Baekeland Leo Hendrik

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Baekeland Leo Hendrik

(b. Ghent, Belgium, 14 November 1863; d. Beacon, New York, 23 February 1944), chemistry.

Baekeland graduated with honors from the Municipal Technical School of Ghent in 1880, received the degree of Doctor of Natural Science from the University of Ghent in 1884, and stayed on to serve as professor of chemistry and physics at the Government Normal School of Science. In 1887 he received first prize in the chemistry division of a competition among the graduates of the four Belgian universities. Baekeland’s travels took him to the United States in 1889, and he settled there, first as an employee of a photographic firm and then as the head of his own company, which manufactured a photographic paper he named Velox. This was a “gaslight paper” like that invented by Josef M. Eder for making, developing, and handling prints from negatives by artificial light. Baekeland perfected the process and sold it in 1899. He then became a consultant in electrochemistry and obtained patents on dissolving salt in spent electrolytes and making more durable diaphragms form asbestos cloth treated with gummy iron hydroxides.

In 1905 Baekeland began his third enterprise, which he developed with great success and pursued until his death: the manufacture of condensation products from phenol and formaldehyde. This condensation had first been described in 1872 by Adolf von Baeyer. In a lecture before the American Chemical Society on 8 February 1909, Baekeland surveyed the previous attempts at industrial utilization of the reaction, which resulted in slow processes and brittle products; then he continued: “..... by the use of small amounts of bases, I have succeeded in preparing a solid initial condensation product, the properties of which simplify enormously all molding operations....” He distinguished three stages of reaction, with a soluble intermediate product. Manufacture of Bakelite resins started in 1907; by 1930, the Bakelite Corporation occupied a 128-acre plant at Bound Brook, New Jersey.

In 1914, Baekeland received the first Chandler Medal. During World War I, he was active in the National Research Council. He was elected president of the American Chemical Society in 1924 and received many other honors.


Bakeland’s writings include “The Synthesis, Constitution, and Uses of Bakelite” in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, 1 (1909)149–161; and “Some Aspects of Industrial Chemistry,” in Science, 40 (1914), 179–198.

Further information on Baekeland and his work can be found in Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, The History of Photography From the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura in the 11th Century up to 1914 (London, 1955), pp. 284 ff.; see also J. Gillis, Leo Hendrik Baekeland (Brussels, 1965).

Eduard Farber.