A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Wallace Carothers
1896 - 1937

Wallace Carothers was the oldest of four siblings. His favorite sister became a radio star as part of a musical trio. Carothers was born in Iowa where his father was a teacher and administrator at Capital City Commercial College. Carothers studied accounting at Capital City after high school and then went to Tarkio College in Missouri where he studied science and taught accounting. Due to the personnel shortage, he even became head of the chemistry department during World War I! He graduated in 1920, then got his Master's degree from the University of Illinois the following year. He took a teaching post at the University of South Dakota, and there began working on organic chemistry, especially bonding. He found that he liked research far better than teaching. He obtained his PhD from the University of Illinois in 1924. He became an instructor at Harvard, where he started experimenting with chemical structures of polymers with high molecular weight.

In 1928, the DuPont chemical company did something unusual for a business at that time. It opened a laboratory for basic research. One of their main interests was in developing artificial materials, and they felt the quickest way to get to industrial applications was by looking into the fundamentals of the field. They lured Carothers from Harvard with the promise of pursuing his own research -- without the burden of teaching. It was a huge responsibility, for he would be managing a whole division, but it was an irresistible opportunity. Carothers distinguished himself with his enthusiasm, creativity, and ability to bring out the best in the people working for him.

First Carothers' team looked into the acetylene family of chemicals. This resulted in more than 20 papers and patents. By 1931, DuPont was manufacturing a synthetic rubber that this team created: neoprene. Due to political and trade troubles with Japan, the United States' main source of silk, that fiber was getting harder and more expensive to come by. DuPont wanted to develop a synthetic fiber that could replace it. Carothers and his team tackled this, too. In 1934 they pulled their first long, strong, flexible strands of a synthetic polymer fiber out of a test tube. The corporation patented it as "nylon" the following year. In the course of this discovery, Carothers published 31 papers, establishing general theories about polymers and regularizing the terminology of the field. He had brought the world not just nylon, but knowledge of natural polymers and how they are formed.

Carothers' reputation grew. Though rather shy of publicity, he wrote papers and gave speeches, and was the first organic chemist elected to the National Academy of Sciences. But all the while he struggled with depression. In 1936 he married Helen Sweetman, who also worked at DuPont. They had a daughter, whom Carothers never met. Early in 1937 his favorite sister died suddenly. He never recovered from the loss, which added to his depression, and in April of that year he committed suicide. DuPont later named its research station after him.

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