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O. Theodor Benfey

  • Born: October 31, 1925, Berlin, Germany

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0094
Interview Dates: May 24, 1991 and June 5, 1991
Location: Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Interviewer: James J. Bohning
No. of pages: 120
Minutes: 411

  Abstract of Interview

O. THEODOR BENFEY begins the interview with a description of his childhood in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. He tells of his experiences in England, where he was a student during the war, and then his move to the United States for a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University. He describes the development of his interest in physical organic chemistry and structure, and the history of chemistry, and recounts his career as a professor of chemistry and history of science at Haverford, Earlham, and Guilford Colleges. Benfey also tells of his parallel career as a writer, translator and editor and gives details of the various translations he has published, and recalls his term as editor of Chemistry magazine. He concludes with his memories of his studies in Japan and China and his current interests.


1945 B.Sc., Chemistry, University College, London
1947 Ph.D., Chemistry, University College, London

  Professional Experience

Columbia University

1947 - 1948 London University Postdoctoral Fellow

Haverford College

- 1948 Instructor of Chemistry

Haverford College

1948 - 1955 Assistant Professor of Chemistry

Haverford College

1955 - 1956 Associate Professor of Chemistry

Harvard University

1955 - 1956 Research Fellow

Earlham College

1956 - 1973 Associate Professor of Chemistry and History of Science; Professor of Chemistry and History of Science

Earlham College

1971 - 1972 Chairman of Chemistry Department

Guilford College

1973 - 1988 Dana Professor of Chemistry and History of Science; also periodically chairperson of the chemistry department

Guilford College

1977 - 1979 Clerk of Faculty

International Christian University, Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan

1985 - 1986 Visiting Professor of Chemistry and Research Fellow

Chemical Heritage Foundation

1989 Editor, Beckman Center News; Othmer Library News; Chemical Heritage

University of Pennsylvania

1990 Adjunct Professor, Department of History and Sociology of Science


1961 Doan Distinguished Teacher Travel Award, Earlham College

Manufacturing Chemists Association Chemistry Teacher Award

1967 - 1968

Danforth Foundation E. Harris Harbison Award for Distinguished Teaching

1970 - 1971 Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research and Study Award, Kwansei Gakuin University, Nishinomiya, Japan

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family, Childhood, and Early Education 1

Grows up as a Lutheran of Jewish ancestry in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. Emigrates to England to live with the Mendl family and attend Watford Grammar School, while parents move to United States. Enjoys math classes, and interst in science develops.

University College, London 11

Moves to Aberystwyth during war. Has some contact with Ingold during undergraduate years. Becomes a Quaker. Insists on conducting only non-war-related research as graduate student. Studies aliphatic substitution and solvent effects. Not encouraged to keep abreast of outside research.

Postdoctoral Traveling Fellowship, Columbia University 27

Immigrates to United States, reunites with family. Studies mercury-catalyzed solvolysis and olefin formation. Considers switching to medicine.

Haverford College 35

Teaches physical organic chemistry mechanisms and chemistry for non-majors. Supervises undergraduate research. Receives Research Corporation grant for summer research. Publishes on history of chemistry. Active in Philadelphia Organic Chemists Club and Society for Social Responsibility in Science. Meets and marries Rachel Thomas.

Harvard University 45

Lives with parents in Cambridge. Works with Conant's group. Enjoys studying the lives and original works of great chemists. Works on translations. Teaches history and philosophy of science courses. Studies structural theory, and, with Westheimer, the bipyridyl problem.

Earlham College 51

Continues bipyridyl research. Works with Strong to develop new chemistry curriculum based on conceptual division and to create and publish Chemical Bond Approach materials. Edits Chemistry magazine. Continues publishing translations and history of chemistry. Becomes chair of HIST. Interest in geometry and structure increases. Professor of both chemistry and history of science.

Guilford College 77

Urged by Hobbs to join faculty. Educates many for industrial positions. Students able to cross-register with other Greensboro schools. Active interdepartmental faculty interaction. Dana Professor of Chemistry and History of Science.

Far Eastern Studies 83

Becomes interested in China and Japan while at Earlham. Studies Japanese and lives in Japan for a year to explore history of science in the Far East. Especially intrigued by uses of geometry in Eastern culture.

Early Retirement 88

Retires early to devote time to other interests. Becomes Editor at the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry. Moves to Bryn Gweled.

Notes 91

Index 99

  About the Interviewers

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning is professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he was a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and has presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was the foundation’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. He is currently a visiting research scientist and CESAR Fellow at Lehigh University. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.

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