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John DeBell Papers

A description of his Papers at Syracuse University

Overview of the Collection

Creator: DeBell, John M.
Title: John M. DeBell Papers
Inclusive Dates: 1924-1986
Quantity: 4.25 linear ft.
Abstract: Professional papers related to the career of Plastics Hall of Fame member John M. DeBell; including biographical material and memorabilia, correspondence, company records,technical reports, and other materials related to DeBell's work for the U.S. military and DeBell and Richardson.
Language: English
Repository: Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries
222 Waverly Avenue
Syracuse, NY 13244-2010

Biographical History

John Milton DeBell (1896-1986) was an American chemical engineer, a developer of synthetic rubber and plastics, and member of the Plastics Hall of Fame.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, he graduated from MIT in 1917 with a degree in chemical engineering. He immediately entered military service as a Lieutenant in the Field Artillery in World War I, seeing action in the Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne offensives in France, and in the Army of Occupation through 1919, also serving as assistant to General T. C. DuPont. In 1922 after two years working at MIT, he joined General Electric as a chemical engineer where in the 1920s he was a pioneer in the development of alkyd resins. He introduced the manufacture of hot molding compounds and phenolic resins and was instrumental in building up the hot molding business, including designing plants for the manufacture of phenolic resin and compound.

In 1932 he moved to the Hercules Powder Co., in Wilmington, Delaware, as Development Group leader, where he directed research and pilot production and marketing of ethyl cellulose plastics. In 1934 he spent the summer in England and Germany investigating European manufacture and markets. Then, from 1936-1939 he was Director of Research and Development for Fiberloid Corp. which led to that company's absorption into Monsanto as its new plastics division. He directed all basic work for cellulose acetate molding powder, vinyl acetate resins, and vinyl acetate plastic for the commercialization of safety-glass interlayer sheeting.

In 1939 DeBell became an independent consultant in plastics, and during the Second World War DeBell was a consultant to the War Production Board and Quartermaster Corps in the synthetic rubber program. Immediately after V-E day he traveled to Germany to assess that country's synthetic rubber and plastics industry, leading to the publication German Plastics Practice a work that stimulated the American plastics industry.

In 1943, he founded with Henry M. Richardson the firm of DeBell and Richardson, Inc., the first dedicated plastics research and development in the United States. The company was first located in Springfield, Massachusetts and then after a fire, moved to Hazardville, Connecticut. John DeBell's son Fred, who joined the firm in 1947 described DeBell's German plastics book as “our plastics bible,” and the company developed from much of what DeBell had learned in Germany in the post-war years. DeBell continued to consult with German engineers in the years following in areas concerning protective coatings and various synthetic resins. DeBell and Richardson quickly gained a reputation as an innovator in the area of engineered compounds and technical service. According to their own reckoning, between 1945 and 1965 they served 766 clients on a total of 4,010 projects, frequently obtaining patents for their clients for dozens of plastics now in common use. According to plastics historian and Plastics Hall of Fame member Glenn Beall, many young creative engineers and innovators got their start working for DeBell and Richardson.

John DeBell was inducted into the plastics Hall of Fame in 1976. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Lowell in 1980. He died in 1986.

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Scope and Contents of the Collection

The John M. Debell Papers consists of biographical material, company-related items, correspondence, travel memorabilia and writings.

Biographical material contains articles and obituaries about DeBell, his professional c.v., copies of awards, various items of memorabilia, photographs and event programs.

Companies contains information about DeBell and Richardson and correspondence, reports and court testimony related to various other companies.

Correspondence includes chronological files of all correspondence sent by John DeBell from Debell and Richardson for various years from the 1940s through the 1960s. This correspondence includes copies of technical reports about materials, process and products.

Travel contains travel documents, correspondence, photos and other material related to trips to Eastern Europe and Japan.

Writings contains published and unpublished writings of John DeBell, including notes for talks and lectures, and a few items by others.

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Arrangement of the Collection

The collection is arranged alphabetically by topic, with folders for all topics also arranged alphabetically. The exception is correspondence, a large portion of which remains in DeBell's original chronological order.

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Access Restrictions

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

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Related Material

A selection of plastic objects designed by or collected by John M. DeBell and his companies are part of the Plastics Artifacts Collection.

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Subject Headings


Ribicoff, Abraham, 1910-1998.
Richardson, Henry M. (Henry Martyn), 1902-
Clay, Lucius D. (Lucius DuBignon), 1897-1978.
DeBell, John M.
Gloor, Walter Ervin, 1907-
Goggin, William C., 1911-1988.
Haas, Otto, 1872-1960.
Winfield, Armand G.

Corporate Bodies

DeBell and Richardson, Inc.
Dow Corning Corporation.
Enfield Social Services.
Foster Grant Company, Inc.
Hercules Powder Company.
Plax Corporation.
Rohm and Haas Company.
United States. -- Office of the Quartermaster General.


Injection molding of plastics.
Plastics industry and trade -- Technological innovations.
Plastics industry and trade -- United States -- History.

Genres and Forms

Technical reports.



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Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

John M. DeBell Papers,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Gift of Jeanne DeBell, 2011-2013.

Finding Aid Information

Created by: SDG
Date: 25 Sept. 2012
Revision history: 3 Oct 2013 - additions (MRC)

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Biographical material
Box 1 Articles about John M. DeBell 1959, 1965, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1980 - photocopies of newspaper articles about John M. DeBell
Box 1 University of Lowell honorary degree 1980 - invitation, program and diploma for John M. DeBell honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, University of Lowell (May 24, 1980)
Box 1 Various awards 1946, 1949, 1950, 1968, 1976 - includes appreciations, awards and proclamations from War Department, Admiral of the Submarine Navy, State of Connecticut, International Date Line Club, and Enfield Chamber of Commerce
Box 1 Curriculum vitae 1935-1941
Box 1 Death / obituaries 1985-1986 - published obituaries and sympathy notes
newspaper obituaries from the Berkshire Eagle, Morning Union, and Journal Inquirer; letters from Richard S. DeBell about his father's death; list of donors to Johnson Memorial Hospital in memory of JMD; sympathy notes from Norbert Platzer and Armand Winfield; typed remarks left by JMD to be shared upon his death, written October 20, 1978 and updated Dec. 2, 1985
Box 1 Letterhead and calling cards - stationery and envelopes with "John M. DeBell, Plastics Consultant" letterhead; engraved copper plate and calling cards from DeBell's military service in World War I; calling cards in Russian
Box 1 Plastics USA Exhibit 1961 - mementos from participation in Plastics USA Exhibition in the Soviet Union that DeBell helped organization and which toured Kiev, Moscow, and Tbilisi and was visited by over 375,000 people.
See also Travel : Eastern Europe.
Russian language pins with "Plastics USA" logo; 24 pp Russian language publication Plastics USA; 100% nylon American flag used at exhibition, manufactured by Valley forge Flag, Spring City, Pa.
War Department 1945 - ID card, shoulder patch and ration card
Box 1 Programs 1928, 1943
Camp Engineering, Association Island, General Electric company, July 18-22, 1928; Chemical Engineering Achievement award Dinner, Dec. 8, 1943; program includes publication "America's Wartime Achievement in Chemical Engineering"
Box 1 Properties 1947, 1966 - documents pertaining to DeBell's ownership of property
Box 2 DeBell and Richardson 1943-1977 - articles, photographs, publications and publications related to the Hazardville, CT plastics development and engineering firm
color copy of 12 page promotional booklet about company; "Recollections about DeBell and Richardson, Inc." by Fred DeBell; color copy of 3 page typed and illustrated history; photocopy of company history written by JMD for The Challenge of Change: Three Centuries of Enfield, Connecticut History, edited by Ruth Bridges (Enfield Historical Society, 1977); typed lists of employees, some with dates of employment and salaries; "An Overview of Quality Control in Plastics" by R. S. DeBell ( SPE Journal, Dec. 1966, 17-23); photos of an unidentified technical process; undated Christmas card from DeBell and Richardson group leaders; typed signed letter from Margaret Ganley acknowledging a "small honorarium"; JMD's remarks announcing his retirement from DeBell and Richardson (Sept. 10, 1969)
Box 2 Dow Corning Corporation 1976 - "Aspects of Doing plastics Business Throughout the World, A Portrait of 40 Years in Polymers;" script of 1976 presentation by Dr. William C. Goggin, Dow Corning Corporation
Box 2 Enfield Social Services 1973-1976
Box 2 Foster Grant Company, Inc. 1967 - Koppers v. Foster Grant; stenographic transcript of trial, pp. 466-757, with DeBell's testimony
Box 2 Hercules Powder Company 1936-1941
Box 2 Office of Quartermaster General 1943-1945 - papers related to DeBell's work for Military Planning Division Research & Development Branch5
39-page status report of research and development projects, March 31, 1943, originally restricted; "Some Unreportable Recollections of Experience with the Q.M.C. Plastics Team in the ETO, May-September 1945," by W.E. Gloor
Box 2 Plax Corporation 1941-1942
Rohm & Haas
Box 2 Publications - Technical Data, Plexiglas I: Optical Properties, 40 pp booklet, undated
Box 2 Reports 1950-1958 - folder with numbered carbon copies (32-81) of typed reports from DeBell to Dr. Otto Haas and the Rohm & Haas company about the plastics situation in Germany and about various materials and processes
Box 2 German plastics 1945-1948
Box 2 Politics 1959, 1965-1966 - correspondence with Massachusetts governor Foster Furculo about the state budget with Sen. Abraham Ribicoff about Vietnam War, Taft-Hartley Act and Hazardville, Ct. post office
Box 2 War Production Board
Box 2 Winfield, Armand 1983 - letter from Winfield to DeBell in which he provides information for DeBell's sponsorship of Winfield for Plastics Pioneers membership
Box 3 Chronological 1940
Box 3 Chronological 1944
Box 3 Chronological 1946
Box 3 Chronological 1947-1948 17 folders
Box 4 Chronological 1948-1949 18 folders
Box 5 Chronological 1950-1951 24 folders
Box 6 Chronological 1961-1962 19 folders
Box 7 Chronological 1962-1963 17 folders
Box 8 Chronological 1964 12 folders
Box 8 Eastern Europe 1959 - materials related to DeBell's visit to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia on the occasion of the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow
See also Biographical material : Memorabilia : Plastics USA Exhibit.
DeBell also traveled to Tashkent, Tbilisi, Sukhumi, Kharkov and other cities. Includes invitation to the official opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow, July 24, 1959, to be opened by Vice President Richard M. Nixon; one page report "Air Travel", typed Aug. 19, 1959; 4-page typed carbon copy of report "Social Notes - Russia"; 3-page typed report "Personalities in U.S.S.R."; 2-page typed report "Remarks on Russia", typed Aug 10, 1959
Box 8 Japan 1949-1986
correspondence, travel items, brochures, and related to DeBell's trip to Japan in 1949; follow-up letters, holiday cards and photos received from friends and colleagues met on that trip; company information about Toyo Engineering Corp. and DJK International, Inc.
Box 8 Miscellaneous
Standardized Government Travel Regulations March 7, 1941; International Driving Permit, issued August 1, 1958; Bulgarian 3 Lev banknote; tickets to German castle
Box 9 Brooklyn speech on polyvinyls 1945 - typed, with annotations
Box 9 Phenolic resin - typed, with annotations
Papers and articles
Box 9 Guidance in the manufacture and uses of synthetic resins, polymers, and their plastic products - printed booklet from Debell and Richardson, with Henry Richardson as co-author
Box 9 Memo on tough flexible plastics, for A. D. Little 10 Dec 1940 - includes cover letter
Box 9 Non-metallic materials 1943 - typed, with annotations
Box 9 Notes on the stimulation of plastics technology by German disclosures undated - second draft; typed, with annotations
Box 9 Plastic sheeting 1946 - reader's comments only, from A. F. Randolph to R. F. Bailey
Box 9 [on synthetic rubber] undated - typed
Box 9 Thermoplastics 1940 Dec 1940 - typed drafts, notes, cover letters to managers of various companies asking to verify information
Box 9 Thermoplastics 1941 Dec 1941-Jan 1942 - typed drafts; clipping of printed version
Box 9 Thermoplastics 1942 Nov 1942 - typed draft; letter from Dr. Gordon M. Kline of Modern Plastics
Box 9 What are plastics and where are they used? undated - typed draft
Box 9 A chapter in General Electric plastics 28 Dec 1970 - typed, with a few corrections
Box 9 Laminates: An inspiring opportunity 7 Sep 1965 - typed
Box 9 Memorandum for Father Johnson 1978, 1985 - typed; remarks written by JMD, to be shared upon his death
Box 9 Refinement of product through control 1944 - typed; handwritten annotation at top: "for SPI Meeting 2:30 pm 11/13/44 Molders Section"
Box 9 Vignettes from a half century of plastics endeavor Feb 1976 - typed; handwritten annotation at top: "written for Bill Goggin"; mentions Leo Baekeland
Box 9 [untitled, Brooklyn] 27 Oct 1967 - typed; handwritten annotation at top: "Brooklyn Comm Universalist Church"
Box 9 [untitled, Washington DC] undated - typed drafts
Writings by others
Box 9 Miscellaneous 1924, 1943, 1950
"All about Pollopas" by Fritz Pollack and Kurt Ripper, 1924 (booklet); "Plastics: The Story of an Industry, 3rd edition" by SPI (booklet); "Polystyrene for wartime electronics" by F. E. Wiley (reprint of article)

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