Robert Borkenstein, 89; Inventor of Breathalyzer Intoxication Tester


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.

Loren Reuter, an attorney who was Borkenstein's course director in the 1980s, once wondered how gold plating was done. "For the next hour, he sat there and explained it to me in great detail. You would never go see him unless you had an hour or so to spend," Reuter recalled.

When Borkenstein finally pursued his bachelor's degree in the late 1950s, he chose a double major in police administration and French. He never studied for an advanced degree, but ultimately was awarded two honorary doctorates, including an LL.D., or doctor of laws, from Indiana University.

A Francophile, he was passionate about Paris and traveled extensively with his wife, Marjorie, an author of children's books, who died in 1998. They had no children.

He was keen on Gilbert and Sullivan, loved literature, and was an excellent bartender with eclectic tastes in wine and liquor.

But he practiced what he preached. "He certainly wasn't a teetotaler," said Reuter. "But I never saw him abuse it, either. He knew it helped people enjoy things."

Borkenstein held the patent for the Breathalyzer for most of his life, finally selling the rights several years ago to a Colorado company that markets the machine.

"If we can make life better simply by controlling alcohol, that's a very small price to pay," Borkenstein once told an interviewer. "My whole life's work has been spent trying to make life better for people."

He invented many other gadgets. In 1970, he introduced a coin-operated Breathalyzer that could be installed in cocktail lounges. For 25 cents, a person could blow into a straw that popped out of the machine.

A reading of .04 or less would prompt the message "Be a safe driver." A reading between .05 and .09 blinked out "Be a good walker." A score of .10 or higher: "You're a passenger."

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