ECS Executive Director recently sat down with co-author of the seminal Alkaline Storage Batteries and globally respected battery and biomedical researcher, Alvin J. Salkind, to take a look back on his tremendously influential career in the sciences.
We are sad to say that Dr. Salkind has passed away since the recording of this interview. Take a look at some of the remarkable ways he impacted ECS.
Five Questions for Alvin Salkind
“My nature is curiosity and The Electrochemical Society has gone a long way to satisfy my curiosity.”
What was your early life like?
My grandparents on one side came from a town that is now Lithuania around 1860. We’re not sure of the time because before Ellis Island there’s no central records and Ellis Island was 1898. There were nine kids born and the board of health of New York City knows the birth dates of all the kids. That’s on my father’s side. My mother’s side was Austrian and we always have some Irish blood so we’re sort of mixed mongrels. My father was born in Manhattan and they finally succeeded in buying a little house in Brooklyn which had a special program for what they called “gifted children.” I don’t know how gifted I was, but I wound up in it and made a lot of good friends. Then I went to the local high school that you could walk to, and then eventually at 17 to college. Then I enlisted in the Navy and I hung around long enough to get credit for the year. I came back, finished my degree, went to graduate school part-time, wound up working for a little dry cell company in Greenwich Village and then Sonotone, and then came back for a doctoral degree. I’ve enjoyed life and I think I worked hard.
How did you get involved in science?
I was lucky. I had very good teachers and I appreciated them. I guess the family always respected education, whether it was formal or informal. I guess my mother was one of the first women of her age to take any college courses at all. What’s interesting is that an older brother of my father’s went to Australia when he was 21 in 1915 and now I have four generations of Australian born cousins, all of which seem to be scientific of physicians. I guess it’s just a family interest.
What made you move toward electrochemistry?
My master’s thesis was on separators and membranes for batteries. I was offered a job by a small dry cell company, which would let me continue to go to grad school part time. I moved from them to Sonotone and then from there to Electric Storage Battery, always interested in research. I’m a curious person, and that’s good. Then when Electric Storage Battery was taken over by International Nickle in Canada, and after a few years they decided to close the Yardley facility is when I switched to teaching full-time. I wound up with two half-time jobs on the same Rutgers campus. One running a biomedical group in the Department of Surgery and tenured as a professor surgery, and I’m not a physician at all. The other being the associate dean of the school of engineering.
Tell us about your experience in the biomedical side of things.
As part of diversification, I got interested in battery powered medical devices. This diversification procedure. I had the opportunity to help somebody, a famous cardiac physician by the name of Seymour Furman. I helped him by designing things like transtelephonic monitoring system, which everybody uses now for monitoring patients with pacers and defibrillators. I got interested in heart packing and defibrillation: how do you design a catheter to be efficient? He was very appreciative and we became best friends. Somehow somebody decided I should join the college of cardiology because I was giving papers. To my surprise, they decided to make me a fellow rather than a member. I met Jim McKenzie who was starting up the surgery department of what was then Rutgers’ med school and Jim convinced me that I should come and give lectures one afternoon a week. The then president of the Electric Storage Battery Company, Fred Port, thought that would be a very good thing to do. Out of that, when I was looking for a job, surgery was quick to offer me a position, but they only had half a line on the state budget. To my surprise I became a professor of surgery—that’s the only title they knew—tenured in the department.
What’s in store for the future of science?
I think I see much more efficient devices. If we start with lighting, the first light came from fire. Edison perfected the incandescent bulb. We went to fluorescence for efficiency. Now we’re at light emitting diodes, which are very efficient and run cool. What has changed is the need for a grid. There are thousands of villages with no grid and no power and no lights, and they can be satisfied with a one and a half or three volt LEDS, you don’t need 110 to get lighting. I think the world is going electrochemical, or certainly electrical and becoming more efficient. I worry a little about pollution and what we’re doing, but we can solve that electrochemically also.