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Robert Borkenstein, 89; Inventor of Breathalyzer Intoxication Tester

August 18, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert F. Borkenstein, whose Breathalyzer has helped snare millions of intoxicated drivers in the United States and around the world, died Aug. 10 at his home in Bloomington, Ind.

He was 89 and had been in declining health after a series of strokes.

Borkenstein was a professor of forensic studies at Indiana University for three decades, until his retirement in the late 1980s. He helped establish a class on alcohol and highway safety that became a requirement for law enforcement and forensic specialists in many jurisdictions. The university now calls it "The Borkenstein Course."

He also led several influential research projects, the best known of which was the Grand Rapids Study, in 1963-64. That study established that a blood alcohol level of .08 could impair driving. The legal standard for intoxication now applied in California and other states is .08, lower by half than the benchmark used by law enforcement before the study.

But Borkenstein was best known as the inventor of the Breathalyzer, the first practical instrument for determining blood alcohol in the field.

Although it no longer dominates the market, it was the standard for so many years that it earned its own dictionary entry, alongside such household names as Teflon and Kleenex.

"A trademark used for a device that detects and measures alcohol in expired air," says the American Heritage Dictionary in the entry for Borkenstein's invention.

"He was famous for good applied science," said Hillard Trubitt, a retired Indiana University professor who worked under Borkenstein for 25 years.

Borkenstein was also a sought-after expert on the polygraph and administered more than 15,000 lie detection tests during his career.

A native of Fort Wayne, Ind., Borkenstein began working as a photographer for the Indiana State Police in 1936. He demonstrated a natural talent in science that quickly led him to become the director of the state police laboratory, even though he lacked a college degree.

While serving as lab director, he began an association with Indiana University, where he collaborated with toxicology professor Rolla N. Harger on the Drunkometer, the first accurate instrument for testing the breath to determine blood alcohol.

Before its invention in 1938, law enforcement relied on blood tests for scientific evidence of intoxication.

The Drunkometer took advantage of the fact that alcohol consumed by a person enters the bloodstream, goes through the lungs and is exhaled. The concentration of alcohol in deep lung air is related to the level of alcohol in the blood.

Harger's device required a person suspected of excessive drinking to blow into a balloon, which was transported to a laboratory for analysis.

The suspect's breath was passed through a fluid containing a chemical reagent, which changed color, according to the level of alcohol present.

The fluid's hue then had to be compared with a chart color-coded to the chemical reactions triggered by various levels of blood alcohol.

It was a time-consuming and cumbersome process whose results relied heavily on the visual acuity of the person analyzing the test.

"The Drunkometer was magnificent technology for the time," said Trubitt. "But you couldn't take it out on the road. And an awful lot of variables could go wrong."

Borkenstein wanted to "automate that process and compact it in such a way that you didn't require an entire laboratory to do this thing," Trubitt said.

What he came up with, in 1954, was the Breathalyzer, a compound of the words breath, alcohol and analyzer. Instead of balloons that could slip out of an officer's hand, the Breathalyzer used a rubber hose connected to a vial that captured the person's breath. It also incorporated a meter to perform the color comparisons that, with the Drunkometer, had to be done by eye.

The Breathalyzer was marketed in 1958 and quickly became a success because it was portable and reliable, removed significant human error, and didn't require a PhD to operate.

It was routinely installed in police cars, and developed such a strong reputation for accuracy that some suspects took desperate measures to foil it: A Canadian man was reported to have eaten his underwear in the back of a patrol car while waiting for a Breathalyzer test to be administered, hoping the cotton fabric would absorb the alcohol in his system. According to a newspaper report, he was acquitted, but only after several rows of courtroom spectators had to be ushered out for laughing so hard that they were in tears.

Borkenstein joined the faculty of Indiana University in 1958 after 22 years as head of the state police lab. He later became chairman of the forensic studies department and director of the university's Center for Studies of Law in Action.

He was known as a generous mentor with a wide-ranging intelligence for whom no question was unworthy of an answer.

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