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James C. Letton

by Susan J. Ainsworth
July 15, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 28

James C. Letton, 79, a Procter & Gamble research chemist, died on March 26 in Springdale, Ohio.

Born and raised in Paris, Ky., Letton earned a B.S. in chemistry from Kentucky State University (KSU) in 1955.

He then moved to Chicago, where he worked as a process chemist focused on steroid and cholesterol derivatives for Percy L. Julian at Julian Laboratories, which Smith, Kline & French Laboratories purchased in 1961. While working, Letton earned a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical organic chemistry from the University of Illinois, Chicago, in 1970.

Letton then returned to KSU, joining its faculty as a professor and subsequently becoming chair of the chemistry department.

He left academia for P&G in Cincinnati in 1975. He helped develop the fat substitute olestra and worked on biodegradable surfactants as well as enzyme stabilization technology used in Era Plus, the first liquid detergent with stain-removing enzymes. He is credited with 20 patents.

In 1992, Letton was named the first African American member of P&G’s Victor Mills Society, a distinguished group established to honor technologists who have made exceptional contributions to the company. He retired in 1995.

He also received the Percy L. Julian Award and the Researcher of the Year Award, both from the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers.

Letton was an emeritus member of ACS, joining in 1972.

He was a consultant in the production of “Forgotten Genius,” a movie about Julian’s life, which broadcast nationwide on PBS in 2007. Letton loved jazz and classical music.

He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Rosaline; sons, James and Alan; daughter, Lillian; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Obituary notices of no more than 300 words may be sent to Susan J. Ainsworth at and should include an educational and professional history.


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