Dr. John H. Silliker, a renowned food microbiologist and founder of Silliker Laboratories, the largest independent network of food testing and consulting laboratories in the U.S., died after a brief illness on March 19, 2015. Dr. Silliker, 92, had been a resident of Crown Point, IN, and Naples, FL, for over two decades.
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.
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 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. 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. He was an early proponent of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system; developed the revolutionary concept of using sponges to collect environmental samples in food plants; and testified at congressional hearings that resulted in the passage of landmark food safety legislation.
“Retiring” in 1987, Dr. Silliker returned home to California, but remained involved as a company consultant. In the mid-1990s, Institut Merieux, a leading international company dedicated to improving public health, acquired a controlling interest in Silliker. Today, the company is known as Merieux NutriSciences and features over 75 locations in 18 countries.
A sports enthusiast, Dr. Silliker revered Joe “the Brown Bomber” Louis, watched the development of a young California golfing phenom, Tiger Woods, and followed his beloved USC Trojans football team. By a twist of faith, he served as an adjunct professor at the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) for a few years and used the income from his alumni’s archrival to pay for his Trojan season tickets, a wicked irony that he enjoyed with immense gusto.
The author of over 80 peer reviewed publications, Dr. Silliker served on numerous scientific committees and groups, including several years on the highly influential International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods (ICMSF). During his exceedingly productive tenure, he served as ICMSF editorial committee chairman for the highly acclaimed two-volume monograph, “Microbial Ecology of Food” (Microorganisms in Foods 3).
For his outstanding contributions, the Institute of Food Technologists, American Academy of Microbiology, NSF International, and International Association for Food Protection and other scientific groups recognized his decades of service.
Upon learning of his death, many of Dr. Silliker’s colleagues praised both the man and the scientist.
Dr. R. Bruce Tompkin, who succeeded Dr. Silliker as Director of Research at Swift and served on the ICMSF board with him, said he was a mentor who gave his time freely even when Silliker Laboratories was in its infancy. “It is not possible to include all of John’s contributions and it isn’t necessary,’ he said. “Each of us has our own recollection of John and how he impacted our professional experience.”
“John was one of the three or four food microbiologists of that period that left an imprint that continues to be important 50+ years later,” said Dr. Robert L. Buchanan, a former FDA official who currently serves on the faculty of the University of Maryland.
“John Silliker was a giant in the food industry,” Russ Flowers said. “The influence he had on my life both professionally and personally is impossible to measure. I will always cherish the many late hours we spent together in the laboratory building Silliker into the most respected brand in food testing.”
Dr. Silliker is survived by his wife, Katherine Lee; his daughters Paula Silliker Goepfert (Pino Tarabelli) and Margaret Elizabeth Silliker (John Ryan); his sister Margaret Silliker Williams; his grandchildren Colin McDonnell Goepfert (Rachel) and Gwendolyn Silliker Goepfert (Nello Patrone); his great grandchildren Connor, Samuel, and William Goepfert; his stepsons James and John Harrell whose mother Marguerite predeceased him; his stepchildren Mary Beth Senne (Scott), Maureen Reid (Dr. J.R.), Margaret Groark (Richard), Michael Lee (Jennifer), Brian Lee (Jennifer); eleven step grandchildren, and two step great grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to the South Suburban Humane Society in Chicago Heights, IL.