February 17, 2004

Superglue Gets Stuck in Hall

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From gluing one’s fingers together, to repairing a broken cassette tape, to stopping the hemorrhaging of critically wounded soldiers, to manufacturing of atomic bombs, cyanoacrylate adhesives, also known as Eastman 910 or superglue, have been a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives for nearly 30 years.

This past Friday, the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio announced that Dr. Harry Coover Ph.D. ’44 will be inducted for his contributions to innovation this upcoming May 1.

Coover will join the ranks of fellow inventors and innovators such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, and Samuel Morse, and as well as Steve Wozniak, inventor of the personal computer and cofounder of Apple Computers.

According to Rini Paiva, director of public relations for the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Coover, like those mentioned above, “has a tremendous reputation.”

Paiva stated that the Hall of Fame’s mission is to “inspire creativity and invention” when other aspects of society fail to do so.

“We have our sports heroes and our music heroes, but here we think it’s great to honor these people for their minds,” she said.

The only standard for inductees is that they own at least one U.S. patent. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the National Council of Intellectual Property Law Association established the Hall of Fame in 1973; its first inductee was Thomas Edison.

Coover received his B.S. from Hobart College in 1941. While driving through Ithaca after his honeymoon and turning down a fellowship at Brown, he stopped at Cornell and decided to continue his education on the Hill.

He still has “great memories” of Cornell, which he says “did, and [still] does, a fine job in the various fields of science.”

Coover worked for Eastman Chemical in Kingsport, Tenn. for 40 years, and during that time developed an astounding 460 patents and published over 60 articles. This averages to about ten inventions a year for the duration of his time at Eastman. “That’s kind of staggering when you think of it that way,” Paiva said.

Coover’s four decades of accomplishments with Eastman did not go unnoticed.

“Eastman congratulates Dr. Coover on his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame,” said Dr. Gregory O. Nelson, senior vice president and chief technology officer for Eastman Chemical Company. “In addition to his research that benefited Eastman and our customers, Dr. Coover made big contributions to the larger scientific community that will continue [to have an impact] for many years to come.”

Coover and this year’s eighteen other inductees do not receive any money for this recognition, but Coover, who is “pleased and excited” about this award, said it is a great honor.

“If you look at some of the names, you can’t help but feel very grateful [to be included among them],” Coover said.

Paiva said that Coover’s award recognizes all of his contributions, but focuses on his universal cyanoacrylate, especially its medical applications.

The discovery of cyanoacrylate was a lengthy and circuitous process, according to Coover. “It was one dash of serendipity and ten years of hard work,” he said.

He originally found the formula while trying to develop a clear plastic for gun-sights; it was impractical and forgotten for several years. Later he returned to the formula while working with a graduate student in a lab at Eastman Chemical.

Coover recalled how the student came to him embarrassed for having stuck together the parts of a $700 piece of lab equipment. Coover remembers that to the graduate student’s surprise, Coover did not become angry but instead “started sticking everything together.” That is when he realized exactly what he had.

“What I saw was that we had a unique new adhesive,” he said.

Coover wants young researchers to take his success as a lesson to analyze every possible angle.

“The events that led to the discovery should serve to call us to remember to stay open-minded to what is going on, and to watch for unexpected or unexplained results,” he said. “If you have unexplained results, pursue them.”

Soon Coover realized that the new adhesive might be an effective hemostatic agent. However, he did not have the resources for this type of research at Eastman, so he began to collaborate with Johnson & Johnson, which did have such resources.

There, they worked for over a decade without succeeding in obtaining FDA approval. But with the outbreak of the Vietnam War, the army, who did not need FDA approval to use it, became interested.

“It stopped the bleeding instantly,” Coover said.

MASH units would use an aerosol version of cyanoacrylate to prevent critically wounded soldiers from bleeding to death before surgeons could operate. Now doctors use this type of adhesive in sutureless surgery to rejoin veins and arteries, seal punctures or lesions, and seal bleeding ulcers.

The FDA did not approve cyanoacrylate adhesives for these internal uses until very recently, but according to Coover, doctors still used the adhesives without their approval for the repair of soft organs such as the liver and the spleen.

He recalled times when doctors would phone late in the night, to request samples of it for immediate use. He would always oblige; it was perfectly legal to distribute samples, since the approval only applied its sale.

Coover recently retired from Eastman Chemical, and still resides in nearby Kingsport.

Archived article by Michael Margolis