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Tobias James Johnson (March 14, 1951 – )

On March 14, 1951, Tobias “Toby” James Johnson, was born the fourth of five children in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Johnson’s parents, Eli Greenberg and Anna Solomon were both Jewish immigrants to America, having escaped Nazi Germany in 1938, immediately following the ceremony where Eli accepted the Nobel Prize at the age of 28. When the couple entered America they applied for citizenship, adopting the most common American surname at the time, hoping to avoid the scrutiny and fame that accompanied the international award. 

As a child, Johnson was not interested in sports, music, art or social activities. Johnson’s main interests included solving math equations and balancing chemical formulas. Instead of pushing him to become a more social person, Johnson’s parents encouraged his interest in science, pushing him towards flashcards and textbooks. In elementary school, Johnson won his first science award at the sixth-grade science fair. His project was titled, “Concrete and Chemicals: Keeping Our Sidewalks Clean”. Though eventually determined to cause the concrete to raise from its rebar foundation, Johnson’s invention was initially hailed as an instant solution to the problem of removing dog excrement from the sidewalk surface.

After receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from The University of Pennsylvania, where he attended on a full academic scholarship, Johnson began to pursue a Masters of Science degree in chemical engineering, but dropped out a few months into the program. Though Toby cited personal reasons for his departure, his immediate employment with Troon Laboratory in Rosemont, Illinois, caused many in the science world to speculate he had received a generous financial incentive. 

It appeared that Troon’s investment in Johnson would pay off when, in 1976, Johnson made his career discovery. Trimentholdiptomine (3MD) was accidentally discovered when Johnson and his Troon team were looking for a better way to clean the slide covers for their microscopes. When Toby dropped one too many menthol particles into the solution, it made the slide covers completely disappear. The clarity of the solution was recorded at .00000011 on the Metrionomic Scale of Clarity, a rating that had been regarded as theoretical and unable to be obtained within the gravitational pull of Earth. Though scientists found the solution to be impractical in the lab, causing too much confusion when clear containers blended into the surface they were set on, Johnson recognized the commercial benefit when sitting beside his murky backyard pool. Having fought algae and cloudy water all summer, Johnson was inspired to dump a vial of 3MD into the chlorinated water and found that within minutes the pool water was crystal clear and extremely inviting. 

Following eighteen months of toxicity testing, the newly patented solution of 3MD sold out as fast as it hit the shelves in June of 1978. Pools across America were treated with 3MD and the swimming world celebrated the pleasure of having a pool without the stress and work of keeping the water crystal clear. Unfortunately, Johnson and Troon’s financial success was short lived. Within a few months, reports came in of swimmers turning up at hospitals with bright red streaks of rash running down their legs and scattered across their bodies at random intervals. The rashes resembled poison oak, with blisters and bumps that crusted over and erupted again and again, but the intensive itching that accompanied the rash could not be cured with normal prescriptions of anti-itch medication. For several months, occurrences of the strange swimmers rash continued to spread to epidemic proportions, but doctors were unable to find a cause.

Finally, during a final Labor Day swim in his own pool, it was Johnson himself who realized the cause of the miserable rash. When urine and 3MD were mixed, thin, clear strands of what Johnson called P-Strings formed and attached to solid objects as they floated through the water. Completely clear and with a diameter thinner than a human hair, the P-Strings were invisible to the naked eye. When P-Strings came up against an inanimate object such as a raft or a pool wall, they simply broke down into harmless components. However, when P-Strings contacted human skin at a temperature greater than 98.8 F, an allergic reaction occurred producing itchy, red welts. Testing showed that only 46% of individuals have a body heat higher than 98.8 F at any given time, explaining why not every individual swimming among the P-Strings reacted in such an unpleasant manner. 

Johnson never recovered from the embarrassment of causing millions of people so much pain and discomfort. Refusing to give interviews or answer questions regarding 3MD and P-Strings, Johnson retired to permanent residence within the walls of the Troon Laboratory where he continues to search for a new use for 3MD. 

Nathaniel Jetter