The media was in a frenzy about shark attacks at the height of World War II, and the newly formed OSS was called into action to develop a shark repellant. Sharks had attacked at least 20 naval officers since the start of the war, and sailors and airmen conducting missions over shark-infested waters were becoming increasingly alarmed about the threat from these predators.
Long before she was a culinary icon, Julia Child joined the OSS for adventure. To coordinate the development of rescue equipment and keep from duplicating efforts, the OSS formed the Emergency Rescue Equipment (ERE) committee that was headed by two distinguished explorers. Julia Child worked as an executive assistant for the head of the committee, Captain Harold J. Coolidge, for a year.
One of their projects was to develop a shark repellant. The researchers tested more than 100 substances over the course of a year and found that copper acetate was the most effective. Memos from 1943 indicated that the compound was 60% effective in deterring shark bites. Unfortunately, it was ineffective against barracudas and piranhas which were also of concern to the armed forces.
The team mixed the copper acetate with black dye to form cakes that smelled like a dead shark when wet. Three-inch boxes with metal screens held the shark repellant and could be attached to a life jacket or belt and were said to keep sharks at bay for 6-7 hours.
Even though the Navy was skeptical, they did issue the repellant based on the original OSS recipe. Word got out in the media, and requests from the Army and Coast Guard poured in for the repellant which was a huge morale boost.
It is rumored that the repellant is used to this day strapped to space equipment so that sharks won’t attack when it lands in the ocean, although this is difficult to confirm.