Nieuwland, Julius Arthur

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(b.Hansbeke, Belgium, 14 February 1878; d. Washington, D.C., 11 June 1936)

organic chemistry.

Nieuwland was the son of poor Flemings who in 1880 immigrated to South Bend, Indiana, where they joined a settlement of Flemish speakers from the Ghent region. Nieuwland was educated in a German school. He graduated from Notre Dame University in 1899, and studied for the priesthood at the Congregation of the Holy Cross in South Bend and then at Holy Cross College of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He was ordained in 1903. Meanwhile, he studied botany and chemistry at the Catholic University, gaining a Ph.D. in 1904 with a thesis—which contained the germ of much of his later work—on the reactions of acetylene. His discovery of the reaction between acetylene and arsenic trichloride (which he did not pursue because of the noxious nature of the product) led to the development of the poison gas and vesicant lewisite (named after W. Lee Lewis) in World War I.

For several years Nieuwland almost abandoned chemistry and taught botany at Notre Dame, an interest which he maintained throughout his life. Botanical excursions were one of his favorite relaxations, and he published many papers on the subject—although none of them seem to be of importance. In 1909 Nieuwland founded the journal American Midland Naturalist; he edited it until near the end of his life.

In 1918 Nieuwland became professor of organic chemistry at Notre Dame and, with a series of junior collaborators, resumed his work on acetylene. He was able to polymerize acetylene under controlled conditions, using a cuprous chloride ammonium–chloride catalyst, to give a mixture of which the main constituent was divinyl-acetylene (hex-1,5-diene 3-yne). In 1925 a chance encounter at a scientific meeting led to the collaboration of Nieuwland with the firm of Du Pont, which was interested in this reaction. The Du Pont chemists modified the polymerization to produce good yields of vinyl-acetylene (but-1-ene 3-yne), which on treatment with hydrogen chloride formed 2-chlorobutadiene (“Chloroprerte”). This in turn could be polymerized to the first really successful synthetic rubber, which Du Pont marketed in the early 1930’s as “Duprene” or neoprene.

Nieuwland died suddenly of a heart attack while visiting his old university in Washington.


I. Original Works. A complete list of Nieuwland’s papers is given in American Midland Naturalist, 17 , no. 4 (1936), vii-xv. There are ninety-seven biological articles, eighty-eight articles cats chemistry, including, in addition to his acetylene studies, much pioneer work on the catalytic properties of boron trifluoride. His most important paper, “A New Synthetic Rubber: Chloroprene and Its Polymers,” in Journal of the American Chemical Society, 53 (1931), 4198, was followed by a companion paper from the Du Pont team, ibid., 4203. See also The Chemistry of Acetylene (New York, 1945), written with R. R. Vogt, which has a portrait as frontispiece.

II. Secondary Literature. Nieuwland is noticed in Dictionary of American Biography, supp. 2 (1958), 488-489, and in National Cyclopedia of American Biography XXVI. The best account of his life and work is in a memorial ed. of the Notre Dame house journal, Catalyzer (February 1937), 39-44.

W. V. Farrar