1896-1937

Wallace Hume Carothers

Location: Second Floor, West Wing, South Wall, Sequence 2

Source: Chemical Heritage Foundation

Sponsor: Gregory L. Baker


In his short life, Carothers helped establish polymer chemistry as a legitimate chemical discipline, and contributed to the founding of two major industries, synthetic rubber and synthetic fibers. Working at DuPont, he found (1930) that vinylacetylene added hydrogen chloride to give chloroprene (2-chloro-1,3-butadiene) which polymerized spontaneously to neoprene, the first commercially successful synthetic rubber made in the U.S. Later, after working on polyesters he shifted to polyamides prepared from dibasic acids and diamines, and in 1935 discovered nylon. The 6-6 polymer (from adipic acid and hexa-methylenediamine, each with 6 carbon atoms), the first commercial synthetic fiber, possessed unique properties not only as a textile but also as a molded plastic.

Carothers was born in Iowa, earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois (1924), began his classic studies on polymerization at Harvard (1926) and in 1927 became head of the organic section at DuPont's new fundamental research program.

Carothers was the first industrial organic chemist to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1936). A modest, shy person troubled by periods of depression and the obsession that he was a scientific failure, he committed suicide on April 29, 1937 by drinking lemon juice laced with cyanide. He is shown in this portrait in a happier moment, on a fishing trip. For more details of his life and work, read the biography "Enough for One Lifetime" by Matthew E. Hermes, published in 1996 by the ACS and the Chemical Heritage Foundation.