Moment of Indiana History

Breathalyzer

Before 1954, the matter of keeping drunk drivers off the road was fairly hit or miss. Diagnostic tools for evaluating a driver’s level of intoxication were subjective and empirical—a police officer who pulled over a weaving car would check for a driver’s bloodshot eyes or slurred speech. Thanks to research spearheaded at Indiana University, however, the assessment of impaired driving became more refined.

In 1938, Dr. Rolla Harger of the Indiana School of Medicine collaborated with Robert Borkenstein [bor-ken-STINE] of the Indiana State Police Crime Laboratory to develop the “Drunkometer,” the first device capable of measuring the level of alcohol on one’s breath, from which the blood-alcohol level could be estimated. The device was incorporated into courses sponsored by the National Safety Council’s Committee on Tests for Intoxication, taught at IU the following decade by Harger and Borkenstein, among others.

In 1954, Fort Wayne native Borkenstein harnessed photometry and chemical oxidation to fashion the “Breathalyzer,” a more portable device that more readily lent itself to use in enforcement. “If there was one person who was the most directly influential in reducing traffic accidents and fatalities,” a colleague commented, “it was him.”

Borkenstein’s invention predated the awarding of his bachelor’s degree in forensic sciences by four years. He quickly assumed the chair of IU’s newly formed Department of Police Administration, and in 1971, the Department of Forensic Sciences. Before passing away in 2002, Borkenstein had taken the helm of the National Safety Council, among other national and global task-forces and committees. Courses on alcohol and road safety that he pioneered in 1958 are still being taught semi-annually as the Borkenstein Course at the Borkenstein Center for Studies of Law in Action in the IU Department of Criminal Justice.

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