This week Philadelphia's Franklin Institute presents one of its coveted gold medals to a man who is much less known to the public than are the changes his work has wrought in the many common things people use, from toothbrush handles, telephones and false gums to gear wheels, automobile parts and airplane bodies. Even more than most scientists, the man is publicity-shy. He is Leo Hendrik Baekeland, inventor of Bakelite, "Father of Plastics."
Born in Ghent in Flemish Belgium 76 years ago, young Leo became an ardent photographer. At night, when his trusting father thought he was studying, Leo was busy in his darkroom. When he tried out the indelible properties of silver nitrate on a schoolmate's face, the other boy got panicky and went to a doctor, who suggested hydrochloric acid as a remover. The results were painful. Haled before a school board, Baekeland put some silver nitrate on his own skin, quickly and harmlessly removed it with another chemical.
He entered the University of Ghent as its youngest student, graduated in 1882 summa cum laude, promptly became an assistant professor of chemistry. He got a medal and a traveling scholarship, but also got married (to his senior professor's daughter), emigrated to the U. S. and went to work for a photographic supply manufacturer. Then he started his own consulting practice, invented a quick-action photographic printing paper called Velox, organized Nepera Chemical Co. to manufacture it. George Eastman of Eastman Kodak bought him out.
Legend has it that Eastman paid Baekeland $1,000,000, several times the minimum sum on which the young inventor had set his mind. At all events, he found himself, at 35, rich enough to do what he pleased. He converted a stable in his back yard into a laboratory. He found that phenol (carbolic acid) and formaldehyde interacted to make a non-melting, non-dissolving solid like nothing in nature. This was Bakelite, foundation stone of the synthetic plastic industry. After forming General Bakelite Co. (later Bakelite Corp.) to exploit his discovery, Baekeland methodically listed 43 industries in which he thought it would be useful. Today it would be hard to find 43 in which it is not used.
Until last year when Bakelite Corp. was added to the Union Carbide & Carbon empire, Dr. Baekeland used to visit his Manhattan office frequently. Now he is "fully retired" but far from inactive. A hale old man with a courtly old-world manner, he has never had time for politics or social affairs, but his talk betrays an encyclopedic knowledge of world events and history. He loves the sea and sailing, winters at the place in Cocoanut Grove, Fla. which he bought from the late William Jennings Bryan. He dives for sponges from his unpretentious yacht.