An image with Greek, American, and Turkish flags

Identity is a slippery idea that gained momentum as the siren call of nationalism rang out in one country after another. Such appeals leave immigrants deeply uncomfortable. The real purpose of the appeal is to exclude them from belonging to the country they live in, and not by birth. As the story of one immigrant chemist shows, this exclusion is a mistake.

Loukas Kyriakides was born in Bursa, Turkey, in 1884 to ethnic Greek parents. He was the fifth of seven children and studied at an American missionary school, Anatolia College, in Marsovan (now Merzifon). The school attracted students from near and far; there were many ethnic Armenian children and teachers. Ambitious and self-confident, he graduated from high school in 1902 as the best of his year and convinced his parents to let him emigrate to America. He ended up on Ellis Island, the immigration center in New York, penniless but full of hope.

The laboratory must have been a welcome haven

Kyriakides enrolled in the University of Michigan chemistry program in 1905 and received his PhD in 1909 on the colors of triarylmethane dyes. It’s been a tough four years. Michigan winters were really cold and money was tight. He later said that he lined his shoes with cardboard and made an underlay of newspaper to keep warm in his bedroom. The laboratory must have been a welcome haven.

From a strategic point of view, Kyriakides shortened his name to Kyrides (easier to pronounce, he thought). In 1913 he became one of two young chemists hired by the Hood Rubber Company to develop cheaper synthetic alternatives to natural rubber latex. The two focused first on butadiene and then on its dimethyl analogue, which they could make through routine chemical steps. They successfully polymerized the olefins in what is believed to be the first successful manufacture of an elastomer. When the rubber proved too leathery for car tires, they switched to isoprene. But they soon realized that a viable commercial process was unlikely and the drop in prices for natural latex ended the project.

Kyrides was then commissioned by the pharmaceutical company Parke Davis to develop new drugs for syphilis. He spent six months making arsenic compounds only for another company to disclose and patent identical work. He switched to mercury compounds and developed a hydroxy salicylate of mercury which he was sure was very effective. The company refused. Kyrides left the company in disgust and turned to a doctor friend who was doing research on syphilis – and who also had an incurable form of the disease and was determined to try the drug himself. It seemed to work, and the drug was marketed under the name Mercurosal. Although some independent studies later suggested that its effects were modest, Mercurosal continued to be sold until penicillin was introduced in the 1940s. The royalties Kyrides earned helped support his siblings who had joined him in the United States.

Then he started a chemical supplies business with a colleague and tried to make triarylmethane and aniline dyes from scratch at a time when raw materials were scarce. Perhaps because they sometimes slept under the boiler in winter to keep warm, either he or his partner (it is not clear which one) developed a serious occupational disease with abdominal pain, cyanosis of the skin and lips as a result of exposure to aromatics and nitrogen oxides. Eventually the plant burned down, putting an end to the couple’s ambitions.

Kyrides was working on a bewildering array of projects

For the next few years, Kyrides worked in New York, Philadelphia and then in Buffalo, where we again made dyes with the National Chemical Aniline Company, one of the largest manufacturers in the USA. On free evenings, Kyrides would whirl around the ballroom dance floor – he was apparently an excellent dancer.

In 1928 he joined Monsanto’s research laboratories in St. Louis, Missouri. He was a complete lab rat working on a bewildering array of projects. There were sulfonamides, solvents, and insect repellants. He developed commercial preparations of food flavors and plasticizers based on catechol and phthalic acid esters for the growing consumer plastics market.

Even when he was promoted to director of organic chemistry research, he refused to sit behind a desk. “The laboratory is my life, and happiness only comes to me when my hands do things that might one day prove to be of lasting benefit to humanity,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t mind if he did would die on the workbench. A reference to this passion for laboratory work is in a footnote to a 1941 Organic syntheses Procedure where Kyrides suggests using a rubber sleeve lubricated with a drop of glycerine that is slipped over the end of the adapter to seal a mechanical stirrer. Much simpler than dirty mercury or oil-sealed bearings for glass stir bars, the method appeared in the next issue of Vogel’s Practical Organic Chemistry and widely used.

In parallel with his job, Kyrides started a new chemical intermediates company. The company expanded rapidly and was bought by Miles Laboratories in 1945, with Kyrides as managing director. Now wealthy but still a humble man, Kyrides never forgot his old Anatolia College, which suffered terribly in the 1915 genocide of the Armenian community. Newly founded in Greece in the 1920s, it gradually expanded again, supported by generous gifts from Kyrides and other alumni. When he retired in 1962, Kyrides returned to Greece and bought a piece of land near the college.

I wonder how Kyrides would have described himself. Greek? Turkish? American? Perhaps, like so many of us, he saw himself as a quantum superposition of states that collapse differently in different situations. But the more important question is why should the answer matter?

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