Her first creation wasn’t food, but shark repellent.
After the United States entered World War II in 1941, the 29-year-old Child (then unmarried and known by her birth name, Julia McWilliams) wanted to serve her country. However, at 6-foot-2, she was deemed too tall for the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) in the Navy and Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in the Army.
Child eventually joined the newly formed OSS, the U.S. spy agency, during the war years in Washington. She worked as a junior research assistant in the Secret Intelligence Branch, typing thousands of names of government officials on index cards. She soon tired of that assignment and wrangled a similar position working directly for William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the OSS director and founder.
Her abilities were eventually noticed, and she was given a more important job working for Capt. Harold J. Coolidge in the Special Projects Division of the Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment (ERE) Section, tasked with developing ideas to keep sailors and downed airmen safe in the water.
“Julia was never actually a spy, but she very much hoped to become one when she joined the agency in December 1942,” explained Jennet Conant in 2011 on C-SPAN’s “Book TV,” where she was discussing her book “A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS.”
By 1943, shark attacks had become a major concern for the military. Though they were rare — only 20 had occurred in the first three years of the war — the media had become focused on these bloody events. Families were worried about what would happen to their loved ones struggling for survival in the water.
The Army and Navy turned to the OSS for assistance in finding a way to protect personnel by keeping sharks at bay. Scientists had been searching for years for a method or chemical that repelled the man-eaters, but nothing they tried seemed to work.
Tasked with finding a solution were Coolidge, a scientist from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and division co-director Henry Field, curator of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Coolidge asked Child and other researchers to come up with something that would keep sharks away.
At the time, Child had yet to make her first coq au vin — or any French dish. She would not acquire her legendary culinary skills until after World War II and her marriage to Paul Child, who also served in the OSS. The couple later moved to Paris, where he served in the U.S. Foreign Service. It was there, in 1951, that she began studying at the Cordon Bleu cooking school.
But that was all in the future. In 1943, Child and her co-workers needed to cook up something that sharks found distasteful. They tested more than 100 substances, including common poisons, as well as extracts from decayed shark meat, organic acids and various chemical compositions.
After a year of research, they hit upon an idea that showed promise: “cakes” of copper acetate, mixed with black dye. The concoction was said to smell like dead sharks to other sharks. Field testing showed that it was 60 percent effective as a shark repellent.
Though the military remained skeptical about its abilities, the recipe was released in limited quantities in World War II. Cakes were attached to life vests for sailors and provided to airmen to rub on themselves in the water. If nothing else, they could feel like they had a chance when floating in the ocean.
Labeled as Shark Chaser, the OSS recipe was also used to coat mines at sea to prevent curious sharks from nibbling them. During the war, the toothy fish were known to accidentally set off the explosives intended for German U-boats and Japanese vessels.
There were even reports that NASA used the recipe for the space program, though those accounts are unverified. “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,” Child told fellow OSS officer Betty McIntosh for McIntosh’s book “Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS.”
Child’s time in D.C. helped her develop her creativity and confidence. “I must say we had lots of fun,” Child told McIntosh.
For her wartime service, Child was awarded the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service. She was recognized for her “resourcefulness, industry and sound judgment.”
“Her drive and inherent cheerfulness, despite long hours of tedious work, served as a spur to greater efforts for those working with her,” her citation stated. “Morale in her section could not have been higher. Her achievements reflect great credit upon herself and the Armed Forces of the United States.”