Hill, Julian Werner

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Hill, Julian Werner

(b. 4 September 1904 in St. Louis, Missouri; d. 28 January 1996 in Hockessin, Delaware), Du Pont research chemist whose work in the 1930s led to the creation of nylon, one of the company’s most versatile and lucrative products.

Hill was the son of Werner Kamlah Hill and Pearl Sames Reuther. He attended local schools and graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 1924. Hill then earned a doctorate in organic chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1928.

In 1928 Hill went to work for DuPont Company and became a member of the team studying the behavior of certain molecules that combine to form polymers as part of the efforts in pure research the company sponsored at the time. He and other DuPont scientists had reported progress in developing artificial silks like rayon, then coming into use. In 1930 Hill tried to synthesize larger polymers by changing the experimental conditions of his chemical reactions. He and his team accidentally came up with a concoction that the head of DuPont research, Wallace Hume Carothers, thought useless. However, Hill found that the material could be shaped into strands that were remarkably long and strong. His accidental discovery of this tough, taffylike compound revolutionized everyday life, and it proved its worth in many practical applications. Introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, the substance was named nylon. On 23 July 1934 Hill married Mary Louisa (“Polly”) Butcher; they had three children.

Nylon’s first practical application to a consumer product came in 1938, when the polymer was introduced as toothbrush bristles. What made it a commercial success was its use in stockings, first sold to consumers in 1939. Similar to silk but far less expensive, nylon became the ideal replacement for the silk of stockings and other fashionable clothing. It was also used for fishing lines and surgical sutures.

When the United States entered World War II, the government used most of the nation’s limited supplies of nylon for making parachutes, ropes, and many other military supplies. Since there was not enough nylon for both military and civilian uses, nylon stockings were rationed until the end of the war. During that time, nylon stockings became a valuable item of barter in Europe and achieved the status of an informal currency. Not until the early 1950s was there sufficient production capacity to provide enough of the material for other consumer and commercial uses. Because DuPont held the patent for nylon, Hill did not make a lot of money from his discovery.

Hill was a birdwatcher and wildlife lover, and he expressed his concern over nylon’s effects on the environment. He played the violin and was an avid squash player. During the last years of his career Hill supervised DuPont’s program giving aid to universities for research in physics and chemistry. He retired from DuPont in 1964. Hill died in Hockessin, at the Cokesbury Village retirement community, where he had lived for several years.

For further information on Hill see Charles R. Cornell, ed., Biography Index: A Cumulative Index to Biographical Material in Books and Magazines, September 1995-August 1996 (1996); and American Men and Women of Science, 13th ed. (1976). An obituary is in the New York Times (1 Feb. 1996) and Time (12 Feb. 1996).

Maria Pacheco