Campus & Community

Elkan Blout, former HSPH academic affairs dean, 87

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Elkan Blout, a former dean for academic affairs at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), National Medal of Science winner, and a leading contributor to the development of instant film, died on Dec. 20, 2006, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The cause was pneumonia. He was 87.

Blout was the Edward S. Harkness Professor of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology Emeritus at Harvard Medical School (HMS). His career was marked by excellence in multiple disciplines. His early achievements in the lab were matched by his later leadership as an administrator.

His pathbreaking work in chemistry helped illuminate the large, complex structure of proteins, critical to understanding their function. It is for this work, as well as his “devotion to the scientific enterprise of this nation” that he received the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor, from President George H.W. Bush on Nov. 13, 1990.

“Elkan Blout possessed rare gifts of scholarship, pragmatism, leadership, and vision from which our School, our institution, and the nation’s larger scientific community benefited greatly,” said HSPH Dean Barry Bloom in a press release.

Blout received a doctorate in chemistry from Columbia University in 1942 and, after a year as a research fellow in chemistry at Harvard, was recruited by Edwin Land to the research division of the newly created Polaroid Corp. He rose to become associate director of research and then vice president and general manager of research, heading the team that developed instant color film. He held more than 50 patents in the field and led the team of chemists that synthesized more than 5,000 compounds in search of the key ingredients of the Polaroid color process.

In 1950, Blout reapplied his research skills to the academic world, becoming a research associate in pathology at HMS. He continued to serve at Polaroid through 1962, even as he began to investigate the chemistry and biochemistry of proteins in his research at HMS and Children’s Hospital.

Blout shifted his efforts to academia full time in 1962, becoming professor of biological chemistry at HMS and chairing the Department of Biological Chemistry from 1965 to 1969.

He became the dean for academic affairs at HSPH in 1978, holding the post until 1989. He also established the Office for Continuing Education at the School in 1982 and served as chairman of the Department of Environmental Science and Physiology from 1986 to 1988.

In 1986 he helped create HSPH’s Division of Biological Sciences, bringing all of the lab sciences together under one administration, serving as the division’s director from 1987 through 1991. Shortly before his retirement from Harvard in 1991, two professorships were created in Blout’s honor, one at HSPH and one at HMS, “to recognize Dr. Blout’s remarkable contributions at different stages of his career to the faculties of both schools.”

He was named senior adviser for science to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1991, helping develop the agency’s scientific capabilities and working on scientific strategic planning.

Blout received many honors and awards, including honorary degrees from Harvard University in 1962 and Loyola University in 1976. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, for which he served as treasurer from 1992 to 1998, and a member of the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, for which he served as treasurer from 1980 to 1992, overseeing a fivefold increase in the organization’s endowment. He was also an elected foreign member of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

Blout is survived by his wife, Gail, and his children, James, Susan Merry Lausch, William, and Darya.

– HSPH Office of Communications