The Naturalist

Deanna Csomo McCool | January 29, 2019

The Rev. Julius A. Nieuwland, CSC, didn’t know how to drive. But in December 1925, he needed to travel far from home to the first national symposium on organic chemistry. He had recently bought a car for 15-year-old George Hennion, a relative now tasked with driving the priest from snowy Notre Dame to bitter-cold Rochester, New York. There Nieuwland was scheduled to present a paper on one of his favorite subjects: acetylene reactions.

Road trips with Nieuwland usually required several stops so he could hop out and shoot down branches with his .25-caliber pistol, thereby satisfying another of his passions, botanical collecting. Though the bare trees and winter weather likely quashed that desire, the 500-mile drive accomplished more than either the teen or the priest could have dreamed. It cemented Nieuwland’s place in science history.

Nieuwland was a mild-mannered man whose high, square forehead, narrow eyes and thin, broad mouth might remind some today of Leonardo DiCaprio. His humble, introverted demeanor was punctuated by an overwhelming drive to combine explosive chemicals in his laboratory. By the time of the conference in Rochester, Nieuwland had spent two decades studying acetylene reactions. The chemical compound, a hydrocarbon with the deceptively simple formula of C2H2, is unstable in its pure form, and Nieuwland had combined it with an extensive array of other compounds to document the reactions. Combine, heat, sniff, inspect. Combine, heat, sniff, record. Combine, heat, wait for something to explode.

At the conference, Nieuwland’s description of one of these concoctions caught the attention of Elmer Bolton of E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, known today simply as DuPont. Bolton and his fellow chemists had just started working toward the Holy Grail in chemical engineering: a stable, usable form of synthetic rubber. Rubber trees grow only in the tropics, but demand for their “milk” — latex — had spiked in the United States with the rise of the automobile. British corporations controlled most of the world’s rubber production, and a scheme to stabilize rubber prices, the Stevenson Plan, laid bare American vulnerability to British control of the market. While commercial chemists were racing to find a synthetic solution to the problem, other entrepreneurs, including Thomas Edison, were exploring the cultivation of rubber plants in the U.S.

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 by Daily Domer Staff

Posted In: ND Magazine