Camille and Henry Dreyfus: Two Pioneers and the Foundation that Honors Them


By Dorothy Dinsmoor
Presentation at the 220th Annual
American Chemical Society Meeting
August 21, 2000


The story of the Foundation begins in 1946, when a Swiss organic chemist and businessman, Dr. Camille Dreyfus, decided to create an organization devoted exclusively to providing support to talented chemical scientists. His goals for the Foundation reflected his conviction that chemistry held the keys to a better world. In his words, the Foundation was created "to advance the science of chemistry, chemical engineering, and related sciences as a means of improving human relations and circumstances around the world."

But behind this public statement of purpose was a personal motivation - to honor the memory of his much loved brother Henry, also an organic chemist, with whom he had shared years of struggles and triumphs in their development of the first commercially successful method of cellulose acetate fiber production, the basis of the Celanese fiber and chemical companies. Henry had died in London two years before Camille created the

Foundation, which was first called simply the Dreyfus Foundation. After Camille's death in 1956, Foundation directors voted to change the name to honor both men. (These photos were taken in the 1930s, by the way, and I think they capture something of the very different personalities of these men - Camille the aggressive businessman, and Henry quite content to stay in the lab.)

The technical and business achievements of the brothers which made the Foundation possible began in a small laboratory in a comer of their father's garden, in the city of Basel, Switzerland. It's from that city that the Foundation's logo derives, as you see it here. It's an interpretation of the official symbol of the City of Basel, which is a bishop's crook.

Both Camille and Henry had a fine education, having received their Ph.D. degrees with highest honors from the University of Basel, Camille in 1901 and Henry three years later. Their initial resources included some chemistry books, a few test tubes, a great many ideas - and above all, an unswerving determination to apply their science to a great project With full respect for the basic science he had studied at Basel, Camille at the same time was frustrated by what he experienced as its limitations. What he wanted was applied science, and in time he set out to apply it to everybody who wore clothes!  

It took many years, and it was a momentous struggle, but Camille and Henry succeeded in running their backyard laboratory into a vast industrial empire that thrived in the U.S., Great Britain, and Canada. Camille Dreyfus was founder and chairman of Celanese Corporation of America and Canadian Celanese Ltd., while Henry headed their European operation, British Celanese Ltd.

The brothers developed their interest in cellulose acetate during postdoctoral study at the Sorbonne, at a time when the substance was little more than a laboratory curiosity. They set up a small laboratory on the Rhine, where their first breakthrough was development of a cellulose acetate motion picture film offered as an alternative to cellulose nitrate, a highly flammable and explosive compound that was used at the time, with often tragic results: periodically, projectionists were seriously burned when the heat of the projection lamp caused the film to burst into flames. The Dreyfuses' new cellulose acetate film was quickly accepted by the fledgling movie industry.

In exploring the potential for a cellulose acetate compound, the Dreyfus brothers early on identified the possibility of using it to make s ilk-like artificial fibers and fabrics. But their work on this new idea was interrupted by World War I.  With hardly a missed beat, they found themselves at the center of international demand for cellulose acetate dope to be used in aircraft production.

At the time, the wooden wings of aircraft were covered with canvas that tended to tear and flap during flight; more important, the nitrocellulose dope then used as a coating to strengthen the aircraft frame was highly inflammable and easily ignited by incendiary tracer bullets. On learning of the Dreyfus brothers' work with cellulose acetate, the British government invited Camille and Henry to build an acetate plant in England, which they did, and in turn U.S. Secretary of War Newton Baker issued a similar invitation. As a result, early in 1918 the American Cellulose & Chemical Manufacturing Company opened a plant in Cumberland, Maryland, supplying initially 1.5 million pounds of nonflammable acetate to coat the wings and fuselages of American aircraft.

No sooner had this new venture hit its stride than the war ended, a scant seven months after the Dreyfuses had begun production. Returning to their laboratory, the brothers resumed in earnest their development work on cellulose acetate. "Let us look around to really make something big," they said to each other. Their investigations explored the celluloid industry as well as the so-called artificial silk industry, whose chief product at the time was rayon fibers and fabrics.

They say knowledge and money is a combination that's hard to beat. Camille Dreyfus knew he had half the combination when he and his brother had completed the last of some 20,000 experiments from 1910 to 1921 on how best to produce a commercial form of cellulose acetate. With youth and knowledge on his side, the fight for money and power never took on the aspect of anything more than a game - a game he played for big stakes, gambling millions and millions of dollars, sometimes his own, sometimes others', to prove to the world, as he said, that "man could make a better fiber than nature."

Camille and Henry Dreyfus encountered a great many obstacles and disappointments in their journey from a specimen fiber to full commercial production. One of their earliest problems was the discovery that the new cellulose acetate yam they had created - using their own method of downward dry spinning - was not amenable to standard knitting and weaving machinery. Their answer? Learn all they could about knitting and weaving, until they knew enough to adapt the traditional apparatus to acetate yarn. To reach their great goal of commercial production, they didn't hesitate to subsidize knitters and weavers to work on the new equipment initially.

Hard on the heels of the fabrication problems came the discovery that cellulose acetate could not be dyed using conventional dyes. The Dreyfuses were at first understandably frantic and headed home to Basel, where they conferred with the leading dyers of tile time, who treated the brothers to their darkest prediction: no known dyes would ever take. "Then," responded the brothers, "new dyes must be invented." A group of Britain's leading dyestuff manufacturers and dyers, driven at fever pitch by the Dreyfus brothers, aided them in creating an entirely new series of dyes for acetate yarn. For his work in this area, Henry Dreyfus was awarded the Perkin Research Medal, the highest honor of the Society of Dyers and Colourists of Great Britain. He received that honor in 1938.

Marketing their new yams and the fabrics textile manufacturers made from them presented another set of problems for the Dreyfus brothers. Despite growing acceptance of their yarns, Camille and Henry soon realized that to offer the market the quality fabrics they had in mind - ones that would command higher retail prices and stand distinct from the "bargain basement" fabrics that dominated synthetics - they would simply have to enter the fabric business themselves. This they did, producing fabrics under the brand name Celanese that impressed for their quality of both weaving and styling.

Camille Dreyfus, a great merchandiser, succeeded in creating demand at the retail level first, an uncommon approach in the textiles industry. He could be seen on many an occasion walking up Fifth Avenue to pay a visit to apparel buyers at the best retail stores, bolts of Celanese fabric under his arm. As a measure of success in this area of their work, for many years the fabric business represented a full 20 percent of total sales of the Celanese companies.

These chemical pioneers struck new ground in a number of other areas which changed the face of the synthetic fibers industry. For example, their acetate products had solubility characteristics unlike any previously obtained and with much higher viscosities. Camille and Henry were the first to realize the importance of the acetyl content of cellulose acetate as it affects the properties of the material, and they showed that viscosity, high tensile strength, and elasticity are complementary. They also found out how to avoid cellulose degradation, long before the polymeric nature of cellulose was discovered many years later.

Camille Dreyfus was imaginative and determined; above all, he was an optimist. He and his brother were fully involved in every aspect of Celanese operations - product development, production, financing, marketing, sales, and research. On the marketing and research side, Camille was notoriously aggressive. One anecdote typifies his consuming interest in the performance of Celanese fabrics. It's said he and his wife were going to a dinner one evening. "She had a new black-and-white dress," he related, "and I said it was wonderful. 'It's a pity you can't make something like this,' she told me. 'It's a Paris gown.' I said, ' Let me see that material. ' I put my lighted cigarette through the dress - and the material curled up in a knob around the hole. It was nonflammable - it was our own Celanese." One can't help wondering how the story would have gone if the fabric hadn't been Celanese ... ! But no doubt Camille was pretty certain of the outcome of that particular experiment.

In 1987, Celanese merged with the giant German chemical firm Hoechst and has since undergone a series of product shifts as has been the case generally in chemicals. Last year Celanese was spun off from Hoechst, with sales at $5.3 billion, and the firm is once again traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Over the fifty-four years since the Foundation's beginnings, its directors and operating staff have sought to perpetuate Camille Dreyfus' abundant confidence in the future of chemistry. His interest and belief in young scientists and scientists-to-be was reflected in one of the Foundation's first initiatives, the support of the National Merit Scholarship program for high school students during its earliest years.

A broad range of institutions and chemical endeavors have received Foundation support over the years. In the early days, the Foundation made two sizable grants to support the construction of facilities that promised to strengthen the chemical enterprise: the Camille Eduoard Dreyfus Chemistry Building at MlT, and the Camille Dreyfus Laboratory of Polymer Chemistry at Research Triangle Institute - the first building of the new RTI complex, incidentally.

Three endowments were also made in the early years - to MlT, to Stanford University and to The Rockefeller University, for chaired Camille Dreyfus professorships.

Currently, the Foundation conducts seven award programs designed to meet a range of needs and opportunities in the chemical sciences. These are all described in detail on our Web site, and in the literature package that's available on the table near the door. Today, the focus of our symposium will be the work and the insights of some of the chemists and chemical engineers we have been privileged to support through one or more of these programs.

In closing, I'd like to quote from a letter in the Foundation archives from Jean Dreyfus Boissevain, Camille Dreyfus' widow, who succeeded him as life president of the Foundation, as he specified in his will. To a young chemist friend, she wrote of her husband, "The Doctor was completely dedicated to his chosen profession. He was a man of simple tastes, great charm and kindness, with the heart of a pioneer .... He faced many vicissitudes, struggles and disappointments in his development of cellulose acetate processes, but never doubted his ability to overcome all the obstacles. A writer in Fortune magazine described him well when he said, 'Dr. Camille Dreyfus is the sort of man who would find trouble in paradise - and probably beat the proprietor to a solution!'"

Her letter continues, "He was always interested in the young people and at the end of his life, remarked that he would like a few more years to devote himself to chemistry and spend his time among the young scientists who, he said, amazed him by their great knowledge, enthusiasm, and curiosity." No doubt he would have been delighted to be among the present company.

Thank you.

Dorothy Dinsmoor

August 21, 2000