Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center

Milton Harris Papers, 1925-1996

Biographical Note

Milton Harris was born in Los Angeles, California in 1906. He received his bachelor of science degree from Oregon Agricultural College in 1926 in chemical engineering and his doctorate in chemistry from Yale in 1929. An innovator, inventor, and a leader in textile fiber utilization, he is responsible for having developed shrink-proof wool, the permanent press treatment of wool, and wrinkle-resistant cotton finishing. He also revolutionized the razor blade industry during his long association with Gillette.

Milton Harris received top honors from many professional societies for his work in applied science and was energetic in corporate and university advisory groups throughout his career. In 1931 Harris, along with colleagues, formed an institute for the study of textiles at the National Bureau of Standards. Ultimately, their work resulted in fibers that were water-repellent, flameproof, and rot proof, and played a major role in the development of synthetic polymers such as nylon, polyester, and plastics. This research likewise proved to be vital during World War II when Harris was asked to work with the U.S. Army Quartermaster General office to develop textiles for use by soldiers.

In 1945 Harris founded his own research laboratory, which later became a subsidiary of the Gillette Company. He was director of research and vice president of Gillette from 1956 until his retirement in 1966. He then devoted his energies to the American Chemical Society - which he served as chairman for five years - and to a host of other scientific organizations and government advisory groups.

At the time of his death, Harris was the holder of 35 patents and the recipient of several medals in the field of chemistry, including the Harold DeWitt Smith Memorial Medal (1966), the Perkin Medal Award (1970), and the Priestley Medal in 1980. An accomplished philanthropist, in 1984 he established the first endowed chair at Oregon State University - the Milton Harris Chair in Polymer Chemistry.

Milton Harris died in 1991.

Timeline for Milton Harris

1906 Born in Los Angeles, California on March 21. The Harris's will later move to Portland, Oregon, where the family operates a small grocery store and where Milton Harris is raised.
1924 Having graduated from Portland's Lincoln High School, Harris begins his university studies at Oregon Agricultural College. He quickly distinguishes himself as an excellent and well-rounded student, becoming captain of the O. A. C. tennis team.
1926 After three years of study, graduates with a bachelor's of science degree in chemical engineering from O. A. C.
Begins his doctoral studies at Yale University, where he will pursue interests in protein chemistry.
1929 Again after three years of study, receives his Ph. D. from Yale.
Accepts a position as chemist at the Cheney Brothers silk mill in South Manchester, Massachusetts. The mill had supported Harris' research fellowship at Yale.
1931 Forms, in collaboration with Pete Johnson and others, an institute for the study of textiles at the National Bureau of Standards. Among other duties, Harris edits the Dyes and Textiles section of Chemical Abstracts. In his time at the Bureau of Standards, Harris' research group publishes nearly 200 papers on textile chemistry and makes important contributions to the study of protein structure and the properties of polymer molecules.
1934 On March 30, marries Carolyn Wolf. The Harris family will come to include two sons, Barney and John.
1942 During World War II, Harris focuses on solving practical issues hampering the U.S. war effort. Among other projects, Harris' group works to improve the integrity of the uniforms worn by soldiers in the field, as well as tent and sandbag fabrics used in theatre. Specific contributions to the shrink-proofing of wool are estimated to save the United States several hundred million dollars over the course of World War II and the Korean War.
1943 Receives the Washington Academy of Sciences Award.
1945 Founds, in collaboration, the Harris Research Laboratory, a consulting group later to become a subsidiary of the Gillette Company. The Laboratory provides its expertise on a number of projects bound for the market, including improved ink pens, polymer-coated razor blades and the forerunner of the cold-wave permanent system (more commonly known as "the perm") for hair. Over time Harris and his colleagues will contribute to the improvement of waterproofing, flame- and radiation-resistance in textiles. They will also design enhanced processes for bleaching cashmere, finishing fur, manufacturing wrinkle-free cotton and moth-proofing wool.
Receives the Olney Medal for Textile Research from the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.
1955 The Gillette Company acquires the Harris Research Laboratory. One year later, Harris is appointed director of research and vice president of the company, a position that he will hold for ten years.
Receives an honorary doctorate from the Philadelphia Textile Institute.
1960 Elected to a one-year term as president of the American Institute of Chemists.
1966 Retires from the Gillette Company having, among other achievements, established a Gillette research laboratory in England.
Elected to the Board of Directors of the American Chemical Society. Within a year he is named Chairman, a position that he holds for five years. During his tenure, Harris is instrumental to the industrial application of jojoba oil, a substance that proves to be a successful alternative to sperm oil, used as an automobile lubricant until its prohibition in 1971. Jojoba oil is later found to have useful application in the production of cosmetics and as a cooking oil.
1967 Receives the Distinguished Service Award - the highest honor granted by his alma mater, Oregon State University.
1970 Receives the Perkin Medal from the Society of Chemical Industry. The medal is awarded annually for achievement in the commercial application of chemistry.
1974 Receives the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal from Yale University. Throughout his life, Harris maintained a close connection with Yale, serving for six years as president of the Yale Chemists' Association, and also contributing his expertise to the Yale Alumni Board and the Yale University Council.
1980 Receives the Priestley Medal, the American Chemical Society's most prestigious decoration.
1982 Receives the American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal, the Institute's top award.
1984 Establishes the Milton Harris Chair of Polymer Chemistry at Oregon State University. This is OSU's first fully-endowed chair. Two years later he will fund a similar position at Yale University, the Milton Harris Associate Professorship of Chemistry.
1991 Dies of stomach cancer, at the age of 85, at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He is survived by his wife, Carolyn, and a son, John. Over the course of his long career, Harris authors more than two-hundred scientific papers and issues thirty-five patents.

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