First Person: Orlando Battista

Orlando Battista was a prolific polymer chemist; there are over 65 patents to his name. But his scientific career wouldn't have happened without his non-scientific talents.

Battista was a student at McGill University during the Depression and had a keen understanding of the need to work his way through school. Battista did so by selling quotations. He explained in his oral history:

While I was a student at McGill, I was trying to write unusual little epigrams for the Saturday Evening Post. […] All of the sudden they began to like them. For example, “I admire tombstones because at least they always say something good about a man who’s down,” was one of the first ones [the Post] bought.

Each quotation brought him a ten dollar check, which bought some much-needed food for himself and his brother, also in college. Later, Battista even sold his quotes to Reader's Digest for their “Quotable Quotes” feature.

Orland Battista's signed photograph for The Chemists' Club, 1975. CHF Collections.

In addition to earning income, the quotes earned him some recognition from professors:

A Dr. Thompson, who was the dean of Literature, liked to give classes to the first line students coming into the university because you had to pass his exam to qualify. […] I thought I was a pretty good writer, but he would always give me a C-. I couldn't understand it. One day after class, he said, “Battista, I want to talk to you.” I didn’t know what the heck it was. He said, “I read the Saturday Evening Post last week and I saw an epigram, byline by Orlando Aloysius Battista. With a personal name like that, it must be you. There can’t be two people with that name.” I said, “Yes, it is.” And he said, “My God. I’ve been trying to sell stuff to the Saturday Evening Post for thirty years. I’ve never had a bite.” I got an absolute A on everything I wrote from there on. He couldn’t believe it was me.

Battista went on to a successful career at American Viscose Corporation and FMC Corporation, pushing the boundaries of polymer research and spearheading the research behind pure cellulose, microcrystalline collagen, and viscose molding. Battista wrote over 15 books on subjects ranging from his scientific pursuits to quote collections to religion.

In his retirement, long after Battista's days of writing quotations, he was able to pursue his non-scientific interests further, including writing songs. He recounted, “I can't play a piano. I don't know the first thing about reading music, but I love easy-listening music. I've now written nine songs. I've put a lot of money into having them professionally prepared. I've received one royalty check so far.”

Many of the scientists in the Oral History Collection at CHF have stories like these, which remind us that scientists are not just relegated to the lab—and oftentimes have very interesting and unexpected lives outside those labs.

Sarah Hunter-Lascoskie is a program associate in oral history at CHF. "First Person,” which highlights one of CHF's over 400 oral histories, appears the third Tuesday of every month.

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Posted In: History

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