Henry Aaron Hill
Henry Aaron Hill standing outside the American Chemical Society building in Washington, D.C. Courtesy American Chemical Society.
The first half of the 20th century saw the birth of a new polymer-products industry that introduced such now-familiar products as nylon and Teflon. This rapidly growing industry created a demand for the chemical intermediates used in various polymerization processes, so chemical and petrochemical companies large and small turned to producing these substances. National Polychemicals, Inc., founded in 1952 by Henry Aaron Hill (1915–1979), was just such a supplier of intermediates.
Born in St. Joseph, Missouri, Hill graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina. After a year of graduate study at the University of Chicago, Hill went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received a doctorate in organic chemistry in 1942. At MIT he met Professor James Flack Norris, a pioneer physical organic chemist and former president of the American Chemical Society, and “the first big man . . . who was more interested in my ability to learn chemistry than in the identity of my grandparents.” As an African American, Hill often encountered prejudice, the probable reason that he had to send out 54 applications before he landed a job with North Atlantic Research Corporation of Newtonville, Massachusetts. He eventually rose to be vice president while doing research on and development of water-based paints, firefighting foam, and several types of synthetic rubber. After leaving North Atlantic Research, he worked as a group leader in the research laboratories of the Dewey and Almy Chemical Company before starting his own entrepreneurial venture—National Polychemicals. Ten years later he founded Riverside Research Laboratories, which offered research, development, and consulting services in polymer production.
From early in his career Hill was active in the American Chemical Society—most memorably in establishing standards for employer-employee relationships in the chemical profession and as the society’s first African American president (1977).