Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Meet the Priest who invented Flubber

Remember the storyline from Walt Disney's The Absent Minded Professor(1961)?  Fred MacMurray played a small Midwestern college chemistry professor who invented a miraculous substance which he named Flubber. He saved the football team and got the girl in the end. I think I found the real-life embodiment-well, forget the getting the girl part and focus on the chemistry and small midwestern university parts.

Reverend Julius Nieuwland (1878-1936)

I ran across the name Julius Nieuwland recently. Nieuwland was a priest and professor at Notre Dame University. As part of his Ph.D research, Nieuwland discovered Lewisite which was produced in tonnage quantitites by the U.S. during World War I as a poison gas.  Nieuwland had nothing to do with this application and distanced himself from the molecule (it's named for an enthusiastic supporter of gas warfare, named Lewis). Later, as a professor of organic chemistry at Notre Dame, Nieuwland successfully polymerized acetylene into divinylacetylene, laying the groundwork for the discovery of neoprene by Du Pont.

One of Nieuwland's more famous students was Knute Rockne, which even explains the football part of the otherwise bizarre Flubber story.


  1. So Knute was 'son of flubber'? -- Many of the brain cells present when I saw that movie have died, and I am relying on the dim and distant reflection of the memory of the sequel to 'Flubber'. Maybe I'm channeling 'Herbie the Love Bug'? Did Dr. Nieuwland invent a living automobile?

  2. Actually, turns out the whole "Flubber genre" (lol) was written by a LDS guy named Samuel Taylor. So maybe the inspiration wasn't a Catholic priest. I still like the story.

    So sue me

  3. Ok, sub in a Mormon bishop and it still works.