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.
Illustrations by David Vogin
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.
Where the industrial laboratories had yet failed to generate real leads, the cassock-clad scientist, working in a small lab at a fledgling university, succeeded. As early as 1906, Nieuwland recognized that passing acetylene into a solution of copper chloride and other alkali metals produced a colorless gas with a peculiar odor. By changing the composition of the mixture and his methods over the next 15 years, Nieuwland’s experimentation yielded a yellowish oil in addition to the gas. The oil, which formed a hydrocarbon called divinylacetylene, quickly solidified into a hard resin at room temperature. It was so volatile that it sometimes exploded unexpectedly when struck. Though Nieuwland noted its properties were similar to that of natural rubber, he deemed it “too plastic for practical use.”
He suspected that the mysterious gas was monovinylacetylene, a potential raw material that researchers at the time identified as the key for developing synthetic rubber, but he was unable to prove it. After presenting his results in Rochester, Nieuwland likely slinked back into the shadows of the conference room, as was his habit, with no further plans than to continue studying acetylene reactions back at Notre Dame. But Bolton immediately recognized that the priest’s research could help DuPont develop the world’s first synthetic rubber. He cornered Nieuwland and asked if he would work with his chemists. The priest tentatively agreed.
Nieuwland’s role with DuPont as a collaborator and consultant in the years that followed made him one of the inventors of the original synthetic rubber, commonly called neoprene. His discovery of the acetylene reaction catalyzed further development of synthetic rubbers, which would play an important role in the Allied victory in World War II and transform the transportation industry forever.
Life for Father Julius Nieuwland, meanwhile, hardly changed at all.
The baby born at 10 a.m. on St. Valentine’s Day, 1878, to John Baptiste and Philomena Nieuwland in Hansbeke, Belgium, was baptized two hours later per Catholic tradition. Though known later in life as Julius A. Nieuwland, a name he signed with a curly flourish (or, at minimum, as J.A. Nieuwland, underscored with the same careful swish), his baptismal certificate announces him simply as Julius, leaving historians to speculate about his true middle name. Kenneth Filchak ’01Ph.D., a teaching professor in Notre Dame’s Department of Biological Sciences who has written about Nieuwland, says the family sailed to America in 1880 in search of a better life. They joined a well-established colony of Flemish-speaking Belgians in South Bend, and Nieuwland attended St. Mary’s School at Notre Dame. His family was close with the Hennions, who arrived in South Bend around the same time, Filchak notes. Throughout his life, George Hennion called Nieuwland “Uncle.”
From an early age, Nieuwland enjoyed spending time in nature. He carefully studied birds’ eggs and drew every plant he saw, painstakingly filling in the veins, blades and stipules on each leaf with pen and ink. He avidly pursued his interests in botany, drawing and guitar. Whether he heard a calling to be a priest or simply followed an expected path, he took a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience and joined the Congregation of Holy Cross after graduating from Notre Dame in 1899.
The order saw something in Nieuwland’s intellect, and sent him to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., for graduate school. There he first laid eyes on the chemicals, beakers and distillation equipment that would compete with his interest in botany. He labeled each of his notebooks with his name in bold, hand-shaded script, and occasionally drew doodles of birds and outdoor scenes in the margins. The word “rubber” appears only once, in a 1901 entry. At the bottom of one page, he wrote that the volatile carbon disulfide was a solvent for it. He retraced “rubber” several times so it appeared bold, and underlined it twice. However, his notebooks never hint at a specific interest in developing a chemical alternative to the natural product.
Though he seemed to enjoy chemistry, plants were still his passion. He relished the courses he took with the renowned botanist Edward Lee Greene. He likely would have majored in botany — and never discovered the reaction that created synthetic rubber — had Greene not left Catholic University for the Smithsonian. His mentor gone, Nieuwland switched to chemistry and completed his thesis on acetylene reactions. His notebooks show that Nieuwland marched into the lab almost daily to complete experiments that often exploded and expelled toxic gases. One reaction, between acetylene and arsenic trichloride, was so toxic in the presence of aluminum chloride that “inhalation of the fumes, even in small quantity, caused nervous depression,” Nieuwland wrote in his dissertation. He was hospitalized for several days. Because of the poisonous nature of that reaction, he avoided further study of it.
In 1915, another chemist, Winford Lee Lewis, read Nieuwland’s dissertation and realized its author had stumbled upon a chemical weapon more lethal than mustard gas. He called it Lewisite. The U.S. military developed it too late to deploy it in World War I. After World War II, the military dumped more than 3,000 tons of it off Florida’s Atlantic coast. The action was called Operation Geranium, because the gas smelled like the flower.
Nieuwland returned to Notre Dame after his ordination as a priest in 1903 and the completion of his doctorate the following year, and was hired primarily as a botany professor, with the directive to teach chemistry classes as well.
Two years later, he discovered the odd-smelling gas that would eventually lead to the invention of synthetic rubber. But according to a 1907 letter to Greene, chemistry wasn’t even foremost in his mind. “I am doing my level best to build up a botanical library and have lost all interest in chemistry,” Nieuwland wrote. “Never since I left Washington have I done less with this branch.”
Nieuwland’s early career at Notre Dame was also his most prolific era as a botanical collector, Filchak notes while sharing a 1915 photo of a smiling Nieuwland and the young George Hennion, with Hennion’s sister Mary Claire and their father Rene, taken during a field trip. Nieuwland started a journal dedicated to the botany of the Midwest, The American Midland Naturalist. Later he asked Greene to leave Washington for Notre Dame and to bring his collection of nearly 100,000 botanical samples and 2,500 rare botanical books with him.
In 1914, Greene agreed, opening Notre Dame’s herbarium soon after his arrival. His death a year later must have come as a blow to Nieuwland — a personal loss as well as a another lost chance to work with his mentor — for the priest soon set aside his beloved plants to become a full-time chemistry professor.
The young Belgian was also distraught by the outbreak of World War I. In the late summer of 1914, Germans committed atrocities against Belgian civilians during a brutal invasion later dubbed “The Rape of Belgium.” Thousands in Nieuwland’s homeland were slaughtered, deported or imprisoned, stories the priest would have learned firsthand in the mail he continued to receive from German-occupied territory. Chris Temple ’92, a Notre Dame doctoral student in history, believes Nieuwland’s shift to chemistry was driven in part by a desire to avenge those war crimes — the field being a more effective tool in support of the war effort.
Yet the change didn’t deter Nieuwland from pursuing botany as a hobby. Even during later road trips with DuPont chemists, he would implore drivers to pull over whenever he saw an intriguing plant. The DuPont crew would try to foil him by driving as fast as 80 miles an hour to prevent Nieuwland from distinguishing the foliage. “It didn’t work,” Kenneth Filchak notes, chuckling. “He saw the plants anyway and still made the drivers stop.”
Nieuwland’s return to chemistry reopened his research into the intriguing reaction that had produced the yellowish oil and the strange gas, taking it as far as he could before presenting it at the Rochester conference. Through years of careful collaboration on the volatile compounds, Nieuwland and DuPont chemists Wallace Carothers and Arnold Collins finally solved the chemical mysteries of synthetic rubber. They confirmed the gas that the priest smelled was indeed monovinylacetylene, synthesized it into a liquid and combined it with hydrochloric acid in a shaking bottle with copper chloride. The chemical reaction created a stable, flexible product that bounced like a ball. After further development, the final product, polychloroprene, was called neoprene. The discovery became the touchstone for all future rubber-like polymers, and the company announced its groundbreaking new product on November 2, 1931, at a meeting in Akron, Ohio. DuPont later opened a plant to manufacture neoprene in Louisville, Kentucky, in a neighborhood soon dubbed Rubbertown.
Nieuwland, who had been working quietly for many years, might have renounced his vow of poverty and become a wildly wealthy man, but the priest showed little interest in either the money or the fame. DuPont’s announcement forced him into the limelight, and newspapers around the country reported his name. One headline read, “Priest succeeds where Edison failed,” conflating the search for synthetic rubber with Edison’s effort to create a homegrown rubber industry. Curious chemists traveled to Notre Dame, expecting Nieuwland to tout his achievement and give lab tours. Instead, he would refer them to an assistant and remain in the background.
Royalty payments trickled into the University during the ’30s. The real need for rubber wouldn’t ramp up until later in the decade as the nation inched toward its involvement in World War II. In Nieuwland’s world, however, that first trickle was a stream, and he found a comfortable balance between his vow of poverty and the DuPont money. In addition to paying the University royalties, DuPont offered the Notre Dame scholar $1,000 a year (about $14,000 to $20,000 today) as an honorarium. He didn’t accept it, asking instead for a yearly supply of books for the chemistry department. He barely read the legal contracts, wisely handing them off to University lawyers and bequeathing all proceeds to Notre Dame. He refocused on teaching and the further study of acetylene reactions.
Life as usual.
As a professor, Nieuwland was a stickler. His two-page document of lab rules stated boldly, “Results count, neatness and system produce results,” which he underlined. He spent hours in his lab, a sweeping space in what is now Riley Hall with windows looking out upon the Main Building’s gleaming golden dome. He frequently napped on one of the tables, a neoprene apron tucked beneath his head. Students would plan to leave at 5 p.m., but Nieuwland would implore them to stay, using the same allurement that professors often deploy today: food.
He continued to mentor young George Hennion ’32, ’33M.A., ’35Ph.D., but now as a chemistry student and assistant in Nieuwland’s lab, just as Knute Rockne had been a generation before him. Nieuwland continued to be known as an excellent researcher, Filchak says, but he wasn’t hailed as a teacher because he had little patience for less-than-stellar students.
Though Nieuwland loved gentler pastimes such as reading mystery novels, attending football games and taking children to the circus, he never abandoned his sharpshooting ways. He continued to use his pistol to shoot down branches and collect leaves — climbing a tree in a cassock was unbecoming of a priest, he claimed — and he found a creative way to eliminate the explosive chemical concoctions produced in his lab. Nearly 70 years later, one former student, Thomas Carney ’37, recalled the difficult challenge of 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.”
By early 1932, Father Nieuwland’s health was in decline. In a letter to DuPont’s lead chemist, Carothers, he lamented that he wanted to visit the company laboratory but couldn’t; he’d recently had goiter-removal surgery. He had developed intestinal problems, and he complained about loose teeth. Yet three years later he was still healthy enough to travel to New York to accept American chemistry’s highest honor: the William H. Nichols medal.
Throughout his life, Nieuwland vacationed by visiting friends at Catholic University and on the New Jersey shore, collecting botanical samples along the way. His trip to the East Coast in 1936 was his last. He died of an apparent heart attack after arriving in Washington with $145 in his pocket. He was 58.
The timing of his death meant he would miss the boom in synthetic rubber production prior to World War II. Japan seized rubber plantations, warehouses and ships across Southeast Asia, preventing exports to the rest of the world. Without Nieuwland’s discovery, the U.S. and its allies couldn’t have supplied the rubber they soon needed for the production of planes, tanks and ships.
Meanwhile, by 1944, DuPont royalties covered 75 percent of professors’ salaries at Notre Dame. Russia, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and other nations paid the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees as they started their own laboratories. A healthy cut, reportedly 10 percent, of these revenues found its way to the University. If Nieuwland was indeed motivated to switch from botany to chemistry to aid the previous war effort, he would have relished the fall of Nazi Germany, which again had subjected Belgium to painful occupation, in 1945.
After Nieuwland’s death, Hennion became a chemistry professor at Notre Dame, eventually inheriting Nieuwland’s lab and later receiving the Nieuwland chair in chemistry. He continued the work on acetylene reactions.
Hennion’s beloved flasks and beakers would hold no appeal for his future grandchildren. But one boy would inherit a love for botany and the history of science. Standing in his office in Jordan Hall, Ken Filchak points to the 1915 photo of Nieuwland and the Hennions on their botany trip.
“This is my great-grandfather,” he says of one of the men. “And this boy, that’s my grandfather. George Hennion.”
He pauses before sharing the part of Nieuwland’s story that makes him more nostalgic than any other.
“I’m proud that my grandfather drove Father Nieuwland to that conference in 1925,” he says, adding that the car’s natural-rubber tires would be made from a synthetic substitute today. “That drive . . . helped Father Nieuwland make history, but he was such a humble man that none of that mattered to him at all.”
Deanna Csomo McCool is assistant director of marketing communications in the College of Science. She received her master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University in December. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on Twitter @deanna_mccool.