Julia Child and the OSS Recipe for Shark Repellent

Julia Child and the OSS Recipe for Shark Repellent

Julia Child is widely known for introducing French cuisine to America, but few people know that she had a dynamic career as an intelligence officer before becoming a cooking icon. Julia volunteered her services to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, during World War II. She worked as a research assistant, developed shark repellent, and served as Chief of the OSS Registry in Ceylon and Kunming. It was during her time in the OSS that she met her husband, also an OSS officer. After the war, her husband’s work brought them to France, where she began her studies at Le Cordon Bleu and developed her passion for cooking.

During World War II, the United States military was plagued by shark attacks on sailors and airmen. To counter the threat, the Joint Chiefs of Staff requested the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA’s predecessor, to develop a shark repellent. The task was assigned to the Emergency Rescue Equipment (ERE) coordinating committee, which was housed within the OSS until late 1943. The ERE Special Projects division was headed by Captain Harold J. Coolidge, a scientist from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and Dr. Henry Field, Curator of the Field Museum of Natural History.

Julia McWilliams, better known as Julia Child, joined the newly created OSS in 1942, years before she became the culinary icon of French cuisine that she is known for today. She worked for Coolidge for a year in 1943 as an Executive Assistant, and she and her colleagues designed rescue kits and other agent paraphernalia, including the shark repellent.

Julia Child and the OSS Recipe for Shark Repellent CIA

After trying over 100 different substances, including extracts from decayed shark meat, organic acids, and several copper salts, the researchers found copper acetate to be the most effective repellent. Copper acetate was mixed with black dye, formed into a disk-shaped “cake,” and placed in a 3-inch box with metal screens that allowed the repellent to be spread either manually or automatically when submerged in water. The box could be attached to a life jacket or belt or strapped to a person’s leg or arm and was said to keep sharks away for 6 to 7 hours.

Cartoon from the Naval Aviation Training Division guide, Shark Sense. March 1944. CIA

Despite initial skepticism from the Navy, they “did end up issuing the shark repellent based on the original OSS recipe—also known as “Shark Chaser”—until the 1970s.” The media picked up on the existence of the repellent, and requests came pouring in from the Army and Coast Guard.

Julia later recalled in an interview “I must say we had lots of fun,” Julia told fellow OSS Officer, Betty McIntosh, during an interview for Betty’s book on OSS women, Sisterhood of Spies. “We designed rescue kits and other agent paraphernalia. 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.” (unconfirmed)

“The Navy didn’t stop with shark repellent. Shark attacks, although extremely frightening, were relatively rare occurrences. To help dispel the myths surrounding shark attacks, the Naval Aviation Training Division in March 1944 issued a training guide based on the ERE research into sharks. Called, “Shark Sense,” the guide was filled with facts about sharks, advice on how to handle yourself when stranded in shark infested waters, and of course, cartoons”