser treatment, a cutting-edge technology.

During his many years at MGH, Blank contributed enormously to basic and clinical research related to dermatology. He extended skin therapy with topical agents and studied surfactants, skin detergents, bacteriology of the skin, hydration of the skin, contact dermatitis, and percutaneous absorption. In 1959, when presented a Special Award by the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, Blank was described as “the father of moisturizers.” His work formed the scientific foundation for much subsequent work in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.

Blank was a very early member of the Society of Investigative Dermatology, the world’s largest skin research society. He was elected to its Board of Directors in 1958 and became its president in 1964. He was a founding member of the Dermatology Foundation that supports the careers of young researchers and was actively involved as its secretary. He was a life member of the American Academy of Dermatology, the New York Academy of Science, and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Blank was a central contributor to the enormous changes in the conduct of research in dermatology, spanning the period from what has been described as “paleodermatology” to modern molecular biology. He has received many awards and recognitions for his great contributions to scientific thought in dermatology.

Colleagues remember Blank as an intelligent, disciplined, unselfish and thorough investigator who contributed greatly to dermatology in its early years. He worked in the Department of Dermatology, HMS, for 62 years and never lost his childlike curiosity, love of teaching, and commitment to excellence. Blank was a loving man eager to help young investigators in a quiet way that lowered his own profile. Without pomp and circumstance, he had an enormous impact on dermatology, cosmetology, skin pharmaceuticals and our understanding of cutaneous biology.

Blank is survived by two daughters, Joani Blank of Oakland, Calif., and Barbara Blank Hauser of Brookline, Mass. He also leaves three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.