Leo Hendrik Baekeland was born in Ghent, Belgium to a poor shoe repairman and his wife on November 14, 1863…
In 1889 he and Celine Swarts, his professor’s daughter, combined a honeymoon with a travel scholarship to the United States where the couple settled permanently.
Baekeland investigated the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde, first producing a soluble phenol-formaldehyde shellac called “Novolak,” which never became a market success. Then he turned to developing a phenol-formaldehyde binder for asbestos, which at that time was molded with hard natural rubber. By carefully controlling the pressure and temperature applied to an intermediate made from the two reagents, he produced a polymer that, when mixed with fillers, produced a hard moldable plastic. Bakelite, though relatively expensive, was soon found to have many uses, especially in the rapidly growing automobile and radio industries.
I love the following quote about Baekeland, which also comes from the Chemical Heritage Foundation:
When friends asked Baekeland how he entered the field of synthetic resins, he answered that he had chosen it deliberately, looking for a way to make money.
Baekeland retired in 1939, sailed in his yacht and sold his successful company to what is now the Dow Chemical Company.