Carothers, Wallace Hume (1896-1937), was an important American organic chemist of the 1900's. His work helped determine the nature of polymers and how they are formed and led to the production of nylon and the first synthetic rubber. His research also helped lay the foundation for the development of polymeric materials and the manufacture of plastics.
Carothers was born in Burlington, Iowa. He received a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1924 and taught organic chemistry there until 1926. He then taught organic chemistry at Harvard University. In 1928, the DuPont Company in Wilmington, Delaware, hired him to head a research laboratory. Within two years, Carothers and his DuPont team had created neoprene, the first synthetic rubber. DuPont began manufacturing it for shoe soles, industrial hoses, and other products.
Meanwhile, Carothers and his team continued to work on building compounds called polymers, long molecules made up of repeating patterns of smaller molecules through a process called polymerization. As they worked, they found that water formed during polymerization and hindered molecules from linking up in a polymer chain. To solve this problem, Carothers and Julian Hill, a DuPont researcher, devised a machine called a “molecular still.” The still evaporated the water during polymerization, and the Carothers team was able to create longer polymers than had ever been made before. In 1935, Carothers polymerized a substance called polyhexamethylene adipamide. That polymer had a melting point of 482°F (250 °C), which was suitable for use as a textile. DuPont introduced the new material, nylon, to the world in 1938.
Nylon was the world's first commercial synthetic fiber, but Carothers never lived long enough to witness its commercial success. He suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1937.