Dr. Robert Smith, Inventor of Tecnu Poison Oak and Ivy Cleanser and Founder of Tec Labs, Dies at 88 (11/15)
Smith, a chemical engineer, originally developed Tecnu, so called because it was technologically new, in late 1960 during the cold war to remove radioactive fallout dust. After witnessing Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe-pounding outburst at the United Nations on television, Smith predicted that it would become commonplace for every American home to have a bomb shelter. His idea was to develop a product that would become a staple in each of those shelters.
Fortunately, the bomb shelter in every home scenario never materialized. So, Smith’s cleanser was all dressed up with nowhere to go. As a result, he kept Tecnu around for his burgeoning family to use as a unique skin cleanser that could easily remove sap, pitch, grease, or even skunk odor from a dog.
In a nod to a mother’s protective instincts, it was Dr. Smith’s wife, Evelyn, who made the discovery of Tecnu as the silver bullet in the battle against poison oak and ivy. After seeing two of her five children suffer repeatedly from painful head to toe rashes, Mrs. Smith vowed to remove all the poison oak plants from the family yard. She did so, using her bare hands. Although Evelyn had suffered through numerous rashes growing up in the Midwest, this time she never broke out. And she wasn’t sure why she hadn’t.
“I had used some of Robert’s cleanser as a hand cleaner,” Evelyn recalled in a 2004 interview. However, it wasn’t until a friendly afternoon chat with her neighbor, Mrs. Wilkinson, that Evelyn began to connect the dots.
Evelyn mentioned her observations to her husband, who was predictably skeptical. To confirm or disprove his wife’s potential discovery Robert did an impromptu test using his own arm.
“He rubbed poison oak into three circles on his arm,” Evelyn said. He then washed one of the circles with Tecnu. In the two circles that were left untreated “nasty, nasty blisters” eventually appeared, according to Evelyn. Smith became convinced his wife was on to something. Additional testing was done and the family eventually started manufacturing and selling Tecnu out of the family garage.
The business, then called Tecnu Enterprises, quickly outgrew the garage as a result of Tecnu’s growing popularity among forestry workers and utility company employees. In 1977, Smith incorporated the company and changed the name to Tec Laboratories, Inc. The company now makes many other products including Tecnu Extreme, Calagel, Licefreee, Corticool and Staphaseptic.
Up until his final months, Smith attended product development meetings and worked on other business at Tec Labs, leaving a stream of smiles and profound integrity in his wake. Never one to shine a spotlight on his endless accomplishments, Smith, instead, developed a company where employees are celebrated and never want to leave. The average length of employment at Tec Labs is more than 12 years.
Monthly company wide luncheons are celebrations where food is brought in, earned bonuses are handed out and an hour is used by employees to simply compliment one another for a job well done.
“He has been a rock in the prosperous times as well as the tough times,” said Teri Seifker, controller. “You could always depend on him.” Seifker is not alone in her fondness for Smith.
“I have the utmost love, respect and admiration for Dr. Smith,” said Janelle Nichols, national sales support. “He always made my day. You wonder how one can be so talented and gifted.”
And gifted he was. Prior to inventing Tecnu, Smith was a leader on the Research and Development team at pharmacy giant Mead Johnson that created the first supplemental drink, Metrecal, in 1959.
“He’s an idea man,” said his wife during her 2004 interview. “I remember thinking life would never be dull with him. He even wanted to move to Brazil and mine for gold,” she said with a chuckle. “I didn’t think that would be a good place to raise our children.”
Robert and Evelyn, a former school teacher, married in 1945, just before he went overseas during WWII. The pair started a family soon after his return. Dr. Smith’s manifestation into a brilliant scientist and businessman was only surpassed by his jaw dropping kindness and generosity, and his love for his family. He left an indelible mark on those fortunate enough to cross his path.
“Dr. Smith is an amazing human being whose love for Science is only outshined by his love for the human race,” said Maria Steckley, who heads up the Quality Assurance department at Tec Labs. “He was the patriarch of this company.”
Evelyn preceded her husband in death in 2009. Two of his sons, Vernon Smith and Steve Smith, currently work at Tec Laboratories. Vernon is a Vice President and Steve is the CEO and President.