As was the case with so many of the other 19th-century and early 20th-century Catholic university figures, Julius Nieuwland (1878-1936) was an immigrant. Virtually all of the Catholic institutions of higher education founded before 1950 were originally established to teach immigrants or children of immigrants.
Like so many émigrés, the Belgian Nieuwland arrived as a child and grew up here to make important contributions to academic and industrial life in the United States and beyond. After studying at Notre Dame and The Catholic University of America, Nieuwland went on to teach chemistry in South Bend, as a Holy Cross priest.
It was on these university campuses that he made a number of chemical discoveries. He got so sick off the process where acetylene, a gas compound of carbon and hydrogen, reacted with arsenic tricholride that he had to be hospitalized. Eventually this resultant compound was further developed by others into lewisite (also called G-34 or the “Dew of Death”) which was explored for use as a secret chemical weapon, but thankfully of which the U.S. destroyed all domestic stockpiles in 2012. Unlike mustard gas, lewisite causes immediate and potentially fatal effects, even if the enemy was using a gas mask. Its antidote, British Anti-Lewisite (BAL), is still used to treat non-weapons related arsenic poisoning today.
More beneficially, Nieuwland polymerized acetylene to produce divinylacetylene, a synthetic form of rubber, later called neoprene. Today its uses include cable insulation, telephone wiring, transmission belts, window gaskets, conveyer belts, and perhaps most notably, wetsuits. Surfers and scuba divers of the world, you owe a debt of gratitude to Father Nieuwland trekking to his lab through those brutal mid-west winters!
His work was recognized by a number of organizations, including DuPont and the American Chemical Society. He’s the only Catholic priest in the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame. Notre Dame’s Nieuwland Science Hall bears his name.
Like so many of the figures that we have explored in this series, he saw no conflict between a committed life of faith and a rigorous study of scientific inquiry on its own merits. Saint Ignatius of Loyola tells us to find God in all things. Father Nieuwland concurred, finding him in polymerized acetylene. (I confess it wouldn’t have been the first place I checked). But he was able to better the world through his serious inquiries into its material causes, to use Aristotelian language. That is the Catholic sacramental approach to reality, where the mundane reflects the divine, at its best and most unexpected.
Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., a native of Collingswood, teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.