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Donald F. Othmer Papers

  • 1921–1998
  • American
    Created and used by Donald and Mildred Othmer
  • 169 linear feet
    Papers, photographs, artifacts
  • Bequest of Donald F. Othmer
  • 96:17
  • Copyright restrictions may apply (contact CHF archivist).


Includes biographical information and personal and professional files relating to Othmer’s life and career as a chemical engineer.

Background note

Donald Frederick Othmer was born on May 11, 1904, in Omaha, Nebraska, to Frederick and Freda Othmer. As he grew up, he became interested in technology and chemistry. It did not take long for Othmer to realize he wanted to pursue a career in chemical engineering. He received a scholarship in 1921 that enabled him to attend Chicago’s Armour Institute of Technology.

After two years at the Armour Institute he withdrew and returned to Nebraska to attend the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1924. In less than a year he was accepted to the University of Michigan, where he completed both his master’s degree and his Ph.D. After receiving his doctorate in 1927, Othmer took a job working for the Eastman Kodak Company, in Rochester, New York. There he began his initial work with acetic acid and distillation, two subjects that would be lifelong projects. In 1931 Othmer left Eastman Kodak and began working on his own, in the field of distillation. However, owing to the Great Depression, the economy could not offer a steady income in this kind of work. As few had money to invest in Othmer’s new distillation processes or stills, he was forced to seek employment elsewhere. Despite the economic hardships of the time, he received two job offers, one at Standard Oil of New Jersey and one at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (now Polytechnic University). Othmer saw more freedom to act as an inventor, consultant, and entrepreneur in a career in teaching than in working for a large company. Therefore, in the fall of 1932 he went to work as a professor for the Chemical Engineering Department of Polytechnic University in Brooklyn. He remained an active part of this department until his death in 1995.

The freedom of the teaching profession allowed Othmer to begin a career as a private consultant, an occupation he pursued for the duration of his life. Othmer consulted for hundreds of companies, both in the United States and in various locations around the world, which involved considerable amounts of travel, particularly to the Far East. Perhaps his most notable contributions to the field of chemical engineering were in the areas of acetic acid recovery, synthetic fibers, desalination, distillation, methanol, wallboard, and sugar refining. He helped create the technology necessary for the purification and separation of chemicals and for the creation of paint, fresh water, synthetic fiber, plastic, and refined fuel. Othmer gained fame by receiving over 150 patents worldwide for his creation of and improvements in various chemical processes. One of his most notable inventions was the “Othmer still,” a basic laboratory device for the determination of vapor-liquid equilibrium data that he developed while working out the problems of acetic acid recovery.

Despite his busy schedule of teaching, consulting, writing, traveling, and inventing, Othmer found time to act as an integral member of several chemical societies and organizations, including the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Chemists, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Institute of Consulting Engineers, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He also served as the president of the esteemed Chemists’ Club.

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Arnold O. Beckman

CHF’s Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry was started with a generous grant from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation in 1987.



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