Wallace Hume Carothers was born on April 27, 1896 in Burlington, Iowa.
As a youth, Wallace was fascinated by tools and mechanical devices and spent many hours experimenting.
After his high school graduation, and under pressure from his father, Wallace enrolled in the Capital City Commercial College at Des Moines, Iowa where his father was Vice-President, completing the accountancy and secretarial curriculum in July of 1915.
In September of 1915, Wallace entered Tarkio College in Missouri. Although he initially majored in English, he switched to chemistry under the influence of Arthur Pardee, head of that department.
He graduated from Tarkio in 1920 at the age of 24 with a bachelor of science degree. Then he went to the University of Illinois for his master of arts degree, which he received in 1921 under the guidance of Professor Carl Marvel.
During the 1921–22 school year, Wallace held a one-year appointment as a chemistry instructor at the University of South Dakota. It was at the University of South Dakota that he began his independent research that resulted in an article accepted by the Journal of the American Chemical Society. In this paper he measured physical properties of phenylisocyanate and of diazobenzene-imide (now known as phenyl azide). The properties have very similar values, which led him to the conclusion that the structure of the second compound is C6H5-N=N=N, with the three nitrogen atoms in a linear chain rather than a ring as previously thought.
Then Wallace went back to the University of Illinois to study for his Ph.D. under Roger Adams. He specialized in organic chemistry and minored in physical chemistry and mathematics. His Ph.D. was awarded in 1924.
Wallace stayed at the University of Illinois for two years as an instructor in organic chemistry after receiving his Ph.D.
Then in 1926, he moved to Harvard University as an instructor in organic chemistry. James B. Conant, who became President of Harvard College in 1933, later said of Wallace Carothers:
In his research, Dr. Carothers showed even at this time the high degree of originality which marked his later work. He was never content to follow the beaten path or to accept the usual interpretations of organic reactions. His first thinking about polymerization and the structure of substances of high molecular weight began while he was at Harvard.
By 1927, DuPont had decided to fund fundamental, pure research: research not deliberately aimed at the development of a money-making product.
Soon after, Dupont asked Wallace to come to Wilmington, Delaware and discuss the possibility of being in charge of organic chemistry at the new DuPont laboratory for fundamental research.
The thought of leaving academia was difficult for Wallace.
At first he refused DuPont’s offer of employment, explaining that “I suffer from neurotic spells of diminished capacity which might constitute a much more serious handicap there than here.”
In spite of this admission, a DuPont executive, Hamilton Bradshaw, traveled to Harvard, offered Wallace a salary of $500 a month (compared to only $267 at Harvard) and ultimately convinced him to change his mind.
Later in a letter to Wilko Machetanz, his Tarkio roommate, Wallace expanded on his feelings of depression: “I find myself, even now, accepting incalculable benefits proffered out of sheer magnanimity and good will and failing to make even such trivial return as circumstances permit and human feeling and decency demand, out of obtuseness or fear or selfishness or mere indifference and complete lack of feeling.”
Wallace Carothers began working at the DuPont Experimental Station on February 6, 1928.
By the summer of 1928, Wallace headed a small staff of Ph.D. chemists and two consultants (Dr. Roger Adams, his thesis advisor, and Dr. Carl Marvel, his instructor of organic chemistry at the University of Illinois).
The laboratory where Wallace and these top scientists worked soon became known as “Purity Hall”.
It was discouraging that by the middle of 1929, “Purity Hall” had not produced a polymer.
Then in January of 1930, Dr. Elmer K. Bolton became assistant chemical director in the chemical department, and thus, Wallace’s immediate boss.
Elmer Bolton demanded practical results in 1930.
Bolton asked Wallace to examine the chemistry of an acetylene polymer with the goal of creating synthetic rubber.
Then in April of 1930, one of Wallace Carothers’ staff chemists, Dr. Arnold M. Collins, isolated chloroprene, a liquid which polymerized to produce a solid material that resembled rubber.
This DuPont product was the first synthetic rubber and is known today as Neoprene.
Also in 1930, Dr. Julian Hill, another staff chemist on Wallace’s team, began work on attempting to produce a polyester with a molecular weight above 4,000.
His efforts were soon met with great success when he produced a synthetic polymer with a molecular weight of about 12,000.
This high molecular weight allowed the melted polymer to be stretched out into strings of fiber.
Thus the team had also created the first synthetic silk, described by the chemists as a superpolyester.
Wallace Carothers worked out the theory of step-growth polymerization and derived the Carothers equation which relates the average degree of polymerization to the fractional conversion (or yield) of monomer into polymer. This equation shows that for a high molecular weight, a very high fractional conversion is needed (for step-growth polymers only).
Then in 1931, Wallace Carothers moved into a house in Wilmington with three other DuPont scientists, which became known as Whiskey Acres.
He was no recluse, but his depressive moods often prevented Wallace from enjoying all the activities in which his roommates took part.
In a letter to close friend Frances Spencer, Wallace stated, “There doesn’t seem to be much to report concerning my experiences outside of chemistry. I’m living out in the country now with three other bachelors, and they being socially inclined have all gone out in tall hats and white ties, while I after my ancient custom sit sullenly at home.”
At about this time, Wallace also reportedly showed Julian Hill that he kept a capsule of cyanide attached to his watch chain.
In 1932, the agreement under which Wallace was hired was modified by Dr. Bolton. “Purity Hall” would now focus on “effecting a closer relationship between the ultimate objectives of our work and the interests of the company.”
This meant that funds were shifted from pure research to practical research.
Wallace could not see himself as a skilled commercial researcher.
Around this time, Wallace began having an affair with a married woman, Sylvia Moore, who in turn, filed for divorce from her husband in 1933.
Wallace also worried about the financial problems of his parents and planned to bring them to Wilmington.
With no thought of the possible emotional ramifications of this move, he bought a house in Arden about ten miles from the Experimental Station and moved into it with his parents. He was 37 years old at the time.
Interactions with his parents soon became tense.
Wallace was still seeing Sylvia Moore, who was now single, and his parents highly disapproved of this relationship. Finding the tension in the household too wearing, his parents returned to Des Moines in the spring of 1934.
So Wallace turned his attention to fibers again.
The team substituted diamines for glycols to produce a type of polymer called a polyamide. These substances were much more stable than the polyesters formed by using the glycols. The ability of polyamides to form crystalline domains through hydrogen bonding gives them increased mechanical properties. Therefore they might produce a synthetic silk that would be practical for everyday use.
It was during this productive period of research, in the summer of 1934, that Wallace Carothers disappeared.
He did not come into work, and no one knew where he was.
He was found in a small psychiatric clinic, Pinel Clinic, near the famous Phipps Clinic associated with Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
Apparently, he had become so depressed that he drove to Baltimore to consult a psychiatrist, who admitted him in the clinic.
Shortly after his release from the clinic, Wallace returned to DuPont.
His research soon became an unrestricted foray into the unknown, with no practical objective in mind.
But the research into super-polymers was a new field in chemistry and Du Pont believed that any new chemical breakthrough would likely be of value to the company.
In the course of this research, Wallace obtained some super-polymers that became viscous solids at high temperatures, and the observation was made that filaments could be made from this material if a rod were dipped in the molten polymer and withdrawn.
On February 28, 1935, Gerard Berchet, under the direction of Wallace Carothers, produced a half-ounce of polymer from hexamethylenediamine and adipic acid, creating polyamide 6-6, the substance that would come to be known as Nylon.
It was difficult to work with because of its high melting point, but Bolton chose this polyamide as the one to develop commercially.
He selected Dr. George Graves to work with Wallace Carothers on the “Nylon” project.
Eventually Graves supplanted Wallace as the leader of the project.
In addition, dozens of chemists and engineers worked on refining polyamide 6-6 into a viable commercial product.
On February 21, 1936, Wallace Carothers married Helen Sweetman.
Soon after, on April 30, 1936, Wallace Carothers was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, a very high honor.
Wallace became the first industrial organic chemist to receive this honor.
Yet by June of 1936, in spite of this honor which validated his contributions to science, Wallace could not shake the depression that prevented him from working.
He was admitted involuntarily to the Philadelphia Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital, a prestigious mental hospital, where his psychiatrist was Dr. Kenneth Appel.
One month later, Wallace was given permission to leave the institute to go hiking in the Tyrolean Alps with friends.
The plan was for him to day hike with Dr. Roger Adams and Dr. John Flack for two weeks. After they left, he stayed on, hiking by himself, without sending word to anyone, even his wife.
On September 14, he suddenly appeared at Helen’s desk at the Experimental Station.
From that point on WEallace was not expected to perform any real work at the Experimental Station.
He would often go in and visit his wife and the team.
Soon Wallace began living in Whiskey Acres again, after his wife had agreed with Dr. Appel that she was not strong enough to watch over him.
Then on January 8, 1937, Wallace’s sister Isobel died of pneumonia.
Wallace and Helen Carothers traveled to Chicago to attend her funeral and then to Des Moines for her burial.
On April 28, 1937, Wallace Carothers went to the Experimental Station wanting to work.
That night he checked into a Philadelphia hotel room and committed suicide by taking cyanide dissolved in lemon juice, knowing that the ingestion of cyanide in an acidic solution would greatly intensify the speed and effect of the poison.
No note was found.
His daughter, Jane, was born seven months later on November 27, 1937.
Wallace Carothers was posthumously inducted into the Alpha Chi Sigma Hall of Fame in 1982.
Now WE know em