Father Julius Nieuwland, CSC, was cordial as we walked into his lab, even though he was playing hooky from a Notre Dame convocation.
He was wearing a heavy black rubber apron—curious for the man whose research in acetylene provided the key to developing synthetic rubber. The cigar he was smoking helped cut the pungent smell of the old chemistry building.
That smell had brought tears to our eyes as Nick Pappas and I entered. We were both 14 and had come out to campus to see President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was speaking at a convocation (December 13, 1935). That was the ceremony Father Nieuwland was not attending.
We could not get into the fieldhouse to hear the president, but Nick, an enterprising fellow who would later graduate from Notre Dame Law School, suggested we find Father Nieuwland. Each of us had to do a ninth grade “Career Book,” a study of an occupation of interest to us. Nick had selected chemistry, so why not get information from the noted Notre Dame chemist?
Father Nieuwland seemed pleased to show us around his lab. There were shelves of bottles containing black squares of synthetic rubber soaking in various liquids, including alcohol and gasoline. He lifted them out one by one to show how resistant the synthetic rubber was to the solutions. Natural rubber would have deteriorated, he said, describing how synthetic rubber was much more resistant to wear than natural rubber.
He told us that during a recent visit to the Vatican he mentioned the qualities of synthetic rubber to one of the members of the Swiss Guard. The guard responded, “If it is that good, it would make great heels for my shoes; rubber heels wear out too fast.” Father Nieuwland chuckled when he recalled that upon his return he fashioned some heels out of the material and sent them to the guard. And chuckled again as he anticipated the guard’s surprise at how long he would wear them.
On one of the lab tables he unrolled a straw mat that appeared to be a blue covered pew cushion. Father Nieuwland explained that he slept on the mat when he was carrying on experiments that lasted through the night.
He opened a small refrigerator, revealing a row of pint milk bottles; this sustained him while working through meal times.
We said goodbye and thanked the modest, quiet-spoken priest. Little did we realize the full importance of synthetic rubber or that we had been in the presence of a great chemist and benefactor of humanity.
As we crossed campus to catch the streetcar, musing over our adventure, President Roosevelt passed within eight feet of us in an open car that was headed for the campus railroad spur. We got a full view of him as he lit a cigarette. Now, we were twice rewarded.
Through the years I have reflected on that moment as Nick and I were walking across campus—it was a crossing of destinies. There, passing by, was the commander in chief in our war (World War II), just a few years ahead, Nick in the Navy, me in the Army. And behind us was a man who, unknowingly, would contribute enormously. When the nation’s natural rubber was cut off in 1941, neoprene was in production, to be used for hundreds of vital military products. Curiously, it was too valuable to use for tires. It went into such items as gas masks, life belts, exposure suits for pilots—300 million pounds of neoprene—synthetic rubber from the vital link provided by Father Julius Nieuwland, chemist, humane benefactor.
In 1935, the American Chemical Society cited the development of synthetic rubber among the great discoveries “of the last 100 years.” In 1953, Notre Dame dedicated Nieuwland Science Hall.