Chemistry has given me the American Dream
by Martin Weisman
Mr. Weisman made this speech at the 50, 60 and 70 Year Member Recognition Luncheon on September 22nd, 2012.
I was a poor boy brought up in Far Rockaway, near the beach on Long Island, New York. I knew at age 12 that I had to learn something to take care of myself. I chose a great high school – Brooklyn Tech – and found that I loved chemistry. I decided to become a Chemical Engineer and had a choice of two colleges: CCNY or NYU. City College was free, but I chose NYU, and worked summers to earn the tuition of less than $2,000 for four years. In 1947, there were 300 aspiring Chemical Engineers; In 1951, 30 graduated, and the professor stated that our education begins after college, and he was correct.
I had two job offers: a perfume manufacturer and a plastics fabricator. I knew nothing about either, so I chose plastics because it paid $5 a week more, and hit the books to learn about high polymers. We prepared our own coatings which interested me the most. About five years later, I was told by the Chief Chemist that I was at the top of my salary and was qualified to do his job, but he was related to the owner and was not leaving. I thought I would seek employment in the paint field, but the pay was too low. Fortunately, I saw an ad placed by the Northam Warren Corporation of Stamford, CT. They were the largest manufacturer of nail polish. Mr. Warren was a pharmacist who invested the nail polish in the 1920’s and was looking for someone to update his formulas. I spoke to him and told him I knew nothing about cosmetics, but everything about coatings including nitrocellulose lacquers. I got the job and during my first day, Mr. Warren presented me with a stack of reports saying: “Here is the history of nail lacquer, read about it before you do anything else”. I updated the formulas and the manufacturing facilities as well.
A few years later, the company was sold to Chesebrough-Ponds (Vaseline) which was a wonderful laboratory oriented company and I received a big jump in salary. After a month or two, I was asked to visit the laboratory director in Clinton, CT. He said, “Martin, I am sure you know all there is to know about nail lacquer, but we know very little about the fingernail. We have a dermatologist and a physiologist on retainer at the Yale Medical School. We want you to work with them for up to a year and study the physiology of the fingernail. Every time you come to New Haven and shake their hands, we will be billed for $100. They will love to see you.” I said, “hold it. I have never taken a course in biology, even in high school”. He said that he was not worried, and I would have whatever I needed in additional personnel and equipment. I hired a biochemist and before long we were microtoming fingernail sections, staining them and examining them with our very expensive new microscope. When the study was completed and published, I was asked by the doctors at Yale for copies because they knew I knew more about fingernails than they did!
In August of 1962, I received a call one evening. “Are you the Martin Weisman that makes nail polish?” I said, “yes, who is this?” “We are Snelling and Snelling and have been asked to find someone to set up a manufacturing plant in Los Angeles for Max Factor”. I said I will call you back after I speak to my wife. We were living very comfortably in Norwalk, CT with our three daughters in a beautiful home on a half acre. Sherrie said, “take an interview, but I don’t think my mother will allow us to take her grandchildren 3,000 miles away”. Fortunately, Max Factor gave me an offer we could not refuse. The company was a family owned closed corporation. After 18 years with Max Factor, they had a family squabble and sold the company which ended up with Proctor and Gamble who shut down all the California facilities. Chesebrough called to see if I was interested in going back to them, but Sherrie had a great career as a teacher and would not consider returning to those terrible Connecticut winters. She insisted that I establish a manufacturing plant and go into the business of making private label cosmetics. I brought in two former colleagues from Max Factor. The business was called Shermar Cosmetics and after 17 years, I sold it and retired.
I was not thrilled with dealing with customers and meeting all the building and safety requirements, but new product creativity continued to thrill me. I helped make some marketing people wealthy, but stayed on the bench. I am a joiner and am also an emeritus member of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists and the Federation of Societies for Coating Technology, and I just sent an contribution to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The world of Chemistry has been good to me, and I am sure it will continue to be good for all of you. Stay well, and keep up the good work!