Tracing Links between American Chemical Companies and the Mexican Sulfur Industry

Oscar Moisés Torres Montúfar is a Ph.D. Student Department of History, El Colegio de México. He is a 2016-2017 Consortium Research Fellow.


The aim of my research stays at Othmer Library, Hagley Library, and Rockefeller Archive Center was to study the role of American companies and technologies in Mexican sulfur and chemical industries development.

I examined the Williams Haynes Research Collection at the Othmer Library of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Williams Haynes (1886-1970) was a journalist interested in the history and economics of chemical industries between the 1910s and the 1940s. He wrote an important book about the American and Mexican sulfur industry: Brimstone, the Stone that Burns: the History of the Frasch Sulphur Industry (Van Nostrand, 1959), and also six volumes on the history of American chemical industry: American Chemical Industry: A History (Van Nostrand, 1945-1954). The Haynes collection at the Othmer Library comprises the documents, interviews, note cards, newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, drafts, and papers amassed by Haynes during his career. I found in this collection primary and secondary sources about the entrepreneurs and authorities who made it possible to extract sulfur in Mexico in the 1950s. Moreover, I found information about the geology of sulfur deposits in the Gulf of Mexico salt domes, operations of American sulfur companies in Mexico, sulfur extraction technologies, and international sulfur market during the 1950’s. At the same time, I analyzed the documents and notes gathered by Haynes on the chemical industries in the United States and in Mexico and other Latin American countries, and his drafts and papers on economics of chemical industries. These materials help me to explore the connections between the upsurge of Mexican sulfur production and the rapid development of chemical industries in the Americas in the Postwar Era. Considering that the archives of sulfur companies in Mexico were destroyed and that most of the chemical corporations in this country do not have historical archives, the William Haynes Research Collection is an essential source of information for my research.

I also analyzed the magazines, brochures, and books published by the American mining enterprises Freeport Sulfur Company and Texas Gulf Sulfur at the Othmer Library. Those publications provided me with information about sulfur drilling technologies and applications in the 1950s and 1960s.  They help me to think about the abilities and expectations of the world’s biggest sulfur companies, and some of the trends of global sulfur markets.

I conducted a one-day visit to the Hagley Library per recommendation of the CHSTM scholars. The Hagley Library houses the E. I. du Pont and Nemours & Company historical archives. I examined the DuPont International Department and Executive Committee reports and other documents on the corporate finances and operations from the 1950’s to the late 1970’s. I analyzed also financial reports and other documents of Mexican subsidiaries of the aforementioned corporation, such as Fluorita de México, Nylon de México, Pigmentos y Productos Químicos, Química Fluor and Policron, and an extensive report on the synthetic fiber industry in Mexico in the 1960’s. All of those documents give me some insights on how Mexico and other Latin American countries became an important market for many international chemical companies in the second half of the Twentieth Century, and how these companies took advantage of the nationalization of sulfur industry and the subsequent policy of cheap sulfur supplies followed by the Mexican state-owned companies.

Considering that sulfur in Mexico was used mainly to manufacture of fertilizers and insecticides in the second half of the Twentieth Century, I looked for data about agriculture modernization programs in the Rockefeller Archive Center collections. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations have supported the production and distribution of agrochemicals in Mexico, among other strategies to improve agriculture productivity, since the 1950s. In the RAC, I examined the technical reports of both foundations, and the correspondence, reports, and personal diaries of branches and people who were relevant to the development of its programs in Mexico, such as the Mexican Field Office, the Nelson Rockefeller Personal Papers, Rockefeller Family Associates-Berent Freile Papers and George Harrar Diaries. Those documents provide me with information about soil fertilization programs, population growth, seeds improvement, agricultural science research, engineering education, international scientific cooperation and economic development in Mexico. Along with the documents I examined at the Hagley Library, the RAC collections give some insight into how a market for sulfur-derived products emerged in Mexico.


Oscar Moisés Torres Montúfar