Leo Baekeland Biography

Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland, a Belgian-American chemist, is renowned for his groundbreaking contributions to the field of chemistry. His remarkable discoveries include the invention of photographic paper Velox and the creation of the revolutionary plastic Bakelite. Baekeland’s pioneering work in developing low-cost, flexible, and incombustible plastic paved the way for the modern plastic industry, earning him the well-deserved title of “The Father of the Plastics Industry.” This introduction will delve into Baekeland’s educational background, his career journey, and the significant impact he made on the world of chemistry.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: L. H. Baekeland, Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland
  • Died At Age: 80
  • Born Country: Belgium
  • Chemists
  • Inventors
  • Died on: February 23, 1944
  • Place of death: Beacon
  • Founder/Co-Founder: General Bakelite Company
  • Discoveries/Inventions: Bakelite, Velox Photographic Paper
  • Education: Ghent University

Childhood & Early Life

Leo Hendrik Baekeland was born on November 14, 1863, in Sint-Martens-Latem, Belgium. His father, Charles Baekeland, was a cobbler, and his mother, Rosalie Baekeland, was a housemaid. Leo joined elementary school at the age of five and later attended the government high school, Atheneum. He also took evening classes at the Ghent Municipal Technical School, where he studied economics, mechanics, physics, and chemistry. Leo excelled in all subjects and earned medals for his achievements. In 1880, he received a scholarship from the port city of Ghent and enrolled at the University of Ghent. He completed his Bachelor in Science degree in 1882 and earned his PhD at the age of 21.


After completing his education, Leo Baekeland was appointed as a professor of chemistry and physics at the Government Higher Normal School of Science in Bruges in 1887. During this time, he discovered a procedure for using water as an alternative to chemicals in developing photographic plates and patented his invention in 1887. In 1889, he accepted a position as an Associate Professor of chemistry at the University of Ghent. That same year, he received a travel scholarship and visited universities in the United States and England. While in New York, he was persuaded by Professor Charles F. Chandler of Columbia University to stay and sent his resignation from the University of Ghent. Although his resignation was accepted, he was given an honorary title as Associate Professor.

In New York, Baekeland joined the E. and H.T. Anthony photographic company and worked there for a few years. In 1891, he became a consulting and research chemist and eventually discovered Velox, a photographic paper that could be developed using artificial light. In 1899, he sold the rights to the photographic paper to the Eastman Kodak Company. With the proceeds from the sale, he bought a house in North Yonkers called “Snug Rock” and set up a laboratory to continue his experiments.

Unable to conduct research in photography due to a non-compete clause, Baekeland turned his attention to electrochemistry. He visited Germany in 1900 to study electrochemistry and equipped his laboratory in Yonkers with electrochemical devices. He made significant contributions to the chloralkali process and helped establish the Hooker Chemical Company and electrochemical plants at Niagara Falls.

In 1905, Baekeland began researching a synthetic alternative for shellac and discovered Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic. He obtained a patent for Bakelite in 1909 and established the General Bakelite Company in 1910. He became a professor at Columbia University in 1917 and served as the Chairman of the National Research Council’s Committee on Patents. He also became a U.S. citizen in 1919.

In 1922, the Bakelite Corporation was formed through the merger of two companies with Baekeland’s General Bakelite Company. Baekeland served as the President of the American Chemical Society in 1924 and held various honorary positions throughout his career. He sold his business to Union Carbide in 1939 and retired. He spent the rest of his life working on his tropical garden in Coconut Grove, Florida.

Major Works

Leo Baekeland’s most significant contribution to the world was the invention of Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic. Bakelite had a wide range of applications and was used in electrical devices, radios, car parts, billiard balls, and jewelry. It revolutionized the plastics industry and paved the way for the development of many other synthetic materials.

Personal Life & Legacy

Leo Baekeland married Céline Swarts, the daughter of his professor Theodore Swarts, in 1889. They had three children together. Baekeland passed away on February 23, 1944, due to a cerebral hemorrhage. He was buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.


Leo Baekeland received several honors and awards throughout his life, including the Officer of the Legion of Honor from France and the Officer of the Order of the Crown and Commander of the Order of Leopold from Belgium. He was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1978.

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