Honoring the Othmers: Generosity, Vision, and a Transformative Gift

Donald and Mildred Othmer

Donald and Mildred Othmer. From Donald F. Othmer Papers, CHF Archives.

A first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia from 1687 sits on a dark wood table in CHF’s rare-book room. It lies next to a letter signed by Marie Curie and a book about Israel’s scientific research institutions in the 1980s. They have been laid out in preparation for the visit of Ada Yonath, a Nobel Prize–winning Israeli chemist who has requested a tour of CHF. Together, these works make up a minuscule part of the Donald F. and Mildred Topp Othmer Library’s more than 150,000 volumes, but even this small piece of the collection will allow a prominent scientist to experience, as never before, the history she is helping shape.

Yonath’s visit in January 2013 speaks to how CHF has become a magnet for scientists and scholars wishing to understand and appreciate the rich legacy of the chemical sciences. It is a place steeped in history—chemistry’s full story as told in photographs, personal papers, company records, and rare books. The Othmer Library has become such a powerful resource that CHF’s Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry, whose fellows conduct research among the library’s collections, is currently the largest grantor of fellowships in history of science in the United States.

This one-of-a-kind resource was largely made possible by a transformative gift from a profoundly influential yet modest scientist who did not like to talk about money and a former schoolteacher who worked as a buyer for her family’s dress shop: Donald F. and Mildred Topp Othmer.

Donald Othmer. From Donald F. Othmer Papers, CHF Archives.

An acclaimed inventor and professor at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (now Polytechnic Institute) who obtained more than 150 patents, Donald Othmer’s approach to life was hands on. When he designed the Othmer still, a simple yet groundbreaking laboratory device for the determination of vapor-liquid equilibrium data, he learned to blow glass so that he could build it himself. He handwrote his own patent applications so as to avoid the standard practice of using lawyers. He even literally cowrote the book on modern chemical engineering, along with fellow professor Raymond Kirk. The Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology is, in the words of the New York Times, “as well known to generations of chemical engineers as Hoyle is to card players.”

Yet when it came to his largest charitable donations, Othmer chose to be less hands on. The Othmers were generous philanthropists during their lifetimes, but their most substantial gifts came after their deaths in the mid-1990s. To the surprise of nearly everyone who knew them, their estate was worth $800 million—the result largely of wise investments and staunch frugality. With his posthumous gift to CHF, the man who insisted on writing his own patent applications had decided to entrust the still-fledgling institution with a huge portion of his and his wife’s estate—$100 million—to be used wisely in the service of preserving the history of chemistry, chemical engineering, and related sciences and technologies.

Donald Othmer. From Donald F. Othmer Papers, CHF Archives.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Othmers’ first gift to CHF: a challenge grant made in 1988 to establish the Donald F. and Mildred Topp Othmer Library of Chemical History. The bequest made less than a decade later allowed the library to soar to new heights. It also allowed CHF to move from two rooms on the University of Pennsylvania campus to beautiful buildings in the heart of Old City, Philadelphia; to hire experienced archivists, librarians, curators, and researchers; to expand its collections; and to provide physical space and operations for scholars to undertake original research.

Today the Othmer name is connected to aspects of CHF beyond the Othmer Library. Each year CHF, along with the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, The Chemists’ Club, and the Société de Chimie Industrielle (American Section), present the Othmer Gold Medal. This award, considered CHF’s top honor, is given to outstanding individuals who have made multifaceted contributions to chemical and scientific heritage. CHF has also formed the Othmer Legacy Society to honor those who are creating a lasting legacy for tomorrow’s generations by including CHF in their estate plans.

The Othmers’ legacy is alive at CHF. It’s clearly visible in the tangible benefits enabled by the Othmers’ generosity—and palpable in the honor they bestowed in trusting CHF to use a transformative gift to fulfill a mutual vision.