Alton E. Bailey (1907-1953)

The Author: Gary R. List

Alton E. Bailey was born in 1907 in Midland, Texas, a small town located in the panhandle. As a young lad he became interested in chemistry while working in the oil fields. By the time he was old enough for college his family had moved to New Mexico where they took up ranching. Life on horseback, however, did not agree with young Bailey, and he enrolled at the University of New Mexico and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1927.

His first job involved analytical chemistry for the Santa Fe Railroad. In 1929 Bailey entered the fats and oils profession as an employee of Cudahy Packing Company located in Memphis, Tennessee. By the late 1930's Bailey had moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where the main research laboratory was housed. Although relatively little is known of his research there, Bailey, on behalf of his employer, filed 2 patents on the improvement of lard through interesterification. However, for whatever reason, they were never granted.

Bailey’s first, and arguably, one of his best publications appeared in 1941. Entitled, "Steam deodorization of edible fats and oils. Theory and practice" apparently caught the eye of Dr. Klare Markley who had been chosen to head the fats and oils group at the new Southern Regional Research Laboratory located in New Orleans, Louisiana. Thus, in 1941, Bailey left Cudahy Packing to work under Markley.

During the period 1941-1945, Bailey published about 30 papers including his work on dilatometry, which laid the foundation for solid fat index determinations. Bailey also completed his research leading to the theory of edible oil hydrogenation, which remains essentially unchanged to this day. Even more incredible is that he accomplished this without the benefit of modern analytical techniques.

While at the Southern Lab, Bailey combined his vast industrial expertise with the facilities of the Southern Laboratory library to write his classic fats and oils textbook, “Bailey’s Industrial Oil and Fat Products.” First published in 1945, and revised in 1951 by Bailey, the book has undergone three additional revisions. As Bob Hastert remarked, “One can pick up an original Bailey and be scarcely aware that it was written over half a century ago.”

In 1945 Bailey left the Southern Laboratory to take a position with the Girdler Corporation where he remained until 1950. During this period Bailey edited and contributed to the book, “Cottonseed,” which reviewed the existing literature up to that time. In addition, Bailey wrote, “The Melting and Solidification of Fats,” appearing in 1951.

Although Bailey joined the American Chemical Society in 1929, he did not join AOCS until 1936 because of a then existing 5 year experience requirement. However, after joining AOCS he became a regular at AOCS meetings, as well as becoming involved in a number of technical and administrative committees, service to the governing board and finally as President in 1951-1952.

In 1950 Bailey took a position as Director of Research at Humko products Memphis, Tennessee, where his research led to the development of continuous vacuum bleaching and deodorization processes for the edible oil industry.

In May, 1952 Bailey was featured on the cover of Chemical and Engineering News and was awarded the prestigious Herty Medal given by the American Chemical Society (Georgia Section). The accompanying article in that magazine (May 12, 1952) gives much incite into Bailey’s personality and his philosophy of research.

Upon receiving the award, the modest Bailey commented that he probably received the award for the books he had written rather than for any research he had done. He told his audience that young chemists should not overspecialize; rather they should begin their research careers by first mastering analytical chemistry before attacking complex research problems.

Bailey’s experience at the Southern Laboratory lead him to conclude that research is best accomplished by teams attacking problems on a broad front rather than lone workers each doing his own thing. Several of Bailey’s coworkers are very well known to those familiar with the fats and oils literature, including R.O. Fuege and L.A. Goldblatt.

In May, 1953 Alton E. Bailey died tragically at the age of 46. In July, 1953 Professor Fred Kummerow penned a letter to the Journal of the American Oil Chemists’Society. In part it read, “I still can’t believe it. He had so much to live for. What can we do to honor his memory?” Shortly thereafter (1954), through the work of Karl Mattil and others, the North Central Section of AOCS had been formed and became active. By 1958 the North Central Section announced the establishment of an achievement award named in honor of Bailey.

In 1959 the Alton E. Bailey medal was first presented to Virgil C. Mehlenbacher (AOCS president, 1949), an early pioneer in analytical methods development for the fats and oils industry. Other Bailey Award winners include Ralph Potts, the father of the oleochemical industry, and Professor T.P. Hilditch, an early pioneer in triglyceride composition and structure work.

Acknowledgement: This document was first published in Inform January 2003, Volume 14, p.56.