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Goldblith book brings life to food science history at MIT

A new book notes in its preface that "MIT, its faculty, students and staff, have played a vital role in the development of food preservation."

It goes on to recount the "story of food technology, nutrition and biotechnology, together with ancillary work on ecology, environmental sciences and toxicology, from the founding of the Institute to 1988, when the Department of Applied Biological Sciences was closed down." It also focuses "on some remarkable people who were important in the development of food, nutrition and applied biology at MIT and helped to make this Institute great."

Although he is too modest to include himself in that roll call, the author, Dr. Samuel A. Goldblith, is one of those people and is able to give a special perspective to the history, which he has titled Of Microbes and Molecules: Food Technology, Nutrition and Applied Biology at M.I.T. 1873-1988 (Food and Nutrition Press, Inc., Trumbull, CT, 1995).

Dr. Goldblith is professor emeritus of food science emeritus and former vice president of resource development.

"While this volume began as an History of the Department of Food Technology at MIT," he writes, "it soon became evident that to understand the development, much less the birth of the department, one needed to study its antecedents, since departments simply do not rise ex-nihilo. This perforce led to the study of the origin and development of the biological sciences at MIT, where the research and teaching in industrial biology was an important part of the Department of Biology."

Explaining why he took it upon himself to write the book, Dr. Goldblith said there were "two fundamental questions to be resolved, early on.

"Should such a book be written now by someone who has participated in an extensive portion of its history, or should it be written some years hence, when all the individuals concerned with the department in recent years have passed on? It would then be authored by someone who would depend solely on historical references and archives and perhaps some personal interviews.

"The downside of the former, of course, is the possibility of personal bias entering into the book, and the fact that some of the cast of personae are still here and to a greater or lesser extent still active, and might well take offense at some of the judgments/comments or lack therefore about an individual, an action, etc. So the author, a priori, must have broad shoulders. The present author may have many faults, but speaking out in a truthful and forceful manner is not considered to be one of them.

"The positive side of this book being written now and by the present author is that he knew many of the personae herein mentioned, as well as many of the teachers, since departed. In an institution such as MIT, there is much historical fact that is recorded in writing. However, these are written in factual and abbreviated form without discussion (often heated). Additionally, there is a great deal of lore, as well, which gets passed down orally, perhaps inaccurately or slightly embellished. The advantage of writing history contemporaneously is that it can, and should, include the lore, properly noted as such."

*Following a summary chapter on MIT in its early years in Boston, when students numbered as low as 15 in 1865 and the original faculty numbered 10, the book is divided into several eras, each focused around either the dominant personality of the area, or the head of the department where food research and teaching were mainly carried out.

The next four chapters concentrate on Ellen Swallow (Richards), the first woman admitted to MIT and the first female member of the instructing staff, although she was never appointed to the faculty. She also was the first member of the staff to teach, do research and publish in the areas of water, air and food at the Institute.

Also prominently mentioned are William Thompson Sedgwick, founder of the Department of Biology; Samuel Cate Prescott, pioneer food technologist, bacteriologist and industrial microbiologist, and second head of what became the Department of Biology and Public Health; Francis O. Schmitt, head of the renamed Department of Biology and Biological Engineering; Nevin S. Scrimshaw, a medical doctor as well as PhD who was head of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science (as it came to be called) for 18 years (1961-79) and became a widely-known authority on international nutrition; and Gerald N. Wogan, a renowned toxicologist who headed the Department of Applied Biological Sciences when it was dissolved.

Looking at the closing, Dr. Goldblith says "it is painfully obvious that a private research university such as MIT, with the cutting down of federal grant support in the food and nutrition area, was not able to compete with the state universities in the recent past in these fields with the Hatch Grant funds and state funding for the state universities."

He notes that some food-related research still goes on at MIT, "but it is of a different nature with different foci and is carried on in different departments." He adds that toxicology, biotechnology, biochemical engineering, food microbiology and perhaps a few other subjects are still viable programs at the Institute today.

Dr. Goldblith adds that the department grew from the two broad-based applied subjects of nutrition and food science to embrace toxicology, nutritional animal pathology, neuro-endocrine regulation, clinical nutrition, biotechnology, gastroenterology, thyroid metabolism and more.

"One cannot help but ask," he writes, "whether a new Department of Applied Biological Sciences would be organized once again at MIT to help solve the problem of feeding an additional two plus billion inhabitants on this earth, plus the attendant waste disposal problems, etc."

Professor Goldblith has been associated with MIT for nearly 60 years. A native of Lawrence, MA, he entered MIT as a freshman in 1936 and received the SB four years later. Commissioned as Army lieutenant through MIT's Reserve Officer Training Corps, he was called to active duty in 1941 and sent to join the forces of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. He survived the infamous Bataan Death March and spent 41 months as a prisoner of war. He was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry at Bataan.

He returned to MIT to receive the SM in food technology in 1947 and the PhD in 1949.

He became a research associate in 1949, assistant professor in 1952, associate professor in 1955 and professor in 1959. He was appointed Underwood-Prescott Professor of Food Science in 1972, headed the Institute's Industrial Liaison Program for four years, and became MIT vice president for resource development and principal administrative officer for MIT's then $225 million Leadership Campaign in 1978. He stepped down after seven years to return to teaching and research.

He served twice as executive officer of the Department of Food Technology and was acting head of the department from 1959 to 1961.

As a food scientist, Dr. Goldblith won international recognition as an authority in food preservation through freeze dehydration and radiation processing as well as on the effects of microwave processing of foods. He is the author or co-author of more then 300 journal articles and the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of several major scientific books dealing with food preservation, food processing and human nutrition.

Despite his wartime experiences, Professor Goldblith throughout his career has sought to promote closer ties between US and Japanese scientists and engineers. In recognition of his efforts, the Emperor of Japan in 1984 awarded Dr. Goldblith that nation's Second Class of the Order of the Sacred Treasurer, a high honor that was bestowed in ceremonies at the Japanese consulate in Boston.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 8, 1995.

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