But Samuel Cate Prescott did more for canning than any person other than Nicholas Appert, who pioneered the process. (In 1943, Prescott won the Institute of Food Technologists’ Nicholas Appert Award, however, linking the two men forever in history.) Prescott and his colleague William Underwood provided the understanding of the role of biology in the thermal preservation of foods—the very foundation of a discipline we now proudly call food science.
Prescott’s history was meticulously documented in 1993 by the late Sam Goldblith in a Phi Tau Sigma Pioneers in Food Science volume. The story was condensed into a single page by Genevieve Wanucha, a 2009 graduate of MIT, in the March/April 2009 issue of the MIT alumni periodical, Technology Review. Her piece was reproduced in the November 2009 issue of Food Technology.
A Breakthrough in Food Preservation
In 1894, Samuel Cate Prescott graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then popularly known as “Boston Tech” or just “Tech.” Mere months later, Willam Lyman Underwood (yes, of deviled ham and sardine fame), came to Tech and to young Sam Prescott with an awful problem of swollen, smelly canned clams. Had the two but known of the hazard of anaerobic pathogenic bacterial spores, would they have embarked on their search for the source of this anomaly that bedeviled the product?
In just a few months of research, the two investigators tracked the source to microorganisms (confirming Pasteur’s earlier accomplishment) and in particular to heat-resistant bacteria that succumbed mainly to steam under pressure. What was art and craft was transformed into science—or in this semantic rhetoric—technology.
The “two happy clams” carried their work beyond bivalves to canned corn and had their findings published in the March 1898 issue of Technology Quarterly, complete with photographs. The pair’s research results for canned corn validated the universality of low-acid thermal processing and thus begat all other low-acid canned foods and retorting technologies, which spawned the concepts of high-acid canned foods and their hot filling, double-seam steel ends with sealing compound to displace lead solder closures and a major American—and world—industry called canning, stunning for its turn-of-the-century science. The results demonstrated to canners that highly heat-resistant bacterial spores were the cause of many of their previously unexplained spoilages, and that wet heat at temperatures well above water’s boiling point was required to obviate this hazard. Retorting became standard practice for low-acid foods, defined by the clammy duo as pH above 4.5, and boiling water temperatures became standard for high-acid foods such as tomatoes and fruit.
Laying the Groundwork for New Technologies
The race for the American consumer’s pantry was on, with internally coated steel pressure vessels called cans cooked in pressure vessels called retorts, supported on the foundation of Underwood-Prescott findings. The dynamic duo continued their relationship until Underwood’s death in 1929. Their efforts further enhanced knowledge and understanding of thermal processing and served as the basis for the later development of aseptic canning by colleagues Bill Martin and Olin Ball, mathematical prediction models by Carl Stumbo and Irving Pflug, and retort pouches by Wilbur Gould.
The pair’s record did not receive the same accolades as Boston contemporaries Babe Ruth or politician John Francis “Honey” Fitzgerald, but entire populations benefitted as safe, nutritious vegetables, meats, seafood, and dairy foods filled the pantry shelves when fresh foods were not readily available except during harvest seasons. One might argue that because of their food preservation technologies, the entire American agricultural and industrial systems were disrupted because food could be saved and consumers no longer had to till their own soil to feed themselves. Sam did not take credit for any such revolutions as he went on about his quiet work of making our world a much better place.
But what did Prescott foment with his endless probing? Did he encourage Clarence Birdseye to drill down into Arctic ice to develop frozen foods? No record says such, but the two were geographic and chronological contemporaries, and I personally saw the two of them together in cordial conversation in later years, and so you may draw your own conclusions.
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But—and this is fact—friends Prescott and Ball did some long-distance collaborating on the concept of sterilizing the product and package independently, and assembly under sterile conditions in what Ball called aseptic packaging.
Beyond these accomplishments, Major Prescott served during World War I, assisting the Quartermaster Corps with feeding our troops at home and in France. And, between the wars, he performed research on coffee to begin to dissect its attributes to help preserve its flavor and so much more, but we must digress into perhaps his most important contributions to us all.
The Roots of Food Technology
After many years in various capacities at MIT, Dean (of Science) Prescott pushed and pulled Tech to form an industrial biology department, which finally in 1946 became known as the Department of Food Technology—probably the first such department in the world. In 1937, McGraw-Hill published a book titled Food Technology authored by Samuel C. Prescott and Bernard E. Proctor, the classic “Prescott and Proctor”—no further descriptor required. Clearly it was a busy year for the dean. An aged, yellowing copy of this, my first (and also for many others, their first) food technology textbook, resides on a hallowed site on my bookshelf. And later, there was yet another classic text, the very first document on bioscience and biotechnology, Industrial Microbiology, written with another MIT colleague, Cecil Dunn. What superb collaborators he selected to produce these seminal works!
The discipline called food technology was founded with the “meeting at MIT” in 1937 co-presided over by MIT President and physicist Karl Compton and Dean Prescott. The official organizational meeting was held in summer 1939, attended by more than 500 persons, including, of course, Dean Prescott, who was central to the discussion. Also shown in the classic photo on the MIT Building 10 steps are his disciple and “surrogate son,” Bernard Proctor, and Bernie’s “surrogate son,” my uncle, Julius Brody. Food technology was first recognized as a profession by the Institute of Food Technologists. Founding father Prescott was elected the first president of IFT.
Did He Ever Retire?
In 1942, Dean Prescott “retired” from MIT to restart his career, still at the Institute, of course. With World War II under way, the military tapped into his vast depth of knowledge on food preservation and packaging to again nourish soldiers and sailors. And he continued to share his wisdom among all of us undergraduate and graduate students in the halls, first of Building 20—the legendary wooden structure in the faraway reaches, and later in the new Building 16, named for benefactor John Dorrance of the Campbell Soup Co. As we entered the new seven-floor edifice each day, a life-size portrait of the dean reminded us of his spiritual and physical presence, and of his legacy to all of us, teacher and student alike.
More importantly, Dean Prescott—by then lovingly referred to just as Dean—wandered the hallways and laboratories to interact with all of us, encouraging and nudging us gently to perform up to his standards, questioning, commenting and speaking with some measure of reverence for our profession.
As a graduate student, I was recipient of the prestigious Underwood Scholarship, funded by and named, of course, for one of “the happy clams.” Not too long after, the Underwood-Prescott lectureships were initiated; they featured all manner of great contributors to our profession—Ball and Al Hersom, among others … all true pioneers, inventors, developers, and enhancers of thermal processing, packaging, and preservation.
The William Underwood Co. honored Dean Prescott shortly before he passed away at nearly 90 years of age by naming its research and development center for him.
IFT honored Dean Prescott by designating a research award in his name. Ah, that all of the recipients past and future could know him personally as a teacher, pioneer, and mentor—and the progenitor of our profession, our institute, and our industry. I would hope that the last few of us who actually knew and adored him—not just as a professional but as a person who loved and honored us all—might pass on the heritage of this great person.
by Aaron L. Brody , Ph.D.
President and CEO, Packaging/Brody Inc., Duluth, Ga., and Adjunct Professor, University of Georgia