Superglue: A Riveting Story

A few days ago, Peter vdL put it to us that superglue was developed for the express purpose of providing surgical sutures. I assumed that he was kidding us, wrote him to ask, but he assured me that that is what he had heard, although he couldn't tell me anything more authoritative than that. So I got curious, did some research, and offer now for your edification, the following:

T. Superglue was discovered by accident -- twice!

T. Superglue is used for just about anything, including surgery.

T. Doctors are getting quite irritated with bottles containing superglue that look like bottles containing eyedrops.

And here are the facts.

I found three articles dealing with superglue that promised to provide the straight poop. The oldest, a Popular Science article by A. J. Hand from February 1989, said just about everything I wanted to know, but added a lot of boring detail on how to use the stuff. A column from the November 1990 issue of Consumers' Research Magazine by the same author had practically nothing useful to add, though the ProQuest blurb promised a lot more. So who writes the blurbs?

And finally, there was a science column by Bruce Sterling in the June 1993 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Before I hear a lot of hooting and hollering from the peanut gallery, let me assure you that Mr Sterling's science column, as usual, matched the available evidence. In this case, his facts jived with what the Popular Science article said, and he had some bonus information to add!

Superglue (cyanoacrylates) was discovered by accident! During WW II Dr. Harry Coover (president of Loctite Corp's new Business Development Group as of February 1989) was working for Kodak Research Laboratories to develop an optically clear plastic for gunsights. To quote him, according to Hand, "I was working with some acrylate monomers that showed promise. But everything they touched stuck to everything else. It was a severe pain."

Well, in 1951 Coover was supervising research at the Tennessee Eastman Co. to find a "tougher, more heat-resistant acrylate polymer for jet canopies" according to Hand. Get this, there was a fellow named Dr Fred Joyner(!) who spread a film of ethyl cyanoacrylate between a couple of prisms of a refractometer. Of course, he discovered that he couldn't pry the prisms apart again. So Coover realized that he was onto something. A good thing, too, since those prisms were a pricey thing to ruin...

The stuff hit the market in 1958 as Eastman #910. That year, according to Sterling, Dr Coover appeared on TV's "I've Got a Secret," where he hoisted host Gary Moore off the floor with a drop of the stuff. (I wonder: I arrived in the States in '72. Was that silly commercial with the construction worker suspended from an I-beam running before then? Anyone remember?)

Sterling goes on to talk some more about CAs and how they work. Towards the end of his column, he mentions that in Europe superglue is used routinely in place of sutures. He refers the intrepid reader to a JAMA article, which I looked up, and which has an MD complaining that he is treating far too many patients with poor eyesight for accidentally using superglue instead of their prescription (or whatever) eyedrops. Let's label these pesky little bottles a bit more clearly! is his rallying cry.

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