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Alan G. MacDiarmid

Alan G. MacDiarmid

CHF Collections, Photograph by Douglas A. Lockard

  • Born: April 14, 1927, Masterton, New Zealand
  • Died: February 7, 2007, Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0325
Interview Date: December 19, 2005
Location: University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Interviewer: Cyrus Mody
No. of pages: 47
Sponsor: Nanotechnology

  Abstract of Interview

Alan G. MacDiarmid begins the interview by discussing his childhood in New Zealand and goes on to describe how two books, both chemistry-related, sparked his interest in chemistry. Due to economic hardship, MacDiarmid juggled working and attending the University of New Zealand part time to complete his bachelor's and master's degree. Denied a scholarship to study in England, MacDiarmid came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a Fulbright Scholar to study inorganic chemistry. After obtaining a M.S. in 1952 and a Ph.D. in 1953, MacDiarmid left Wisconsin and finally got to fulfill his dream of studying at the University of Cambridge under H. J. Emeleus. Focusing on inorganic chemistry, MacDiarmid obtained a Ph.D. in 1955 and accepted a position at the University of Pennsylvania after a brief stint as assistant lecturer in the University of St. Andrews. MacDiarmid did his most seminal work at Penn, where he remained for fifty-plus year and is still a faculty member. His early research in America was funded by Cold War related projects overseen by government funding agencies such as the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Office of Naval Research. Then on a visit to Japan, MacDiarmid serendipitously met with Hideki Shirakawa, who was doing similar research on conductive metals. Over tea they discussed their work, and MacDiarmid invited Shirakawa to Philadelphia. It was there, collaborating with another Penn faculty member, Alan Heeger, that the three published influential works that led to the discovery of conducting polymers and their shared Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2000. MacDiarmid, an inorganic chemist, emphasized the importance of inter-disciplinary research with Shirakawa, an organic chemist; and Heeger, a physicist. MacDiarmid describes how interdisciplinarity can advance current research and promote innovation. He concludes the interview by suggesting possible future research directions and the need to decrease dependency on fossil fuels.


1948 B.Sc., Chemistry, University of New Zealand
1950 M.Sc., Chemistry, University of New Zealand
1952 M.S., Chemistry, University of Wisconsin
1953 Ph.D., Inorganic Chemistry, University of Wisconsin-Madison
1955 Ph.D., Inorganic Chemistry, University of Cambridge

  Professional Experience

University of St. Andrews

1955 - 1956 Assistant Lecturer

University of Pennsylvania

1955 - 1956 Instructor in Chemistry

University of Pennsylvania

1956 - 1961 Assistant Professor

University of Pennsylvania

1961 - 1964 Associate Professor

University of Pennsylvania

1964 - 1988 Professor

University of Pennsylvania

1988 - 2007 Blanchard Professor of Chemistry

University of Texas at Dallas

2002 - 2007 James Von Ehr Chair of Science and Technology, Professor of Chemistry and Physics

Jilin University, China

2004 - 2007 Professor of Chemistry


1967 Philadelphia Section Award, American Chemical Society
1970 Frederic Stanley Kipping Award, American Chemical Society
1982 Madison Marshall Award, American Chemical Society
1982 Doolittle Award, American Chemical Society
1983 Royal Society of Chemistry Centenary Medal and Lectureship (UK)
1984 Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists
1985 "Top 100" Innovation Award, Science Digest
1989 John Scott Award, City of Philadelphia
1993 Francis J. Clamer Award, The Franklin Institute
1999 Chemistry of Materials Award, American Chemical Society
2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (With Heeger, Shirakawa)
2001 Rutherford Medal, The Royal Society of New Zealand
2002 Member, Order of New Zealand
2002 Member, National Academy of Engineering
2002 Member, National Academy of Science
2003 Fellow, Royal Society of London, England
2004 Friendship Award, State Administration of Foreign Experts Bureau, P.R. China
2004 Establishment of the Alan G. MacDiarmid Laboratories of Polymer Research, Karnatak University, India
2005 Establishment of the MacDiarmid Institute of Innovation and Business, São Carlos, Brazil

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Childhood and Influences 1

Growing up in New Zealand. Developing interest in chemistry. Early education. Economic hardship and having to work at a young age.

Education at University of New Zealand 3

Studying part-time and working as lab boy and janitor. Influence of Bobby Monro and developing interest in inorganic chemistry. Master's thesis on sulfur nitride. Desire to study in England.

Education at University of Wisconsin 7

Fulbright Scholarship. Adapting to American educational system. Becoming a Knapp Fellow. Dissertation research on radioactive tracers under Norris Hall.

Education at University of Cambridge 12

Initial impression. Influence of and working with H. J. Emeleus. Silicon hydride work. Reflection on social class structures.

Career at University of Pennsylvania 18

Government funded work on propellants. Studying silicon analogues of carbon compounds. Nobel research on conducting polymers with Hideki Shirakawa and Alan Heeger. Importance of interdisciplinary research. Current research directions. Involvement with University of Texas and other institutions.

Conclusion 32

Outlook on future of polymers. Other applied research directions.

Notes 43

Index 44

  About the Interviewer

Cyrus Mody

Cyrus Mody is an assistant professor of history at Rice University. Prior to that position he was the manager of the Nanotechnology and Innovation Studies programs in the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. He has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and materials engineering from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in science and technology studies from Cornell. He was the 2004–2005 Gordon Cain Fellow at CHF before becoming a program manager. Mody has published widely on the history and sociology of materials science, instrumentation, and nanotechnology.

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