John H. Brewer, 92, research director for pharmaceutical firm

April 13, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John H. Brewer, inventor and former research director for Hynson, Westcott and Dunning, died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at Genesis Eldercare in Severna Park. He was 92 and lived in Gibson Island.

Born in Gorman, Texas, the son of an oil field worker and rancher, Dr. Brewer spent his early years on the family ranch and rode a horse daily to a one-room schoolhouse.

His interest in inventions began at an early age. He was 12 years old and living in Abilene, Texas, when he built the town's first radio in 1921, family members said.

"It was a crystal set, and he set it up in the town's drugstore. People came and gathered to listen to the news and baseball games," said his daughter, Elizabeth Brewer Butler of Gibson Island.

A year later, Dr. Brewer devised a method in which the blade of a table saw could be rotated to make an angle cut. The design is used today.

"He didn't know a thing about patents and just sent the plans to DeWalt Tool Co. They patented the new design and out of the goodness of their hearts, they sent him every tool that they made. However, the lesson he learned there was to patent his ideas in the future," Mrs. Butler said.

After graduating from high school, Dr. Brewer earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in 1931 in chemistry from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene. After working for two years in the state medical laboratory in Austin, he enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

While attending medical school, he invented the Brewer Pipetting Machine, which enabled lab technicians to safely fill vials with liquids. Earlier, technicians risked illness or even death while manually sucking liquids up tubes and then transferring them to other test tubes.

"It was a machine, and as it rotated, it pulled a syringe of liquid and then discharged it into a test tube. It was a lot faster and, of course, much safer," said Dr. Theodore R. Carski, a Baltimore physician and medical researcher.

Deciding that he wanted a career in research, Dr. Brewer left medical school and switched to the Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a doctorate in medical bacteriology in 1938.

An expert in anaerobic microbiology, in which bacteria is grown in oxygen-free conditions, he also was a research director for Hynson, Westcott and Dunning, a Baltimore pharmaceutical manufacturer at the southeast corner of Charles and Chase streets near the Belvedere Hotel.

"He really did advance the art of growing anaerobic bacteria. His role was very significant," said Dr. Carski, whose father, Theodore J. Carski, a former clinical chemist, established the Baltimore Biological Laboratory.

Dr. Brewer also was associated with the Baltimore Biological Laboratory, which manufactured many of his inventions. Both companies were acquired by Becton Dickinson during the 1950s. Dr. Brewer continued as director of research until retiring in 1968.

In the 1950s, Dr. Brewer invented the RPR Syphilis Card, in which a drop of blood placed on a card containing ground carbon would quickly determine whether a patient had the disease.

"Because it was so simple, it became the test of choice. Every state health department in the country and around the world uses it," Dr. Carski said.

Also considered an expert in sterilization, Dr. Brewer was asked by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to pioneer the sterilization of spacecraft, including the first Viking mission to Mars. He also was a charter member of the Planetary Quarantine Commission. Dr. Carski described him as being "somewhat reserved and quiet" yet a "presence that demanded respect."

Daniel L. Allgeier, Dr. Brewer's former research assistant, marveled at his ability in the lab.

"He could take a piece of plastic, string and several other ordinary things, put them together and make something that would be of use in the laboratory," said Mr. Allgeier, who retired as director of marketing for Becton Dickinson. "He made very practical applications of scientific principles and was the kind of man you never forget."

Mr. Brewer held about 80 patents and was also an accomplished woodworker and silversmith. He spent many hours in his workshop crafting reproductions of 18th-century silver. He was also an avid motorcyclist and at age 65 rode from Texas to the top of Pikes Peak.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. today at St. Christopher By-The-Sea Church on Gibson Island.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Brewer is survived by his wife of 70 years, the former Evelyn R. Harvey of Severna Park; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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