Captain Charlie

Charles Herty’s vision of a self-reliant America kicked off the American chemical industry. He traveled the United States championing a national approach to chemistry, calling on American businesses, government, and universities.

By Dana Ricci | May 17, 2011

Charles Holmes Herty spent much of his later life on board trains. He traveled the United States championing a national approach to chemistry, calling on American businesses, government, and universities to collaborate and create a “self-contained” chemical industry. In speech after speech he insisted that only this approach would eliminate the country’s chemical reliance on other nations.

Captain Charlie.jpg

Charles Holmes Herty

Charles Holmes Herty.

Science History Institute

The first 32 years of Herty’s life showed little evidence of his future passion for chemical self-reliance. He was born in Milledgeville, Georgia, on December 4, 1867; studied chemistry at the University of Georgia; received his doctorate in chemistry from Johns Hopkins University in 1890; and then returned to the University of Georgia, where in 1891 he became a chemistry professor.

In 1899 Herty traveled to Europe, where he spent half a year in Switzerland and half a year in Germany studying applied chemistry. His German experience changed the course of his life, for he discovered a whole new system for doing science, one where chemistry thrived because of government and industry funding. On his return Herty joined the U.S. Bureau of Forestry where he developed a cup-and-gutter system that collected pine resin for turpentine without killing trees. He patented the process in 1903 and created the Herty Turpentine Cup Company, his only profitable venture in chemistry.

Herty’s true love was in educating others. He returned to academia in 1908 and served as chair of the chemistry department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill until 1915. Herty, called “Captain Charlie” by his students, urged them to take their knowledge of chemistry beyond the classroom walls and do something for their state or country.

In 1915 and 1916, a pivotal time for American chemistry, Herty served as president of the American Chemical Society (ACS). In May 1915 a German submarine torpedoed and sank the British passenger liner Lusitania, killing 128 Americans. The attack on a civilian vessel sailing from the United States turned opinion against Germany. Science, and Herty, quickly became involved. Herty selected two chemists to serve on Thomas Edison’s committee for developing weapons of defense and on the Naval Consulting Board. One of Herty’s greatest contributions to American war preparations grew out of his work on the “nitrogen problem” caused by the increased demand for the nitric acid essential in manufacturing explosives. His proposals led the ACS to commission a letter from Herty to President Woodrow Wilson asking for legislation that would both encourage chemical independence and protect against competition from abroad.

As ACS president, Herty followed a tiresome tour schedule of speeches, including the extra speeches he squeezed in at nearby college campuses and chemical plants while on ACS business. He spoke of the country’s capabilities and its need for a chemical industry not dependent on foreign sources of supply. The British naval blockade of German shipping had left the United States scrambling for German dyes and pharmaceuticals, and Herty felt that a fully developed chemical industry was not only desirable but necessary.

In 1917 Herty became the first full-time editor of the Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry. He used his editorial pulpit to call for business, government, and industry to unite in creating an independent American chemical industry. In his first issue he declared that “COOPERATION” would be his editorial slogan.

Herty expanded the Journal’s focus to include national issues that involved chemistry, such as creating an American chemical industry that would free the country from Germany’s grip on national and industrial security. He made efforts to bridge the science-public gap and assured the people that American chemists were just as capable as German ones. In his final editorial Herty wrote that over the last five years chemists had made the public aware of chemistry’s importance. This early advocate for a national science policy wrote that “the response . . . has been fine, and America is better off to-day because of it all.”