Wallace Hume Carothers

 

On April 27, 1896, in Burlington, Iowa, a brilliant organic chemist, inventor, scholar, and troubled soul was born. Wallace Hume Carothers, whom some considered the father of the science of man, was responsible for the invention of nylon and neoprene. Despite an amazing career achievement of more than fifty patents, he ended his own life by committing suicide. Let us journey deeper into the life of Wallace Hume Carothers.

Carothers was a bookish-looking bespectacled man. To the unscientific, he was described as an egghead. The eldest of four children, he enjoyed tools of all sorts, especially those that were mechanical. As a boy, his thirst for knowledge made him a ravenous reader. He consumed Gulliver's Travels, Mark Twain's books, studies on Edison's life, and nineteenth-century English literature. In high school, he became engrossed with chemistry. He converted his bedroom into a laboratory. His friends even called him "Doc" or "Professor." He loved classical music. In later years, he remarked occasionally that if he were to start over again, he would devote his life to music. With Scotch-Irish farmers and artisans as ancestors, Carothers was the family's first scientist.

His outstanding performance in school was also apparent in college. He rapidly outdistanced his classmates in chemistry and the physical sciences. He first studied Accounting and later studied science at Tarkio College in Missouri. Due to a financial shortfall, he was forced to work to pay for his education by drifting into teaching Accounting. While an undergraduate student, he became the head of the chemistry department, an appointment made because of the personal shortage due to World War I. He received both a Master's and Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. In 1924, he became a professor at Harvard, where he started his research into chemical structures of polymers.

However, teaching was not his special sphere of talent. He would rather have been in a laboratory of test tubes. In 1928, the DuPont chemical company opened a research laboratory for the development of artificial materials, a program of fundamental as opposed to the usual product-oriented investigation. At thirty-two, Carothers left Harvard to lead DuPont's research division. One of his first projects was a study of a chemical group known as acetylene polymers. Through a lack of knowledge of polymer molecules existed when he began his work, an exploration into acetylene polymers led to the development of neoprene. In 1931, it was manufactured as synthetic rubber, widely used today in such products as gasoline and oil hose, garden hose, insulated wire, and gloves.

Then, Carothers' research team concentrated their attention towards a synthetic fiber that could be spun strong and could replace silk. Carothers theorized that certain polymers are produced by condensation through an elimination of water or an equivalent substance. He obtained "superpolymers" by the reaction of acids with alcohols; the acid had two acidic groups at the ends of a long chain of carbon atoms and the alcohol had hydroxyl groups at the ends of its molecule. As a result, a long chain of alternating acids and alcohol residues were formed during the heating in a vacuum. Yet, the polymeric product was too fusible and soluble. After other attempts, he discovered a combination that resulted in a product with the desired properties. On February 28, 1935, he made a resin from adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine. Carothers had a habit of numbering his specimens. His numbering system characterized the superpolymers by the number of atoms of carbon that were contained in the diacids and diamines. He had over 100 different specimens that he was working on. In 1935 his specimen number 66 was selected by another team of scientists for study. Since both components contained six carbon atoms, the product named nylon was characterized by the number sixty-six. It gained considerable strength by drawing the fiber under tension and by causing a reorientation of the crystals.

During his nine years with DuPont, Wallace Carothers finished 62 technical papers and filed 69 patens. He also was named as an associate editor of the American Chemical Society, a nonpaying position. His job was to examine potential publications for errors of fact, procedure, good chemical sense, and clear usage. He evaluated an astonishing 34 papers with long letters of careful criticisms.

Known only as 'Tiber 66" until September 1938, when it was first used in toothbrushes. Nylon made its first big break on May 15, 1940 when women’s hosiery hit the store shelves across the country. The hosiery sold for $1.15-$1.35 a pair and 5 million pairs were sold on the first day of sales. In the absence of Japanese silk during World War II, nylon parachutes were produced, along with airplane-fire cord, combat clothing, netting and hammocks for the jungle, and life rafts. Du Pont now makes over $4 billion a year from nylon.

Nylon, the first successful synthetic fiber, became as familiar to the world as wool, silk, wood, or steel. Unfortunately, Wallace Hume Carothers died too early to see the impact his invention would have on industry and everyday life. He was devoted to his sister, Isobel, a radio performer, and was never able to reconcile himself to her death in January 1936. He became obsessed with the thought that his life's work was meaningless. Battling with fits of depression, on April 29, 1937, two days after his forty-first birthday, Wallace Hume Carothers took his own life by consuming a ration of the poison cyanide. He was survived by his widow, Helen Sweetman, and a daughter, Jane, who was born after his death.

In 1936, Carothers was elected to National Academy of Sciences. He was the only organic chemist outside of academic circles to receive this honor. Many years after his death he was honored again with a research laboratory at Du Pont named after him. "My time is divided to molecules, which are abstract entities that one assesses but never sees. That is, theoretically my time is spent in this dirty, frigid, and lofty manner . . . ," Wallace Carothers wrote in a letter. How could this brilliant man contribute so much to science and humanity yet be so unhappy. It is a curious thing how inventive minds work.

 

Bibliography

 

Carothers, W.H. (1989). Academic American Encyclopedia. Volume 4.

Carothers, Wallace Hume. (1988). Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 5.

Dictionary of American Biography © 1958 American Council of Learned Societies

Dictionary of Scientific Biography © 1971 American Council of Learned Societies

Felman, Anthony. Scientists & Inventors © 1979 Aldus Books Limited

Heyn, Emest V. Fire of Genius Inventors of the Past Century. © 1976 NY Anchor

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