In 1967, Dr. Silliker opened his first laboratory in Chicago Heights, IL, and guided its growth into the largest independent food testing and consulting network in North America. Dr. John H Silliker has been recognized as one of the preeminent US food microbiologists of the 20th century. Read on to learn more about his contributions to the food safety industry.
Dr. Silliker’s Early Years
Born in Canada on June 20, 1922, Dr. Silliker was raised in Hollywood, CA, where he counted a number of future movie stars among his high school classmates. He enrolled in the pre-med program at the University of South California in 1940. Unsure of his career path, he left the learning institution after three years and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Assigned to serve in the prestigious Combat Engineers at Fort Leonard Wood, MO, Dr. Silliker was put to work in the medical department at the base. It was there that he befriended a young scientist, Hiroshi Sugiyama, and was mesmerized by a complex microorganism that would one day stand the food industry on its ear: Salmonella. Dr. Silliker credited Sugiyama, who went on to a distinguished career at the University of Wisconsin’s Food Research Institute, with giving him a crash course on food microbiology. Together, the young soldiers made batches of salmonella antisera in the laboratory. Through a fortuitous stint in army fatigues, Dr. Silliker’s future assumed a decidedly different course.
St. James Hospital
Following an honorable discharge, Dr. Silliker returned to USC and earned a doctorate in microbiology in 1950. Three years later, he landed his first big career break with Chicago-based Swift and Company. After nine years at Swift, he held the position of chief microbiologist and associate director of research. But he yearned to start his own business. At this time, St. James Hospital in south suburban Chicago Heights, IL, was seeking someone with his microbiology background to work in its pathology department. On paper, joining a hospital staff didn’t appear to be a logical step for a man with entrepreneurial ambitions. But as part of his employment, St. James Hospital agreed he could use its lab to moonlight as a food microbiology consultant.
For three years, his consulting business grew steadily. However, a 1965 decree from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which launched warfare on the presence of Salmonella in processed food, placed his days at the hospital on life support.Due to his extensive Salmonella expertise, Dr. Silliker’s small consulting business was soon overrun with samples and the hospital wanted him gone. He rented a 5,000 square foot, two-floor building down the road from the hospital. Silliker Laboratories was incorporated in Chicago Heights, IL, in 1967.
Silliker Laboratories, Inc.
From the brick building, Dr. Silliker took great pride in providing young scientists and local area residents with the opportunity to hone and learn new work skills. The focus on food safety took on greater dimensions in the U.S. following the FDA’s declaration of war on Salmonella. Over the next two decades, Silliker Laboratories opened new operations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, California, and Canada. Dr. Silliker hired two young Ph.Ds: Damien A. Gabis and Russell S. Flowers, to help him grow the organization. Both would go on to helm the company with distinction. Dr. Silliker was committed to making meaningful contributions to food safety outside the confines of his laboratory.
His approach to providing clients with not only testing but solutions can be summarized in this quote by Dr. Silliker: “Give clients more than analytical results, give them practical solutions to their problems.” And that is the spirit that sustained the company throughout its rapid growth and expansion.
The Mérieux family’s corporate holding acquired Silliker in the 1990s, this acquisition later resulted in Mérieux NutriSciences.
Food Industry Contribution
In his other accomplishments, Dr. John H. Silliker was also a member of the International Commission on Microbiological Specification for Foods (ICMSF) for over 20 years. He served as editorial committee chairman for the highly acclaimed two-volume monograph, Microbial Ecology of Food (Microorganisms in Food 3).
He was also a fellow of the Institute of Food Technologists and American Academy of Microbiology. He has received NSF International Lifetime Achievement Award and International Association of Food Protection’s Harold Barnum Award.
These are just a handful of career highlights of Dr. John H. Silliker’s devotion to keeping the public safe from foodborne illness.
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