It was the height of World War II and reports of shark attacks consumed the media. At least twenty US Naval officers had been attacked by sharks since the start of the war, raising alarm amongst sailors and airmen who increasingly found themselves conducting dangerous missions over shark-infested waters. To boost morale, the Joint Chiefs of Staff requested the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, CIA’s predecessor) to lead the hunt to find a shark repellent.
Julia McWilliams (better known by her married name, Julia Child) joined the newly-created OSS in 1942 in search of adventure. This was years before she became the culinary icon of French cuisine that she is known for today. In fact, at this time, Julia was self-admittedly a disaster in the kitchen. Perhaps all the more fitting that she soon found herself helping to develop a recipe that even a shark would refuse to eat.
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Housed within the OSS until late 1943, the ERE Special Projects division was headed by Captain Harold J. Coolidge, a scientist from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and Dr. Henry Field, Curator of the Field Museum of Natural History. Both men were avid explorers, having led expeditions into arctic, desert, and tropical regions. Coolidge had previously organized and accompanied the well-known Kelly-Roosevelt expedition to Indo-China and had a strong working-knowledge about the necessary equipment for survival in the arctic, while Field had led several anthropological expeditions into the deserts of the Middle East.
Coolidge and Field sent a memo to OSS Director General “Wild Bill” Donovan and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, proposing a plan for “unifying and coordinating the work of different agencies in the field of rescue.” Thus the ERE was born, and one of its several projects was the development of shark repellent.
Julia Child worked for Coolidge for a year in 1943 as an Executive Assistant.
“I must say we had lots of fun,” Julia told fellow OSS Officer, Betty McIntosh, during an interview for Betty’s book on OSS women, Sisterhood of Spies. “We designed rescue kits and other agent paraphernalia. I understand the shark repellent we developed is being used today for downed space equipment—strapped around it so the sharks won’t attack when it lands in the ocean.”
As for the shark repellant, it turned out that copper acetate worked best, but a) it seems unlikely that it worked very effectively in real world environments, and b) didn’t deter at all bites from other carnivorous fish such as barracudas and piranhas. (Which doesn’t mean, of course, that the Navy didn’t go ahead and manufacture the stuff anyway).