Dr. Harry Salem
Harry Salem, Ph.D., a nationally renowned expert in toxicology and chief scientist for life sciences at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command Chemical & Biological (RDECOM C&B) Center, has been selected as one of the first two inductees into the Center’s Hall of Fame.
“I’m very excited and flattered and honored to even be considered for this Hall of Fame,” Salem said. “I’ve done my best, let’s put it that way. I had a lot of help from some smart people.”
In a career spanning six decades – and still ongoing – Salem focused his work on improving lives through scientific research, whether by developing new cold medicine or a groundbreaking organ on a chip project that’s completely changing scientific research processes.
“Harry is a distinguished scientist and mentor and has been an extremely valuable asset to the warfighter and the nation for a very long time,” said Bob Kristovich, Salem’s supervisor and division chief of toxicology and obscurants. “His contributions are many, but I think his most important legacy will be as a mentor to the next generation of people to enter the CBD community. He has always been willing to share his infectious love of science with younger generations; always willing to take people under his wing and teach them how to be better scientists.”
Kristovich called Salem an innovator, someone who consistently adapted to meet new challenges and forge a new pathway.
“Sometimes scientists tend to get stuck trying to adapt what they know to the problem of the day instead of adapting themselves to new challenges,” he explained. “Harry has always been willing to accept the challenge and learn new things and then utilize that knowledge to solve the many challenges that we consistently face. He was a true innovator, mentor and scientific leader for the scientific community.”
At the RDECOM C&B Center, Salem’s accomplishments are myriad: facilitating accreditations for laboratories, developing safer materials for warfighter uniforms, and helping to start the Center’s research on stem cells, in addition to authoring more than a dozen books and more than 100 academic articles.
Lately, most of his work has centered on stem cells and the “Human on a Chip” program, which he said is “the future of medicine.” The program implants organoids – a collection of cells from a specific organ – into a microchip that enables enhanced monitoring. From these organ chips, researchers can project how a full-sized organ would react to a specific chemical.
“This is where we’re making human organoids,” Salem explained. “You turn the switch and it goes from one chip to another and it circulates. You can then get the read out from what it does to the cells.”
In this research area especially, Salem said he sees work that benefits not just the warfighter but everyone.
“Not only do we help the Soldier, but we help whoever we can,” he said.
That desire to improve the lives of others has long driven Salem’s interest in science. His interest in the field was sparked when his maternal grandmother was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a moment that inspired him to perform research to prevent and cure lung diseases. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Salem studied science and earned a Bachelor of Science in pharmacy in 1953.
At Michigan, there was one specific experiment that captured his interest in pharmacology.
“They put a mouse in a cage with a cat, and the cat pounced on it. Later, they injected the cat with a tranquilizer, and it completely ignored the mouse,” Salem said. “That experiment made me fall in love with pharmacology.”
With his newfound passion, Salem returned home to Canada for graduate school at the University of Toronto, where he studied pharmacology. Earning his doctorate in 1958, Salem went on to work in the pharmaceutical industry, where he played a role in developing the cold medicine NyQuil.
“In those days, we joked, ‘We have NyQuil. Why not DayQuil?” he recalled. “Well, now we do have DayQuil.”
Beyond his work on NyQuil at Vick’s, Salem helped develop contact lenses and a labor induction drug. As a graduate student, he evaluated the original breathalyzer technology.
“I’ve seen it from all sides,” Salem said. “I came here through the circuitous route. I’ve done a lot of things. I was in the pharmaceutical industry, and from there I went to the contract lab business.”
It wasn’t until 1984 that Salem came to Edgewood Arsenal, a move that wasn’t initially intended to be permanent.
“I came here temporarily 35 years ago, and I’m still here,” he laughed, explaining that he initially just wanted to move further east, closer to his native home in Canada.
While Salem is being inducted in the RDECOM C&B Center Hall of Fame, his contributions to the field are ongoing. He still has a handful of research projects and books he’s working on, including one or two he wants to write during retirement.
But at 89, Salem said he’s not sure when retirement will come.
“I haven’t really thought about retiring yet,” Salem said. “I just hope they don’t retire me during the ceremony.”