I.J. Wilk

Sigma Xi promotes companionship among researchers so we highlight our members through the Meet Your Fellow Companion series. Sigma Xi member Dr. I.J. Wilk fought in World War II, worked in the chemical industry with his PhD in physical-organic chemistry, and testified for science issues in the California legislature. He spoke with Sigma Xi’s Heather Thorstensen from his home in Menlo Park, California.

In this video, he discusses how his chemistry degree played into his time in the army during World War II, an antimicrobial solution project, how has testified for science issues, and what he wants the public to know about chemicals and public health. 

Transcript from Video

Heather Thorstensen: Hello everybody, my name is Heather Thorstensen and I’m the manager of communications for Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Sigma Xi promotes companionship among researchers and we so we highlight our members in a series called the Meet Your Fellow Companion Series. Today for the series I’m talking with Dr. IJ Wilk, who joined Sigma Xi in 1948.

Dr. Wilk has a PhD in physical-organic chemistry, which he earned from UCLA in 1954. Today, he is retired. He is joining me from his home in Menlo Park, California.

Hi, Dr. Wilk, welcome to the hangout.

I.J. Wilk: Hi Heather

Let’s start by talking about your past. You were born in Germany in 1920 and moved to Fargo, North Dakota, in 1939. And after graduating from college, you earned your bachelor’s degree in chemistry and you went into the Army in World War II and that brought you back to Europe. Since we already had your chemistry degree when you were there, did that help you at all during your time in the army? Did you use that at all?

Well, in a way because we still had to worry about chemical warfare. And since I was the only one with any chemistry in my background, I think they call it a chemical warfare expert. Because of that, I got sent for months to the chemical warfare school … So yeah, I used it. But thank heavens, chemical agents were never used during the war but that’s the only use of chemistry I had.

Were you helping other troops at all with for the potential of chemical warfare or how to use chemical warfare?

Yeah, this was for the whole division. And we had to train others just in case. For instance, one thing we were still using, although more so in the Pacific, were flame throwers. This is part of chemical warfare. So we had kind of a school, teaching others how to use flame throwers. And some people got scared. They couldn’t turn it off and it was kind of tricky.

You went on to work in the chemical industry for Abbott Laboratories and Aerojet, which is now Aerojet Rocketdyne, and that after 1963 you became an independent consultant. And one of the projects you worked on was to generate an antimicrobial solution. Can you talk about that?

The antimicrobial system was really initially developed and started by a small company in Salt Lake City. And what you do there, you take a solution of sodium chlorine in water and you electrolyze it. You have to have a very special type of anode (to electrolyze it). This is something that had been developed by this company. And they didn’t really know what they had so they called me in as an expert, I guess. And we did a lot of tests, particularly on microorganisms because we want to kill them. I mean, there’s so many. And it turned out that compared to other agents, this was much more potent, this solution. In one test, we found out the potency of this solution was several hundred times that of [a chlorine solution of equal concentration]. So that was very promising. See, I was on the science side. I didn’t get involved in the business end at all. And that’s the way it was.


So now that you’re retired, what do you do during your days?

For one thing, as you get older, you need more rest. But so far, and you can look at my last presentation at the scientific meeting [at the American Chemical Society] that was just a couple of years ago, this is from anti-science legislation in California, shows you how much false and misleading information has been spread. There are so many groups and people who apparently don’t like science. They got things that make no sense to those who know but when you talk to the general public or most of the members of news media, well, they just swallow it all instead of checking. And so I have been involved in something like that for a few years because I can’t do any lab work anymore, of course.

And you got to keep active. You can’t just sit there and eat candy and watch television. It doesn’t do you any good. In my case, one way I try to keep healthy is my daily dose of red wine. Most people don’t know this, but I mean—there’s white wine and all kinds of other things—but red wine contains certain chemicals at reasonable concentration which are antimicrobial. Not just antibacterial but also antiviral. So, you know, I figure if I have an upset stomach, one way to treat it is to drink half a bottle of red wine and it’s, in my case, at least it works. Since I drink a couple glasses of wine everyday with my lunch, I figure that usually has kept me in pretty good shape—not always. You never know when you go out what they’re going to serve you and whether that’s contaminated or not. But I’m very much interested in wine, the chemistry of wine, composition, the physiological activities and I communicate with people of UC Davis—the University of California, Davis campus. They have an excellent school of enology and viticulture. Enology is the making of wine and viticulture is the growing of grapes.


When you talk about how you’ve been involved with the legislation that people don’t understand the science behind, how exactly have you been involved with helping the issues of the public trying to understand science more?

Years ago, when I lived in Sacramento, I used to go to the California legislature. It’s located in Sacramento. They had something, for instance, on air pollution. California was the first state to have any kind of legislation to be concerned with this. So I would appear at hearings and testify and had a chance to talk to a lot of people who were in the research of air pollution. Once there was a very famous chemist, [Arie Jan] Haagen-Smith, and he did excellent work. And so, you know, you met interesting people. Plus, you testified and whether it does any good, I don’t know. And then you write. In my case, it was mostly presentations at meetings. Then it’s up to the organization, for instance, the American Chemical Society to do something about publishing.

But to give you an example, a few years ago they had a special session on all this business bisphenol A (BPA). It’s a chemical. It’s used in making of polymers, plastics. Thousands of tons are made each year. Well, they found—somebody—that when you have plastic bag, or a plastic bottle for babies, you get absolutely minute amount coming out. And this particular chemical has what’s called endocrine activity. Well, it’s not the only substance in the world that has endocrine activity. If you talk about babies, baby food, for instance: some of it is made from soybeans. A lot of people don’t know that. But that soybeans have chemicals, two of them, which have a very high endocrine activity. So why don’t you worry about that? You only worry about the one from the plastic. The activity is identical. These are some of the things. A matter of fact, we had a piece of legislation in California, 30 years back, and they thought the title of this—and it went through because people didn’t know what they were voting on—it was “hazardous to babies” which is not true. Because if that is hazardous to babies at this tiny concentration, what about something like baby food which has a much higher concentration of these chemicals?

These are the things that have interested me for a long time. And coming back to this meeting at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the session on the toxicity—lack of toxicity, I should say—of this compound. Now, there they did a fairly good job of having it presented to the media. The only publication in the U.S. which had it, a very small article, was the Wall Street Journal. In Europe, it was widely covered. And just a few days ago when I got a new issue of Chemical Engineering News, they did another study in Europe whether this substance was toxic and they did again came up and said at the concentrations we’re exposed to: no, it’s not. But here, nobody pays attention. But they listen to all these alarmists. Well, what are you going to do about it?

When it comes to chemicals, what do you think, in your opinion, is one of the biggest misconceptions that the public has of the safety and health
of public healthwhen it comes to chemicals?

There’s a very good book written by toxicologists from Berkeley, actually they’ve been with the State Department of Health, I think one of them may have passed away. But anyhow, the book is still available. It’s called The Dose Makes the Poison [The Dose Makes the Poison: A Plain-Language Guide to Toxicology by Patricia Frank and M. Alice Ottoboni]. In other words, when you listen to the media they say “this is a toxic substance” or “it’s a carcinogenic substance.” They never talk about the concentration. And that makes all the difference in the world. So why don’t they? They don’t know. When you try to talk to them, they don’t listen. This is a major problem.

Is there a source that you would recommend to the public about how to find that information about concentrations and when to know if it is actually dangerous?

I think a good place is the National Library of Medicine. They have excellent people there. You can go to, and Google for instance, Society of Toxicology or the American Chemical Society. We have special sections. One of them is Toxicology and one would be Chemical Health and Safety, where I’ve been active for many years. But you can just go to the computer and look things up and you’ll see that they always list the safe dose and when does it become toxic, along with exposure. These are all things that are covered. It just takes a little ingenuity instead of swallowing whatever somebody tells you. Don’t believe them. 

What do you think that scientific societies like Sigma Xi can do to accurately inform the public about issues like this relating to science?

Sigma Xi now has this new system. First of all, every day you get news about scientific matters [in Sigma Xi SmartBrief] and then you have an open forum [Sigma Xi’s online community, The Lab: Members to Members]. Again, there I think so few people outside of science pay any attention to it so the thing is—and I have talked at Sigma Xi meetings, I guess only one—you have to just go out. You can’t sit there and wait for somebody to come and ask you questions. People say, “Well, we have the information, let the member of the media come to us.” They don’t do that, or very rarely, anyhow. And you have to find a way and there you have experts in public relations who would know how to do it. For instance, a lot of these anti-science people are experts at perverting what’s available and they know, and the media fall for it because they don’t know enough. So the point is to find people who are experts, not just because somebody says “I’m an expert,” ask them how do you know such and such? What’s your experience? What’s your education? So you have to be very active. And I always thought Sigma Xi could do this in a great way.

Thank you for sharing that and thank you for talking with us today.

It was a pleasure, Heather. I’m always glad to talk about these subjects. Take care now.