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John DeBell Papers

A description of his Papers at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: SDG
Date: 25 Sept. 2012

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.



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.

Table of Contents

Biographical material





Writings by others