A soap man feels vindicated today

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has a mummified Philadelphia man, who was buried around 1800 and whose body turned into soap. It seems that alkaline water seeped into his casket and combined with his body fat, thus making him into soap. He is called Soapman.


 (*The writer is an author and corporate advisor. He is a Distinguished Professor of IIT Kharagpur. He was a Director of Tata Sons and a Vice Chairman of Hindustan Unilever).

Email: rgopal@themindworks.me

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has a mummified Philadelphia man, who was buried around 1800 and whose body turned into soap. It seems that alkaline water seeped into his casket and combined with his body fat, thus making him into soap. He is called Soapman.

Like my erstwhile colleagues, I am a living Soapman, having worked for both Hindustan Lever and Tata (who used to own TOMCO). I graduated with degrees in Physics and Electronics from an IIT fifty-three years ago. I joined the computer department of Hindustan Lever. After five years, I transferred from computers to become a soapman.

Over the years, questions were hurled at me: How can you descend from brain work to hustling bazar work? How can you study at IIT and end up this way? What satisfaction do you get by talking to grocers all day? How could you spend time on to how to market freshness or beauty soap to consumers?

I know that I was not the only soapman under assault. Homi Sethna studied Chemical Engineering in America along with Vasant Rajadhyaksha. Sethna distinguished himself through a career in Atomic Energy, while Rajadhyaksha did so in Unilever. As recounted to me by Rajadhyaksha and confirmed later by Sethna, he was forever ribbed about working in a soap company. After their retirement, in a travesty of fates, Sethna became Chairman of TOMCO and Rajadhayaksha joined the Planning Commission. Sethna used to informally consult Rajadhyaksha about how to turn around a loss-making TOMCO. Finally, Tata sold TOMCO to Unilever. Sethna and Rajadhyaksha must have had a quiet drink to mark the tun of events!

On my part, I managed to respond to my persistent questioners. I spent thirty-one happy years in Unilever while I continued to search for an intellectually seductive answer. All my blandishments were received with politeness, maybe some indulgence.

To retain majority Unilever shareholding, HUL had argued that sophisticated technology is involved in manipulating triglycerides and fatty acids for soap-making. The company was proud of its capability to upgrade forest-derived vegetable oils, which were not used for soap-making anywhere in the world. The company argued that such innovation and technology deployment impacted the foreign exchange balance of the nation positively. On one occasion, the company chairman was asked, perhaps in jest, by a senior government officer, “Are you still making soap?” to which the chairman responded in equally good humor, “Yes sir, so long as you require a bath.” After ten years of advocacy, HUL was permitted to retain majority shareholding of Unilever.

With the COVID crisis upon us, washing hands for twenty seconds with soap is now seen as a sacred and essential ritual. The honor of soap-making has at last been made visible by an invisible virus. But it is interesting to narrate why virus is scared of soap.

Contrary to popular impressions, corona virus is not a living being. It is genetic material that is folded up and placed inside an envelope of oily material. The genetic material enables infection and attack, while the oily envelope protects the genetic material.

Soap is constituted of pin shaped molecules. One end of the pin is water-loving, and the other end is water-hating. The water-hating end seeks out oily material, and the water-loving end seeks out water. When soap is mixed with water as we do every day, the water-loving heads bunch up together and point outwards. The water-hating tails stay tucked inwards.

What happens when we wash our hands with soap? From a virus viewpoint, our hands are not soft and smooth, our hands have mountainous ridges and valleys. The viruses have many interesting and attractive sites for settling down. This is the reason for a twenty seconds hand-rub. Pin shaped soap molecules on the hands causes the water-hating end of the pin to seek out the oily material containing the virus. The oily envelope is plentifully available and protects the destructive virus. This water-hating end of the soap molecule acts like a crowbar and pries apart the virus like a Roman gladiator. The virus gets demolished. It is an act of extreme violence.

Accurate records of life expectancy at birth are available in US since 1800s. Life expectancy has risen from the 30 years to 75 years. Three contributors: first, hygiene (cleaning with soap, separating sewage from drinking water), second, vaccination and third, physical and economic access to nutritious food. Insurance companies say that 80% of healthcare expenditure is incurred in the last 6 months of one’s life. Therefore, soap protects, it allows human life to survive and grow.

It all began in ancient times, perhaps when rains washed together oily material and ash from sacrifices into a nearby river. A froth was formed on the river. This froth had the remarkable ability to wash the human body and the clothes. Thus began the protection of humans on the planet by the simple action of soap.

Explained in this manner, soap is an ordinary product with an extraordinarily sophisticated action. It saves human lives in an affordable way. Corona virus has given me a reason to argue even more passionately that soapmen lead a life of great honor and humaneness, no different from many recognized others!

Jai Sabun, Jai Swachhata.