From Aircraft Fuel To Lipstick, Chemist Hazel Bishop Was Unstoppable


Chemist Hazel Bishop, born on August 17, 1906, showed us all how to bounce back from defeat, make something amazing out of a side-hustle, and help win a war in the process.

Today, Hazel Bishop is famous for developing the first smudge-proof lipstick, but in 1928, she wanted to be a doctor. Fresh out of college with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Bishop was all set to start medical school at Columbia University when the stock market crashed in 1929, plunging the country into the Great Depression. Financial considerations forced Bishop to put medical school on hold and look for a job instead, so she spent the 1930s working in a dermatology research lab at Columbia, where she helped develop hypoallergenic cosmetics. She managed to take graduate classes in biochemistry at the same time.

By 1942 the U.S. was at war, and Hazel Bishop went to work for Standard Oil to develop better aircraft fuels. The war effort desperately needed anything that could give American aircraft an edge over the enemy’s speed, maneuverability, or range, from small aerodynamic improvements to more efficient fuels.

To get the most out of each gallon of fuel, aircraft engines used air compressors called superchargers, which pushed air into the engine at higher pressure. That gave the engine more oxygen per cycle, which it used to burn the fuel more efficiently. Bishop figured out how to keep fuel deposits from building up on those superchargers, a contribution that helped keep the engines safer and more efficient.

So Hazel Bishop spent her wartime days elbow-deep in fuel and aircraft engines, and in the evenings she spent her free time experimenting with her own cosmetic formulas, working in a makeshift lab in what her niece described as “the smallest kitchen I’ve ever seen.” The war couldn’t last forever, after all, and after having her earlier plans derailed by depression and war, Bishop had a new goal: she wanted to build her own cosmetics business.

Business ran in the family; back home in Hoboken, New Jersey, Bishop’s father ran an assortment of local businesses including a movie theater, a candy store, a pet store, and a haberdashery. Bishop’s mother had once advised her, “Open your own business, even if it’s only a peanut stand.” So she supported the war effort by day and worked nights on her own to make it happen.

The formula she eventually settled on used chemicals called bromo acids, which could stain the skin of the lips a red or pink color, instead of just coating it. In 1948, she launched Hazel Bishop, Inc., and two years later “No-Smear Lipstick” went on sale for $1 a tube. Before long, Bishop had built a $10 million business with a quarter of the U.S. lipstick market, going head-to-head with long-running players like Revlon.

But in 1954, things went sideways again. Raymond Spector, an advertiser who she’d paid in company shares early on, had accumulated 92% of the company’s stock and become its chairman (Bishop held the other 8%). He led a fight to seize the reins of the company, and in 1954, a court ruling let him oust Bishop from the company and forbid her from selling products under her own name.

As she had done before, Bishop quickly came up with a new plan. She went to work developing leather-conditioning products, then ended up with a successful career in the financial industry. But according to her New York Times obituary, she kept making her own distinctive shade of smudge-proof lipstick at home until her death in 1998.

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