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Long Before She Became The French Chef, Julia Child Helped Cook Up Shark Repellent

The CIA reveals details about Julia Child's work at the WWII spy agency, OSS.

Julia Child.
Julia Child.
Thomas J. Gibbons/Getty Images
Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

Julia Child: author, skilled maker of French omelets, developer of shark repellent. It was 1942 and Julia McWilliams, aka Julia Child, joined the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) looking for adventure, the CIA reveals in a special archive release. A precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, the OSS was charged with covert spy operations during World War II.

The same year Child joined the agency the OSS formed the Emergency Rescue Equipment (ERE) coordinating committee to develop devices that helped rescue members of the military and equipment from dangerous situations. One of their main projects that Child collaborated on was the development of shark repellent to protect Navy men and equipment stranded in shark-infested waters. In a 2008 blog post, LA Times food editor Russ Parson recalls Child saying:

"We couldn't get the Navy to admit that sharks ate Navy men. They didn't like to say, 'Dear Mrs. So-and-So, your son was eaten by a shark.' They'd much rather say: 'Your gallant son was lost at sea.' Then one day, a shark was caught and they opened him up and found he had some undigested parts of people in his stomach. One of them still had fingerprints, and it turned out to be a Navy man. There was such glee in our office that they had finally proven a Navy man could be eaten by a shark."

According to recovered memos the ERE tested more than 100 substances including "extracts from decayed shark meat, organic acids, and several copper salts, including copper sulphate, and copper acetate." The winning recipe was copper acetate mixed with dye, which when strapped to a life jacket, belt, leg, or a piece of equipment mimicked the smell of a dead shark and deterred them for up to seven hours. The repellent was soon adopted by branches of the Armed Forces and, as Child told author Betty McIntosh in Sisterhood of Spies, NASA for preventing sharks from attacking downed space equipment.

Sharks attacks were a drain on Navy moral during WWII. [Photo: CIA Archive]

Child eventually moved on to other parts of the OSS, which took her overseas, but the experience was formative. According to The Christian Science Monitor, citing, Child once told her producer Margaret Sullivan, "I could boil water for tea but my first big recipe was shark repellent that I mixed in a bathtub for the Navy, for the men who might get caught in the water."