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Environment & Science

Marc Haefele: Wallace Hume Carothers and the tragic backstory of the inventor of nylon

Wallace Hume Carothers demonstrating the elastic properties of neoprene.
Wallace Hume Carothers demonstrating the elastic properties of neoprene.

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Tonight, as you brush your teeth, you'll be scrubbing them with the same material that goes into stockings, combs, parachutes, spaceships, car engines -- the list seems infinite. That stuff turned 75 this year, but it's tragic human back story is rarely told.
It was a decade when chemistry was the most exotic of sciences -- exotic fluids percolating through mysterious mazes of stop-cocked glassware, phallic retorts, flasks, and beakers. It was the era when chemistry was doing for the public imagination what computer science has done much more recently -- stimulating wonderment and flooding the world with life-changing products ... while edging knowledge closer toward a more complete understanding of the nature of life itself.
We are talking about 75 years ago. In Wilmington, Delaware, Dupont's laboratories are about to market a product that will transform the world: It's called nylon.
Nylon was initially sold as toothbrush bristles. Then in 1940, it was made into its most famous application --- women's stockings. In World War Two, it exploded as a synthetic replacement for many vital materials: replacing silk in parachutes, cotton in uniforms and rain gear. It went into tires and radio dials and washers and hundreds of other applications. In its day, it was an outstanding miracle of modern science -- which called it the first successful synthetic polymer. Today, it replaces metals in nuts, screws and bolts, and steel in high-temperature auto engine parts like exhaust manifolds.
But the man who thought it all up simply was trying to understand the nature of chemical polymers in order to invent synthetic silk. He was one of the greatest chemists who ever lived, pioneering modern organic chemistry with dozens of major research papers and patents. Nylon was his last contribution to science.

At the moment of his triumph, at age 41, Wallace Hume Carothers succumbed to the mental diseases that had dogged him since his 20s --severe depression and alcoholism. In 1937, he killed himself in a hotel room. His young wife was pregnant with their first child.
That's not the way the achievement of the American Dream is supposed to work. Maybe that's why since the1930s, Carothers' triumphant, tragic career has been largely ignored. AP's 1980s business feature on nylon's 50th anniversary didn't mention Carothers at all.
But in the ranks of the world's top research chemists, Carothers was never forgotten. In the early `60s, as a fresh-fledged young Ph. D at Dupont, Matthew Hermes heard tales of Carothers' greatness from famous, former colleagues of the great researcher. In 1996, he wrote the first full biography of Carothers, "Enough for One Lifetime." This was the phrase Carothers himself used to describe his accomplishments before he killed himself.
Hermes, who is still working at Clemson, recalls the love he and Carothers shared for what some have called "the science of stinks."

"As recently as 50 years ago, when I was first working," he recalls, "there was none of the technology you'd presume to be in a chem lab, today. No mass spectrographs. No computers. No Infrared. Just your sense of vision, scent, and even taste." And, of course, a whole lot of wonderful glassware.
"The stink of bromine, those pickled chemical smells that stick in the old lab tabletops," Hermes adds: ``It's a very sensual thing." And then there are the joys of the great discovery itself, making some process that is infinitesimally microscopic visible and even useful to the macro world "It is so marvelous to see it happen," he says. "That is the extreme drama in the chem lab."
In his book, Dr. Hermes shares this drama with us, along with the tragic dramatic life of one of the last century's greatest scientists--whose greatest and most familiar invention turns 75 this year.