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Long before she cooked French dishes on TV, Julia Child helped the CIA develop shark repellent

Goran Blazeski
 Photo Credit Lynn Gilbert - CC BY-SA 4.0
Photo Credit Lynn Gilbert - CC BY-SA 4.0

The war broke out, and I wanted to do something to aid my country in a time of crisis. I was too tall for the WACs and WAVES, but eventually joined the OSS and set out into the world looking for adventure.
Julia Child

To say that Julia Child was a TV chef and author is not enough. In fact, Julia Child was no less than a cultural phenomenon, a woman who left a lasting mark by introducing fine French cuisine to the American mainstream.

Some people may know something of her surprising background: Julia Child was an intelligence officer during World War II. However, the details are worth illuminating: she played a crucial role in the invention of a shark repellent that was used to prevent the predators from detonating submarine mines.

Julia Child gives the KUHT audience a cooking demonstration.

Julia Child gives the KUHT audience a cooking demonstration.

Born Julia McWilliams, on August 15, 1912, in Pasadena, California, to John McWilliams, Jr. and Julia Carolyn Weston, she lived a privileged childhood. Her father was a prominent land manager and her mother was a paper-company heiress.

Her family’s wealth made it possible for her to be educated at San Francisco’s elite Katherine Branson School for Girls and later she enrolled at Smith College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1934 with a major in English. Originally, her intentions were to become a writer, but after the start of World War II, her career went in another direction.

She was once quoted as saying, “I was going to be a great woman novelist. Then the war came along and I think it’s hard for young people today, don’t you, to realize that when World War II happened we were dying to go and help our country.”

Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Author: Matthew G. Bisanz. CC BY-SA 3.0

Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Author: Matthew G. Bisanz. CC BY-SA 3.0

As Child herself said, she was too tall to join the military, so she joined the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of today’s Central Intelligence Agency, and began her career as a typist. As stated in her OSS file, which was declassified in 2008 and is now available on the official website of the United States National Archives and Records Administration, Child was employed at the Office of War Information as a junior clerk-typist where she was typing names on cards and filing those cards.

However, due to her education and experience outside the government, people in the OSS felt that Child was better qualified to higher position and soon she started working as a junior research assistant for Colonel William J. Donovan, who was the director of the Office of Strategic Services.

As stated in her OSS file, “Miss McWilliams would be assigned the task of directly reviewing, filing and performing minor research in connection with the reports and documents flowing into Colonel Donovan’s office.

William J. Donovan, Head of the OSS.

William J. Donovan, Head of the OSS.

She later worked with the OSS Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section and while doing so, helped  develop a shark repellent. The repellent’s purpose was to prevent sharks from coming into contact with and thus detonating submarine mines, and to save the lives of seamen and pilots who found themselves in open water due to enemy attacks or accidents.

The repellent was Child’s first big recipe and according to an article published by the Christian Science Monitor back in 2012, she said: “I could boil water for tea but my first big recipe was shark repellant that I mixed in a bathtub for the Navy, for the men who might get caught in the water.”

Julia Child’s kitchen. Author: RadioFan. CC BY-SA 3.0

Julia Child’s kitchen. Author: RadioFan. CC BY-SA 3.0

The “Shark Chaser” was a mixture of copper acetate and black dye, formed into a disk-shaped cake that smelled quite unpleasantly when exposed to water. However, the recipe proved to be somewhat ineffective, having about 60 percent deterrence rate for sharks and zero effectiveness against attacks from barracudas and piranhas. Still, according to the CIA’s website, the recipe was used over the following three decades.

Starting in 1944, Child went to work in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and later in Kunming, China, where she met Paul Cushing Child, a fellow OSS employee and her future husband. Among his other accomplishments, he taught French, and it was Child who introduced her to fine French cuisine.

Polaroid portrait of Julia Child. Author: Elsa Dorfman. CC-BY 2.5

Polaroid portrait of Julia Child. Author: Elsa Dorfman. CC-BY 2.5

The couple moved to France in 1948 due to Paul’s assignment as an exhibits officer in Paris.

Related story from us:Golden Girl Bea Arthur was a truck-driving Marine during WWII

While there, Julia attended one of France’s most prestigious cooking schools, Le Cordon Bleu, and over the years she went on to become a cooking legend and public television personality.