Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
Milton Harris: A Biography
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At the end of World War II, the Textile Foundation was relocated to Princeton, but Harris elected to stay in Washington, D.C. He had been approached by several different corporations, including the Gillette Company and America Enka Company, to do research for them. Gillette was fearful that all of the research done on softening wool (whose molecular structure is akin to that of human hair), would lead to a solvent which could dissolve hair and thus render both razor and blade obsolete. Harris informed them of the unlikeliness of this, since both hair and skin are comprised of keratin and so dissolving the one would lead to a distinct possibility of dissolving the other. Another problem that Harris researched was slowing the cutting forces of razor blades by creating a polymer to coat them. So, with the help of some fellow colleagues, Harris started the Harris Research Laboratories, which operated as a consulting laboratory for these and other companies.

Mr. and Mrs. Milton Harris with OSU President Robert MacVicar, 1983. [OSU Archives, P17, Sec 95:049, Alumni Reunion, Washington D.C. 1983]
Mr. and Mrs. Milton Harris with OSU President Robert MacVicar, 1983. [OSU Archives, P17, Sec 95:049, Alumni Reunion, Washington D.C. 1983]
Mr. and Mrs. Milton Harris with OSU President Robert MacVicar, 1983.

Harris' association with the Gillette Company grew with the development of his consultation business, and he was asked to develop research programs for Gillette's new acquisitions. These acquisitions included the Toni Company, which worked on breaking of the cross linkages in human hair to soften and curl it, and the Papermate Pen Company, whose research dealt with ink chemistry, pigments, and the surface chemistry of paper. The President of Gillette was extremely supportive of research, since his goals included technical superiority over his competitors. In 1955, Gillette bought the Harris Research Laboratories and appointed Milton Harris Vice President of Research, allowing him free reign with the Laboratories. The Harris Research Laboratories continued to do consulting work for non-competitive clients and were later renamed the Gillette Research Institute. Just before his retirement from Gillette in 1966, Milton Harris was approached by the American Chemical Society (ACS) Board of Directors and asked if he would accept a nomination to the board. He declined, but agreed to leave his name on the list of possible candidates. He departed for Great Britain to assist in the creation of a Gillette Laboratory which would deal with the transfer of technology between the United States and Great Britain. While in Great Britain an ACS election was held, and he discovered that he had been elected to the ACS Board of Directors. Not long afterward, the Chairman died, and Milton Harris was elected to replace him while still a first year Board member.

Milton Harris later headed an ACS panel which produced a study instrumental to the National Academy of Sciences 1975 recommendation for widespread cultivation of the jojoba shrub. A Southwestern United States and Mexico native, the Academy believed that jojoba oil could be extracted as a substitute for sperm whale oil. Sperm whale oil is used primarily as a high-pressure lubricant. It is the commercial value of this oil that largely accounts for the sperm whale's placement on the endangered species list. During testing, General Motors complained that the removal of sperm whale oil from automatic transmissions led to serious corrosion difficulties. The United States banned the importation of sperm whale oil in late 1971, and the U.S.'s stockpiles were reaching depletion by 1975. In response, small experimental jojoba plantations were established in Southern California and Israel. The plantations met with favorable results, thus preventing the systematic extinction of the sperm whale. Approximately half of the jojoba seed (Simmondsia chinensis) is a liquid wax, which is sometimes referred to as an oil, because it is liquid at room temperature. Jojoba "oil" is used in cosmetics since it easily penetrates the outer layer of human skin. The oil is also used as a lubricant for heavy machinery and the construction of ballistic missiles, and is even used as a non-cholesterol cooking oil. It is an ideal crop, because it is a low-spreading, grayish green bush which prefers to grow in hot deserts, thus rendering previously arid land arable.

Milton Harris giving a speech, 1980s. [OSU Archives, P195, Sec 91:179, Oregon Stater]
Milton Harris giving a speech, 1980s. [OSU Archives, P195, Sec 91:179, Oregon Stater]
Milton Harris giving a speech, 1980s.

Harris' strong support of schools is evident in his depiction of society. "The fact is that industry is a leading customer of the two principal products of the university, trained manpower and new knowledge. At the same time, the university is a principal recipient of the main product of industry, profit. Thus, a strong educational system cannot exist without a thriving and productive industrial system. A strong industrial system cannot exist without a thriving educational system. A strong democratic nation cannot exist without both."

Milton Harris' outlook on life was extremely optimistic. He believed that despite the numerous problems our society faces, the world is a far safer and better place to live than it was even one hundred years ago. He once stated that our society's common perception of the increased amount of crime and war is mainly due to the increased media coverage of these events, and not because of any significant increase in these problems. While social issues are nothing new, and will only be replaced by newer problems, Harris insisted that our quality of life is constantly improving, due to better education, faster transportation and the near exponential growth we have experienced in research during the last century. He also emphasized that, although many people feel that science is omnipotent and/or magical, and that it can solve all of the ills of industry, the reality is that it can't. However, science does provide a powerful aid to management and production, expediating progress in industry. Harris noted the importance of an informed administration, and stressed that those who direct Research and Development should also be involved in policy making. He also thought that scientists should strive not to be elitist, thus allowing themselves to deal with the technical problems of industry as well as the theoretical. Milton Harris was a "renaissance man" of chemistry, whose achievements represented the useful and clever application of fundamental chemistry to everyday questions.

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