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Book Review Enough for One Lifetime. Wallace Carothers Inventor of Nylon. By M. E

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Mr. Nylon
Enough for One Lifetime. Wallace
Carothers, Inventor of Nylon. By
M . E. Hermes. American Chemical
Society, Washington, DC, 1996. 345
pp., hardcover $39.95.-ISBN
This book, in which Matthew E. Hermes describes the life and scientific work
of Wallace Carothers, is both important
and unusual. The research career of this
and the story of his
discovery of nylon
is interesting enough
in itself, but the detailed account of his
personal life and his
unhappy end is fascinating and at the
same time thoughtprovoking. It is a
very readable book,
espite the author’s overemphasis on the
personal aspects and on the US context of
Carothers’ work, while neglecting the
ramifications in the international world of
science and industry-for
example, one
would have liked to learn more about the
development of polyamide 6 (Perlon) as a
competitor to nylon, and about its precursor caprolactam.
The dry facts are as follows. Wallace
Hume Carothers, born in 1896 in the midwestern city of Des Moines, was educated
at Tarkio College, Missouri and at the
University of Illinois, Urbana, where he
obtained his Ph.D. in 1924, at a comparatively late age for those times. His supervisor was Roger Adams, the editor of Organic Synthese.~.The latter series, which
consisted of tried and tested synthetic
methods, was a direct response to the
This section contains book reviews and a list of
new books received by the editor. Book reviews are
written by invitation from the editor. Suggestions
for books to be reviewed and for book reviewers
are welcome. Publishers should send brochures or
(better) books to the editorial office: Redaktion
Angewdndte Cbemic, Postfdch 10 11 61, D-69451
Weinheim, Germany. The editor reserves the right
of selecting which books will be reviewed. Uninvited books not chosen for review will not be returned.
A n p n Chrm. Ini. Ed E11,ql. 1997. 36, N o . 3
threat facing the US chemical industry
during World War I, which had the effect
of cutting off essential supplies of chemicals from Germany. The account of
Carothers’ time in Urbana reveals how
much his subsequent life was influenced
by his friendship with James B. Conant,
who at that time held the chair of organic
chemistry at Harvard University, and later-after World War 11-was the US High
Commissioner for Germany (not, however, for Europe, as is wrongly stated in
the book).
In 1926 Carothers went to Paris, which
at that time was the home of the “lost
generation” that included Hemingway,
Ezra Pound, and Scott Fitzgerald with his
wife Zelda. Although these writers were in
Paris at different stages of their lives than
in Carothers’ case, their fates were similar,
ending in alcoholism and suicide. Hermes
hints a t the likely significance of two souvenirs brought back by Carothers from
his stay in Paris: a copy of James Joyce’s
“Ulysses” (banned by the USA authorities at that time), and a slim illustrated
volume entitled “21 Ways to Commit Suicide”. Carothers appears to have brought
back nothing from Paris related to his
work in chemistry.
Beginning in the academic year 1926/
27, Carothers taught a t Harvard University. It was a world that must have seemed
very different from the one he was familiar with: “Fight fiercely, Harvard, fight,
fight, fight!” (Harvard graduate Tom
Lehrer in 1953). Although he had already
published quite a number of papers, in
1928 Carothers accepted a n invitation to
move to DuPont in Wilmington. This was
the era of Stine, who placed great emphasis on fundamental research, and
Carothers was formally assigned to work
on organic chemistry. However, with the
agreement of his superiors, Stine and
Bolton, he concentrated his main efforts
on developing the polymerization section
of DuPont’s experimental station. Here
he worked in the areas of polyesters,
vinylacetylenes, chloroprene, synthetic
rubbers (DuPrene and Neoprene),
“polyalkanes” or ring compounds used in
fragrances and flavoring additives, and
new developments in important techniques such as molecular distillation.
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Later he worked under Bolton in his
Chemical Department, in an environment
clearly orientated towards applied research, and during 1934 and 1935 he carried out his important work on the development of nylon-more precisely, nylon
6-6, the polyamide formed from adipic
acid and hexamethylenediamine. Thus he
made his lasting contribution to chemical
history, and incidentally also helped DuPont to world-wide success and profit.
The above summary, describing what
appears from the outside as a very successful life, conceals a darker side to
Carothers’ personality. Throughout the
book there runs the underlying theme of a
troubled mind, which Hermes characterizes by the term “abulia”. This word appears in few dictionaries, but I eventually
found it in Pschyrembel’s medical dictionary, where it is described as a loss of
willpower and self-control. Carothers began to be aware of his difficulties around
the time of his Ph.D. dissertation, when he
had a serious alcohol problem (surprisingly, during the time of prohibition in the
USA!) and suffered occasional “absences” (brief lapses of awareness). Later
o n he was subject to sudden disappearances and periods of manic depression,
deep melancholy, and neuroses, and was
in the habit of always carrying “cyanide
pills” with him. Sometimes he would be
unable to work, and probably also had
difficulties in communicating at a personal level. Hermes presents a depressing.
and undoubtedly accurate, picture of
Carothers as an introverted scientist who
frequently disliked himself. but at the
same time appeared to his work colleagues as highly gifted, indeed brilliant,
and had no difficulty in communicating
on scientific matters. Thus, the supposed
victim of “abulia” had two quite different
sides to his character: on the one hand the
likeable, widely recognized, and intermittently highly productive colleague
Carothers (who had published about 50
papers and patents within quite a short
time), on the other hand a chemist weakened by periods of illness; apathy, and loss
of willpower.
On the basis of the view that “alcoholism was not a congenital disease” (p.
205), the psychiatrist treating Carothers
15.00+ .25 0
(who, incidentally, also treated Scott
Fitzgerald) recommended marriage as an
appropriate therapy, and Carothers followed that advice. Whether it was the
right advice for such an unhappy man
may be doubted even by those of us with
no medical knowledge. Against this background, the account of Carothers’ unhappy relationships with the girl-friends of his
youth, to which Hermes devotes several
pages, is easier to understand, and makes
an interesting addition to the overall picture. Here, though, and also in other parts
of the book, the description seems unnecessarily long. One is aware throughout
that this is the work of a scientifically
competent author (who has even provided
an appendix with chemical formulas). After his active career as a chemist, Hermes
took an M. A. degree. He now seems to be
now trying (so far unsuccessfully) to arrive at the right compromise between concise scientific writing and an output of
flowery, woolly, and often long-winded
eulogies more characteristic of students of
the humanities. As it turns out, Carothers’
(brief) marriage appears not to have been
unhappy, despite the fact that Hermes introduces the relevant chapter with a quotation from the Reader’s Digest of 1935,
“Be glad you’re neurotic”, which seems
unnecessarily judgmental and below the
Nevertheless, the last year of Carothers’
life was certainly turbulent, and eventually led up to the cataclysm. There was his
first appearance on the international conference scene (in Cambridge, England),
followed by a week-long disappearance to
Paris and the Black Forest, his marriage,
election to membership of the US National Academy of Sciences, and his admission to hospital at the request of his wife.
His “abulia” is nowadays diagnosed as
“neurocirculatory athenia”, a severe form
of anxiety neurosis.
Wallace Hume Carothers ended his
own life on 30 April 1937. However, the
two aspects of his life that we now regard
as closely associated together are not genius and madness, rather they are genius
and alcoholism.
Boy Cornils
Hoechst AG
Frankfurt am Main (Germany)
To See the Obvious. (Series: Profiles,
Pathways, a n d Dreams. Series editor:
J. I. Seeman.) By A . J. Birch. American Chemical Society, Washington,
DC, 1995. xxviii, 269 pp., hardcover
The metal-absolute ethanol-liquid
ammonia process for the partial dehydrogenation of aromatic systems (with sodium as the most usual metal) was first
named by Carl Djerassi and is now universally known as the Birch reduction.
This is a versatile and reliable reaction
that has been a mainstay of synthetic organic chemists for more than half a century and has facilitated the commercial development of the contraceptive “pill”. In
fact, as Ralph Raphael stated at a Gordon
Research Conference, “the verb ‘to birch’
no longer means to thrash. No dictionary
would be so rash as to put this meaning in
first place.” This nomenclature accorded
Arthur John Birch, the esteemed Australian organic chemist, known as “the
grandfather of the contraceptive pill,”
classic and legendary status and led to the
exaggerated rumor that he has been dead
for years. Actually, Birch died quite recently-on December 8, 1995. Despite a
hospital stay in May 1995 for renal failure, Birch characteristically told Profifes,
Pathways, and Dreams editor Jeff Seeman, “I just refused to die. I’m very
strong minded. Probably too strongminded,” and he completed the page
proof corrections for his carefully written
autobiography, the 18th in Seeman’s series, just after his dismissal from the hospital shortly before his 80th birthday last
Admittedly a perfectionist (he destroyed his only copy of his doctoral thesis
shortly after obtaining his degree because
he regarded the work as “unimaginative
potboiling”), Birch spent nearly a decade
working on this book. The title is derived
from a compliment tendered to him in
1946 by colleague M. A. T. Rogers of Imperial Chemical Industries, Ltd. (ICI),
“You are the best person I know for seeing
the obvious.” Although Birch calls his
book “the personal story, over 50 years,
of the making of one chemist, embracing
general social, political, ethical, and historical aspects of scientific research of
technical and philosophical significance,
applied in organization and teaching,”
he does not consider himself the hero:
“My ‘hero’ is organic chemistry in its
adolescence up to its present adult
Birch was born on August 3, 1915 in
Sydney, Australia of a poor family and
became interested in science at the age of
Verlagsgesellschufc mbH, 0-49451 Weinheim, 1997
about ten when he was intrigued by the
apparent bending caused by refraction of
a stick standing in water. A legacy of E 100
from his Aunt Maude, who died in 1924,
enabled his father to buy him some basic
chemical equipment. By the age of 12 he
had taught himself organic chemistry
from Julius B. Cohen’s textbook, and his
first home experiments involved steamdistilling leaves and resins of Australian
plants and the preparing of ethanol from
figs growing in the family garden and converting it to ether and ethyl bromide. He
later became interested in natural products chemistry because he was intrigued
by the pleasant smells of eucalyptus and
wondered what makes the leaves of different trees so different. Beautiful crystals
appealed to him aesthetically, so he later
usually avoided “messy” technical areas
of great biological importance. From his
early years he was attracted by “the broad
sweep of ideas collected around philosophically defined examples that can be
tested experimentally.”
Because of his father’s illness, Birch was
forced to become responsible and to work
hard for his own livelihood from the age
of 17, which led him to “acquire autonomy and independence, work attitudes that
I carried through life despite an inherent
dreaminess and laziness and boredom
with detail.” He attended the University
of Sydney during the nadir of the depression (1933-1938), receiving his M. Sc.
degree for a study of a-phellandrene and
a-thujene. In those days Australian universities did not award doctorates, so he
emigrated to England for graduate study.
He chose Oxford rather than Imperial
College, London “largely because of the
reputation of [Sir] Robert Robinson compared with that of Ian Heilbron.” After
receiving his D. Phil. degree for a study of
long-chain fatty acids (1941), he remained
at Oxford on an ICI grant, working on
synthetic steroids with the aim of assisting
fighter pilots through the use of cortical
hormones. This led him to devise novel
methods of introducing methyl groups
and of achieving partial reductions of aromatic systems, resulting in the Birch reduction (1942).
Birch had told Robinson of his work on
reductions and had “interpreted his expressed lack of interest as permission to
carry on this work.” According to 1969
Nobel chemistry laureate Sir Derek H. R.
Barton, “Robinson was away from Oxford during much of the war, and when he
found out about Birch’s work, he was furious. Birch was certainly very seriously
considered for a Nobel Prize, but I think
that Sir Robert torpedoed it!. . . Robert
Robinson acted on his animosities.” Birch
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AngeN,. Chem. Ini. Ed. Engl. 1997, 36. No. 3
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