Synthetics and Smells: Memories of Father Nieuwland

Author: Thomas P. Carney ’37


The first real, live scientists I ever came into contact with were at Notre Dame. I did not know then they were great scientists. At that time it seemed only natural that they should be there doing whatever they did.

Father Julius Nieuwland, CSC, shown left, worked in a lab on the second floor of the Chemistry Building. It was not a special lab. It was just like the ones that we as undergraduate students worked in. In fact, it was adjacent to our lab, so we were accustomed to feeling a part of all the research activities taking place.

We were also accustomed to living in the odoriferous atmosphere created by researchers working with ammonia, acetylene and boron trifluoride. We had on each desk a faucet from which we could obtain flasks of liquid ammonia as easily as we could obtain a flask of water. We had no fume hoods then, and working in that lab convinced me it was not necessary to have oxygen to live.

Father Nieuwland, a Belgian by birth, made his reputation originally as a botanist. He founded the American Midland Naturalist, a publication still being produced. Late in his life he turned to organic chemistry. In the early 1930s his reputation as a leading expert in acetylene chemistry was secure. It was at that time, too, that he did the chemical work on which the production of synthetic rubber, neoprene, was based.

I was the proud possessor of a sample of the first synthetic rubber ever produced in a laboratory. Shortly before I left the campus for Christmas vacation my freshman year, Father Nieuwland gave me about an inch cube of his product. Wanting to show it off at home, I wrapped it in a wool sweater and placed it in my suitcase for the trip home. By the time I got there the next day, the odor of chemicals had pervaded the entire suitcase. After several trips through the wash, most of the clothes recovered. However, the sweater refused to give up its odor. It was sent to a cleaner whose wrath soon descended on my head because the odor had contaminated his batch of cleaning fluid. The sweater was buried, along with the rubber sample.

In those days the disposal of waste material was not the problem it is today. The solutions could be informal and in some cases unusual. One of the residues of the work of Father Nieuwland was a highly explosive polymer. The product could not very easily be poured down the drain nor could it be disposed of in the regular garbage disposal. Father Nieuwland solved the problem very simply by periodically placing the containers of polymer on a pole behind the laboratories and then shooting them with a .22 rifle. The source of these periodic miniature explosions was a closely kept secret.

For a while it was thought that the acetylene residue could be made into a marketable product. It was discovered that, when the polymer was dissolved in a solvent and spread on a laboratory bench surface, the surface became impermeable to everything—acids, bases, solvents, etc. It also dried to a beautiful hard finish. A number of benches were coated with excellent results. At least the results were excellent initially. Then, bothersome things began to happen. The coated surface actually exploded. It was then discovered that the polymer reacted with oxygen to form explosive peroxides that detonated with any sharp blow. The residue again became a target for the .22.

Father Nieuwland was also known as a severe critic of scientific presentations. The American Chemical Society section meetings were held in a classroom in the Chemistry Building. Father Nieuwland would always assume a seat near the side blackboard. As the speaker gave his talk, Father Nieuwland could be observed occasionally making a cryptic note on the blackboard. This was universally known to be a reminder to ask a penetrating question at the conclusion of the presentation. I have known many a speaker to be reduced to a bundle of nerves before his speech had ended, as the notes became more and more frequent.

I must admit that sometimes the motive of students attending these meetings was as much to observe the speaker’s reactions as it was to hear the scientific presentation. Of course, Father Nieuwland was totally unaware of the grief he was causing. He was motivated solely by a desire to have things correctly and clearly understood. Had he known the effect of his actions, I’m not sure he would have changed. At least I can’t accuse him of purposely harassing the speakers.

On June 10, 1936, I said goodbye to Father Nieuwland at the railroad station in South Bend. He was on his way to Washington, I was on my way to my home in Du Bois, Pennsylvania, for my summer vacation. I had just finished my junior year at Notre Dame. My father was a railroader, so I was traveling on free passes. Because of the need to avoid “foreign passes” on railroads other than my father’s, it was necessary for me to travel by a round-about route, making several train changes on the way. Consequently I didn’t arrive home until late the next afternoon. It was then that I learned Father Nieuwland had died of a heart attack while visiting Catholic University in Washington.

Dr. Carney, who holds a degree in chemical engineering, is a Laetare Medal recipient and former Notre Dame Board of Trustees chairman.