For Americans of a certain age there is only one true celebrity chef, and that is the irreplaceable Julia child. With her mad voice and her need for butter in everything, she is credited for introducing French cuisine into American lives, first through her cookbook and then through generations of television programs.
What however is less well known is that the famous personality had an altogether less public and less salubrious role, in the decades before she became famous, where she put her skills to use in an entirely different field. For, before Julia Child was ever a chef, she worked for the OSS, precursor to the CIA.
It would seem that Julia had ambitions to become a spy herself, but what she ended up doing instead seems somehow more aligned with her later career. Julia Child would come up with a recipe for something totally unexpected: shark repellant.
An Interesting Life
Julia Child first signed up to help her country at the age of 29 in 1942, less than a year after the US joined the Second World War. She had originally hoped to enlist in either the US Army or the Navy, but was rejected from both, bizarrely because she was too tall. Instead, she finally found a role at the Office of Strategic Services, the US intelligence division, where she was put to work as a typist.
However, her skillset clearly came to the fore in this role, as it was not long before she was transferred to the OSS Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section, attached to the US Navy and operating out of Washington DC. Here, she worked on a special project.
The US Navy, operating across the globe as the conflict rages from Argentina to Singapore, was in many areas running to keep up. The shift of the country’s economy to a wartime footing had seen a huge ramp-up in wartime production, but there were still gaps to be filled.
Julia Child was put to work accordingly as an assistant developing a shark repellant for use by the US Navy and Coast Guard. With the amount of sailors going off to war, both the US military and the general public were worried about potential shark attacks killing sailors in the water. This concern would indeed come horrifyingly true with the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945.
Along with a Harvard scientist and a museum curator from Chicago, Julia Child tested hundreds of products to see their effect on sharks. Everything was tried, from known poisons to rotten shark offal, until they found something that seemed to work: cakes of copper acetate, dyed black. 6 out of 10 sharks were driven away.
The special cakes were attached to life jackets and would dissolve in the water around stranded sailors, keeping sharks away. The repellant was also attached to sea mines to prevent sharks from accidentally triggering them.
It is also rumored that Julia Child’s invention is still in use today, attached to spacecraft that ditch in the ocean so that the capsule remains untouched as it floats on the water awaiting retrieval. Julia herself received a medal for her work, the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service. And after the war she took this curiosity with creation, turned to French cookery, and the rest is history.
Top Image: Julia Child became famous as a celebrity chef, years after her work for US intelligence. Source: Lynn Gilbert / CC BY-SA 4.0.
By Joseph Green
Kindy, D, 2022. When Julia Child worked for a spy agency fighting sharks. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2022/05/02/julia-child-hbo-oss-sharks/
Frost, N, 2018. Julia Child’s Spy Days Included Work on a Shark Repellent. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/julia-child-oss-spy-wwii-shark-repellent
Balestrieri, S, 2019. Before she was a famous chef, Julia Child cooked up shark repellent for the OSS. Available at: https://sofrep.com/specialoperations/before-she-was-a-famous-chef-julia-child-cooked-up-shark-repellent-for-oss/