Leon A. Greenberg (1907-1985)

Dr. Leon Greenberg is most famous for his invention of the Alcometer in 1941, a machine that analyzed the breath for alcohol.

His device allowed iodine vapour, starch and potassium iodide to react with the breath of a subject and change color depending on the level of alcohol present. Nearly thirty years later, Greenberg also invented the Alco-Calculator, a slide-rule device that indicates what the blood alcohol level would be if certain amounts of alcohol were consumed over varying periods.

Biography

Unfortunately, little is known about Greenberg's early life. Greenberg began his career at Yale in 1933 as a physiologist, working in the Yale Applied Physiology and Biodynamics Lab with the head of the lab, Howard Haggard. He and Haggard were frequent collaborators. Greenberg served on the editorial board of the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol from its inception in 1940 until 1983. In 1962, the now renamed Center of Alcohol Studies moved to Rutgers, and Greenberg went along with it as the director of the Laboratory of Applied Biodynamics and Associate Professor of Applied Biodynamics.

Invented by Greenberg in 1941, the Alcometer measures blood alcohol content (BAC) by analyzing the subject’s breath. The subject inflates a balloon, allowing their breath to interact with iodine vapor, starch, and potassium iodide. When alcohol is present, the chemicals change color; the more dramatic the color change, the more alcohol is present.

The Alco-calculator was invented by Greenberg in the 1970s. This handheld slide rule helps the user calculate an individual’s blood alcohol content (BAC) based on variables including their weight, the type of alcoholic drink consumed, and the quantity of drinks consumed, after certain intervals of time.

He worked as a Professor of Physiology at Rutgers until he retired in 1973. Greenberg's research was amongst the first to study the pharmacological, physiological, and behavioral effects of alcohol. Dr. Greenberg published frequently in the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol and other journals on physiology.

Greenberg is perhaps best known for his controversial definition of an alcoholic beverage and his assertion that beer is not, in fact, an intoxicating drink. In his 1955 article The Definition of an Intoxicating Beverage, published in the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Greenberg argues that since the alcohol content of beer is so low, one would be physically incapable of drinking enough beer to produce the intoxicating effects defined as drunkenness. He defined drunkenness as the socially inappropriate behavior and lack of coordination associated with alcohol intoxication and asserted that they are only apparent when one’s BAC level is at 0.15 or above (what we would now consider almost twice the legal limit!)

Following his retirement, he continued as an expert witness in court cases. Greenberg also served as a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Distilled Spirits Council. Greenberg passed away in Princeton, NJ on June 23, 1985.

Highlights

Dr. Greenberg published frequently in the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol and other journals on physiology. He is known for inventing the Alcometer, a blood alcohol content breath test. The invention was first published in the second ever volume of the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol.

  • 1907: Born
  • 1933: Earns Ph.D. from Yale University
  • 1933: Begins his career at Yale as a physiologist in the Yale Applied Physiology and Biodynamics Lab
  • 1940: Serves on the editorial board of the Quarterly Journal for Studies on Alcohol
  • 1941: Invents Alcometer
  • 1955: Publishes The Definition of an Intoxicating Beverage in the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol
  • 1962: Moves to Rutgers; Made Professor of Physiology
  • 1970s: Invents Alco-calculator
  • 1973: Retires from Rutgers faculty
  • 1983: Retires from editorial board of the Journal for Studies on Alcohol
  • 1985: Dies on June 23 in Princeton, NJ

Publications

Selected publications

Gross, M., & Greenberg, L. A. (1948). The salicylates, a critical bibliographic review. New Haven: Hillhouse Press.

Lester, D., & Greenberg, L. A. (1952). Nutrition and the etiology of alcoholism; the effect of sucrose, saccharin and fat on the self-selection of ethyl alcohol by rats. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 13, 553-560.

Haggard, H. W., Greenberg, L. A., & Lolli, G. (1941). The absorption of alcohol with special reference to its influence on the concentration of alcohol appearing in the blood. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 1, 684-726.

Haggard, H. W., Greenberg, L. A., & Carroll, R. P. (1941). Studies in the Absorption, Distribution and Elimination of Alcohol VIII. The Diuresis from Alcohol and its Influence on the Elimination of Alcohol in the Urine. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 71(4), 349-357.

 

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