Clan Carruthers

Clan Carruthers: Wallace Hume Carothers

Wallace Hume Carruthers

We try to mix, history with present or recent past, in order to celebrate who and what we are, this blog is no exception. Today we share with you the life and achievements of one of our own; Wallace Hume Carothers a renowned chemist, inventor and the leader of the field of Organic Chemistry. As we are well aware, the name Carruthers was bastardised by immigration clerks who simply wrote the names as they heard them and the derivations stuck, and proudly so.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannca; Wallace Hume Carothers, was born April 27, 1896, Burlington, Iowa  U.S. and died April 29, 1937, in Philidelphia, Pennsylvania.

He is listed in ‘Science History Institute’ as having discovered two of the 20th century’s most widely used synthetic polymers—neoprene and nylon originating in 1930, during his time at his research laboratory while based at the DuPont Company. The research that led to these inventions also demonstrated the existence of macromolecules, greatly bolstering the macromolecular theory of the Nobel Prize winner; Hermann Staudinger of the University of Freiburg in Breisgau, Germany.

The Early Years  

Pic: Science Hitory Institute

In his biography, it states that Carothers was the oldest of four children. His education began in the public schools of Des Moines, Iowa, where his parents moved when he was just five. In 1914 he graduated from the North High School. As a growing boy he had zest for work as well as play. He enjoyed tools and mechanical things and spent much time in experimenting. His school work was characterized by thoroughness and he was known to leave no task unfinished or not completed in a careless manner.

He entered the Capital City Commercial College in the fall of 1914 and graduated in the accountancy and secretarial curriculum in July, 1915, taking considerably less time than the average.

Growing up in Iowa, Wallace Carothers was the first scientist in his family. His father, Ira Hume Carothers, was initially a teacher at a country school in the state. Later he entered the field of commercial education and for forty-five years engaged himself in that type of work reaching the position of vice-president in the Capital City Commercial College, Des Moines, Iowa.

It is recorded that his mother, Mary Evalina McMullin of Burlington, Iowa, exerted a powerful influence and guidance in the earlier years of Carothers’s life bolstering his academic hunger. In September 1915, he entered Tarkio College, Tarkio, Missouri to pursue a scientific course, and simultaneously accepted a position as an assistant in the Commercial Department to help pay his way. He continued in this capacity for two years and then was made an assistant in English, although he had specialized in chemistry from the time he entered college.

During the World War the head of the department of chemistry, Dr. Arthur M. Pardee, was called to another institution, and Tarkio College found it impossible to secure a fully equipped teacher of chemistry. Carothers, who previously had taken all of the chemistry courses offered, was appointed to take over the instruction. He left Tarkio College in 1920 with his Bachelor of Science degree, and enrolled in the chemistry department of the University of Illinois where he completed the requirements for the master of arts degree in the summer of 1921. Also in 1920-1921 he held an assistantship for one semester in inorganic chemistry and for one semester in organic chemistry.

As things happen for a reason in life; his former instructor at Tarkio College, now head of the chemistry department at the University of South Dakota, desired a young instructor to handle courses in analytical and physical chemistry and was fortunate in securing Carothers for this position during the year, 1921-1922. Wallace went to South Dakota only with the intention of securing sufficient funds to enable him to complete his postgraduate work, but the careful and adequate preparation of his courses, as well as his care of the students under his direction, showed that he could be a very successful teacher of chemistry.

Du Pont Advert circa 1940

However, he returned to the University of Illinois in 1922 to complete his studies for the degree of doctor of philosophy, which he received in 1924.

His major work in organic chemistry, with a thesis under the direction of Dr. Roger Adams, was on the catalytic reduction of aldehydes with platinum-oxide; platinum-black and on the effect of promoters and poisons on this catalyst in the reduction of various organic compounds. His minors were physical chemistry and mathematics. A brilliant man, he was also a research assistant during 1922-1923, and during 1923-1924 held the Carr Fellowship, the highest award offered at that time by the department of chemistry at Illinois.

At graduation he was considered by the staff as one of the most brilliant students who had ever been awarded the doctor’s degree. A vacancy on the staff of the chemistry department in the University of Illinois made it possible to appoint him as an instructor in organic chemistry in the fall of 1924. In this capacity he continued with unusual success for two years, teaching qualitative organic analysis and two organic laboratory courses, one for premedical students and the other for chemists.

In 1926 Harvard University was in need of an instructor in organic chemistry. After carefully surveying the available candidates from the various universities of the country, Carothers was selected. In this new position he taught during the first year, a course in experimental organic chemistry and an advanced course in structural chemistry. During the second year he gave the lectures and laboratory instruction in elementary organic chemistry. In 1928 the du Pont Company had completed plans to embark on a new program of fundamental research at their central laboratory, the Experimental Station at Wilmington, Delaware. Carothers was selected to head the research in organic chemistry.

Du Pont: 

Pic: Delaware Today

However, as a young instructor at Harvard University, Carothers was already pursuing research in polymers when DuPont’s Charles Stine recruited him for the fundamental research program Stine was then organizing. Elmer K. Bolton, Carothers’s immediate boss, asked Carothers to investigate the chemistry of an acetylene polymer that might lead to a synthetic rubber. In April 1930 one of Carothers’s assistants, Arnold M. Collins, isolated a new liquid compound, chloroprene, which spontaneously polymerized to produce a rubberlike solid. The new polymer was similar chemically to natural rubber, which encouraged Bolton to exploit it. Neoprene, as the product was named, was superior to the natural product in some applications and became the first commercially successful, though never inexpensive, specialty rubber.

The Key to Nylon

American Chemical Society

Soon after this discovery another of Carothers’s associates, Julian W. Hill, created a strong, elastic synthetic fibre, while trying to produce super-polymers of high molecular weight by reacting glycols and dibasic acids with strong acids under reduced pressure in a molecular still. The resultant early polyesters, however, were problematic: they had such low melting points and high solubility in dry-cleaning solvents that they were not commercially viable. After a few attempts to solve these problems, Carothers discontinued this line of research. But Bolton encouraged him not to give up on the wider field of fibres. When Carothers finally renewed work in that area in early 1934, he and his team used amines rather than glycols to produce polyamides rather than polyesters. Polyamides are synthetic proteins and are more stable than polyesters, which are structurally similar to natural fats and oils. Carothers’s group soon discovered an outstanding polyamide fibre. Bolton played a key role in the development of the discovery, later named nylon. These fundamental investigations therefore led to the development of nylon, the artificial fibre with properties similar and in many ways superior to such natural fibres as wool, cotton, and silk, and to neoprene, a synthetic rubber derived from vinyl-acetylene

Nylon the Success story

Du Pont Ad 1950

In the years that followed, Carothers’s scientific creativity was crippled by worsening bouts of depression. This was augmented by the fact that Wallace, who was especially devoted to his sister, Isobel whose death in January, 1936, was a great shock to him. One that he was never able to reconcile himself completely to her loss. This may have added to his emotional state, which finally prompted his suicide in April 1937. Two great sadnesses surround this. Firstly he had married on February 21, 1936, Helen Everett Sweetman of Wilmington, Delaware through which a daughter, Jane, was born November 27, 1937, but after the death of Carothers. Secondly, his death occurred just when the true magnitude of the discovery of nylon was becoming apparent. By this time Bolton had decided to commercialize nylon, setting his sights first on capturing the lucrative silk-stocking market with alternative products made from the synthetic fibre. Other applications would come later.

Nylon went into production in 1939, and the display of the new stockings was a sensation at the World’s Fair in New York City that year. With the onset of World War II, nylon was commandeered for war purposes—for example, to make parachute canopies. But once the war was over, sales to civilian consumers skyrocketed.

Awards and Achievements

In 1929 he was elected as Associate Editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. a great honour of the day and his achievements were recognized by his election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1936, being the very first organic chemist associated with industry, to be elected to that organization.



Clan Carruthers Society WP footnote grey

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