Find a Way

Sidney Edelstein. Courtesy of Dexter Chemical Corporation.

Sidney Edelstein. Courtesy of Dexter Chemical Corporation.

When celebrating scientists, we all too often trumpet their achievements but forget the humans under the lab coats—and the years predating their success, even when indications of coming triumph appeared early.

Take Sidney Edelstein (1912–1994), founder of Dexter Chemical, who showed entrepreneurial grit even as a teenager. As a 17-year-old student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1929, his parents covered his tuition and expenses—until the stock market crashed. Forced into financial independence, Edelstein devised a way to make money: he started a brewing operation in the attic of his fraternity house. In his junior year he added various liqueurs to his offerings after he arranged to get ethyl alcohol from the organic chemistry lab. “I had a regular business with the fraternity house,” he revealed in a CHF oral history.

After graduation in 1932 Edelstein continued to use his chemical knowledge to boost his income. He moved home to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he eventually found work with the Dixie Mercerizing Company. Newly married, with little money and no prospect of assistance from his or his wife’s family, the only plan was, as he said, to “find a way!”

And find a way he did. Edelstein no longer brewed at home, but he continued to play a role in the moonshine business until Prohibition ended in 1933. He mixed a variety of powders to sell to local bootleggers, including one containing potassium permanganate and sodium bisulfite —used together to detect poisonous methanol in the moonshine. Edelstein avoided potential legal entanglements by mixing the powders at home and selling them to distillers through the local bottle and barrel company, which turned a blind eye to their use in illegally sold brews.

Edelstein’s industrious spirit was not limited to alcoholic spirits. After experimenting with old home remedies in his family’s backyard, he developed corn and athlete’s foot treatments, which he sold to a traveling medicine man. His rewards were not merely monetary. In exchange for the foot-treatment formula a local surgeon allowed him to occasionally observe his operations, satisfying Edelstein’s innate curiosity. “It was just for fun, just for the knowledge,” he explained.

Edelstein stopped selling his powders when Prohibition ended. His interest in problem solving then led him to leave Dixie for the University of Chattanooga, where he consulted on chemical issues for the local community. This work prompted Edelstein to found his first legitimate business, Lamede, Inc., in 1938. While the primary chemical product of the company was successful—it used tripoli, a heavy silica, to remove lanolin from wool—supply difficulties and dishonest investors forced Edelstein to sell the company and return to paid employment. Hart Chemical, Inc., based in New Jersey, hired Edelstein as director of research in 1939. After packing, moving, and finding a new home, Edelstein went to visit the chemical plant for the first time, which he described as a “chicken coop.” Edelstein decided to give  the job a chance, despite its barnyard setting. “What the hell’s the difference?” he said to his interviewers many years later, as he recalled that time. “If they do good work, then it’s a chance for me to do even better.” Over the next six years he helped build the company and developed techniques to prevent shrinkage and increase the tensile strength of fabric used by the military.

By the end of World War II, Edelstein was again yearning to go it alone. He started an industrial chemical company with Joe Evans (then a salesman at Celudye), and the two chose the name Dexter simply because it would be easy to spell. Edelstein and Evans tossed a coin to see who would be president, with the loser becoming vice president. “Fortunately, I won,” Edelstein said. He brought the patents he’d secured at Hart, and the two men set up their business, with $50,000 in startup capital, in a paint factory owned by Evans’s family. From this modest beginning their company grew to become an industry leader in phosphated surfactants, paint, pulp, and paper. By the late 1980s Dexter had spread to countries as far away as Israel, South Africa, and Argentina. 

Edelstein’s ingenuity and enthusiasm carried him through tribulations and allowed him to leave behind an impressive legacy. His belief in the importance and usefulness of chemistry runs through his life story. In his own words, “If you know chemistry, you might as well make use of it. What good is it if you just know it and you don’t do something with it?”

Erica Stefanovich is a program assistant in the oral history program in CHF’s Center for Contemporary History and Policy.