Everyone who has eaten canned, frozen, refrigerated or dehydrated foods--and thrived on them--owes a debt to Samuel Cate Prescott, Class of 1894, the first dean of science at MIT and a pioneer food technologist.
Prescott, only 25 at the time, worked on solving spoilage in canned food with W. Lyman Underwood, the grandson of America's first food canner. Underwood came to Prescott with the problem, and Prescott taught him bacteriology and provided him with the scientific basis for the safe canned food supply the world takes for granted today.
Before his monumental work, manufacturing canned food was risky business. Up to 50 percent of the packs experienced unpredictable spoilage for unknown reasons. It was not understood before Prescott's work that canned foods must not just be cooked, but they must be heated to temperatures above 212 degrees Fahrenheit and held at 250 degrees for specific times, depending on the nature of the product and the size of the container.
Samuel A. Goldblith, professor of food science emeritus at MIT, describes that discovery in a biography covering the life, work and times of his mentor, Samuel Cate Prescott (1872-1962), whom he describes as a renaissance man whose relaxation was fishing and writing poetry. He wrote many beautiful verses, Professor Goldblith said, but was paid only for one. The poem was about a student who takes a boat out on a lake, sits and thinks, away from student worries. It was published by The Tech as the winner of a contest and the prize was $10.
Professor Goldblith's book is the first volume in a series, Pioneers in Food Science, published under the auspices of the Phi Tau Sigma Honorary Society by the Food and Nutrition Press of Trumbull, CT, a company headed by an MIT alumnus, John J. O'Neil `56, SM, nutrition and food science.
Besides pointing out our debt to Prescott and Underwood, Professor Goldblith, a man who knows a thing or two about eleemosynary activities (he is former vice president for resource development at MIT) says of Prescott's work on canning:
"This was done on a `pro bono publico basis'-neither Samuel Prescott nor Lyman Underwood nor the Wm. Underwood Company took out any patents-an act of philanthropy almost unknown today."
Professor Goldblith presented a copy of the book last week to Dr. Paul E. Gray, chairman of the MIT Corporation.
Prescott was considered one of the foremost, if not the leading, basic and applied bacteriologist of his day, Professor Goldblith writes. His research interests covered many fields, from the chemistry of coffee to diseases of the banana plant to refrigerated and frozen foods. Prescott's work on the chemistry of coffee continues to be a definitive contribution.
"His pioneering work on water supplies, on sewage purification, and in public health education led him to become president of the American Public Health Association," Professor Goldblith relates.
He was the second president from MIT of the Society of American Bacteriologists. The first and founding president of the society was William Thompson Sedgwick, the first professor of biology at MIT. (The third MIT faculty member to become president of the society was the late Salvador Luria, Nobel Laureate and MIT professor of biology.)
Prescott's enthusiasm for MIT is reflected in his election in 1927, while a professor, as president of the MIT Alumni Association.
Two years later he was elected chairman of the MIT faculty and in 1932 he was appointed MIT's first dean of science by then MIT President Karl Taylor Compton, who at the time was revamping the Institute's entire administration, Professor Goldblith reports.
Prescott is the author of the book, When MIT Was Boston Tech, an account of MIT's early days until it moved from Boston to Cambridge in 1916. Despite his major formative role in MIT's history, and typical of his modesty, Prescott mentions himself only once in that book which he began writing when he was 76. He completed and published it when he was 82.
Professor Goldblith writes, "I am proud that I grew from a student of his, to a colleague, and to a friendship, wherein he signed notes to me as `his fellow technologist,' and his last note, reproduced herein, as `your affectionate old crony, The Elder Sam.'"
A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 33).