Critical Clues from Clams

When William Lyman Underwood (1864-1929) sought advice about swollen cans of food from Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor William T. Sedgwick in late 1895, he planted the seed for research that would become the scientific underpinnings of canned food safety.

The William Underwood Company of Boston, America’s first canning company, was known for its deviled ham and packed a variety of foods using the principles of Nicolas Appert. (Known as “the father of canning,” Appert was a French confectioner who in 1820 discovered that heat and airtight bottles could preserve food; see “The Father of Food Preservation,” Food Quality, February/March 2011.)

However, Underwood, grandson of the company founder, discovered that canned food still frequently spoiled. Armed with swollen, stinking cans of spoiled clams, he collaborated with a promising protégé of Sedgwick’s named Samuel Cate Prescott (1872-1962). Working side by side daily for months, they found that heat-resistant microorganisms survived the food preparation process to cause the spoilage, even after the foods were canned.

Their discovery that the microorganisms could be killed in 10 minutes when boiled at 250 degrees F became a milestone in canned food safety and in Prescott’s career. He later went on to cofound the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), the first body to recognize food science as a profession, and became its first president in 1939. Prescott also won the IFT’s second Nicolas Appert medal in 1943.

Sedgwick was so impressed by the work that he gave the two men credit in 1903 in MIT’s annual report for working out for the “first time the bacteriological aspects of the canning industry. By their investigations, Messrs. Prescott and Underwood have contributed materially to the improvement of the practical processes of canning and preserving foods. Professor Prescott has also discovered, and made known in a series of published papers, a remarkable similarity between the common intestinal bacteria and certain lactic acid bacteria, a discovery of the very first importance in the interpretation of sanitary bacteriological analyses of water and sewage.”

Prescott worked with R.S. Breed on the direct microscope count of milk, an advancement still in use that allows rapid determination of bacterial counts before a milk tanker truck is unloaded. His bacteriological work on food, milk, and water led to his election as president of the Society of American Bacteriologists.

Packaging consultant Aaron L. Brody, in a December 2009 article in the IFT’s Food Technology magazine, wrote about Prescott: “He had no known patents in his name. But Samuel Cate Prescott did more for canning than any person other than Nicolas Appert, who pioneered the process. 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.”

The achievement was made early in Prescott’s career, but he was already proving to be a star in research circles. Underwood’s main interest lay in photography, a skill that proved invaluable in documenting microorganisms during his research with Prescott on time-temperature canning.

Humble Beginnings

Prescott was born the only son of Mary Emily Cate Prescott and Samuel Melcher Prescott on a small farm. Biographer Samuel A. Goldblith, a former professor of food science at MIT and a student of Prescott’s, wrote that Prescott’s formal education started in one-room country schoolhouse in New Hampton, N.H. When he was 15, he served as the “rod man” for a small survey party laying out the border between eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire. At 16, he entered Sanborn Seminary, a prep school in Kingston N.H., and attended the school for two years, graduating in 1890. He was a chemistry major at MIT from 1890-1894 and took a course in bacteriology that “fascinated him, and he wrote his senior research thesis on the subject of ‘Salts as Nutrients for Bacteria,’” Goldblith wrote.

About Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra writes about science, technology, and business for general and specialty news outlets in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, including coverage of the "farm to fork" movement and food safety. She’s been involved in several media startups, and had articles published by The Boston Globe, Reuters, Science magazine, and others. She holds an MS in science journalism from Boston University and a BS in medical writing from University of Pittsburgh. She won numerous journalism fellowships and awards, including the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lori enjoys bicycling, snowshoeing, gardening, and traveling. She lives in the western mountains of Maine.

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