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Julia Child's Espionage

Summary: Julia Child, known as a popular and famous chef, worked in espionage and developed shark repellent for the U.S. government.

Julia Child was an American cooking icon who popularized French foods for a mainstream audience. Unbeknownst to many, Child was also a secret agent who worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an organization that would later become the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), during World War II.

Child volunteered her skills in 1942 but was initially turned away for being 2 inches taller than the Women’s Army Corps maximum height of 6 feet for female recruits. OSS officials, however, were impressed with her intelligence and personability, so they accepted her as a volunteer despite the height rule. At first, Julia Child performed classified secretarial work common to women in the agency at the time, typing up thousands of documents with sensitive information for government officials.

Around the same time, the OSS realized that it needed an effective shark repellent to calm soldiers fearful of (very rare) shark attacks while stationed overseas, as well as to keep sharks from accidentally attacking aquatic explosive devices (which had happened a few times). Realizing that Child had vast knowledge in mixing ingredients and concocting recipes, the agency added her to a team with a museum curator and a zoologist to find the perfect shark repellent formula.

After testing countless substances and performing scientific trials on their effectiveness on sharks, Child and her team ended up on a putrid combination of copper acetate and black dye that worked almost two-thirds of the time to deter sharks for nearly 8 hours. This solution apparently reeked like a decaying shark and proved effective enough for the U.S. military to adopt it.

She later continued to work for the OSS overseas while stationed in Sri Lanka and China, but much less is known about her secretive work during this time. She did, however, rise to the rank of Chief of the OSS Registry before returning home in 1943 with her secret safe (and classified!) with the American government. In fact, she told no one about her work, and it was only after the information was declassified that Julia Child’s tales of wartime espionage could be told.

Sources & Further Reading

Conant, Jennet. (2011) A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY.

Frost, Natasha. HISTORY. “Julia Child’s Spy Days Included Work on a Shark Repellent.” May 30, 2018. www.history.com/news/julia-child-oss-spy-wwii-shark-repellent

Written and researched by Jack Gassen. Posted May 2022.