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George A. Olah

George A. Olah

Dow Historical Collection, CHF Collections

  • Born: May 22, 1927, Budapest, Hungary

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0190
Interview Date: February 3, 2000
Location: University of Southern California, Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, Los Angeles, California
Interviewers: Arnold Thackray and James G. Traynham
No. of pages: 83

  Abstract of Interview

George A. Olah begins the interview with a description of his family and childhood years in Budapest, Hungary. Olah first developed an interest in chemistry after taking a chemistry course at the Technical University of Budapest. While a laboratory assistant at the Zemplen Institute, Olah received his first patent on digoxin under the mentorship of Geza Zemplen, a carbohydrate chemist and former student of Hermann Emil Fischer. With Zemplen's approval, Olah began his work on organofluorine compounds. In 1949, Olah received his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Technical University. That same year, he married Judith Lengyel. Olah joined the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1954 as the head of the department of organic chemistry and associate scientific director of the Central Research Institute. During a momentary collapse of the Iron Wall in 1956, Olah, his wife, and young son fled Hungary to take refuge with family members in London, England. Finally settling in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada in 1957, Olah became a senior research scientist at the Sarnia laboratory of Dow Chemical Company. Impressed by the work of Christopher Kelk Ingold, Olah turned his research towards Friedel-Crafts reactions, alkylations, and nitrations. After moving to a Dow facility in Massachusetts, Olah was offered the position of professor and chemistry department chair at Western Reserve University. Shortly after starting at Western Reserve, Olah aided in the coalescence of Western Reserve University and Case Institute of Technology, which now form Case Western Reserve University. Following twelve years of service at Case Western, Olah decided that he wanted to apply his chemistry to the broader area of hydrocarbons, so he accepted an offer from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles as a professor of chemistry and scientific director of the Hydrocarbon Research Institute, which was later named Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute. Olah is currently the director of this institute. Olah concludes the interview with a discussion of the future of environmental chemistry, reflections on winning the 1994 Nobel Prize in chemistry, and thoughts on his family.


1945 B.S., Organic Chemistry, Technical University, Budapest
1949 Ph.D., Organic Chemistry, Technical University, Budapest

  Professional Experience

Technical University, Budapest, Hungary

1949 - 1954 Assistant Professor to Associate Professor of Organic Chemistry

Hungarian Academy of Sciences

1954 - 1956 Head of Department of Organic Chemistry and Associate Scientific Director of Central Research Institute

Dow Chemical Company

1957 - 1964 Senior Research Scientist

Case Western Reserve University

1965 - 1967 Professor and Chairman, Department of Chemistry

Case Western Reserve University

1967 - 1969 Chairman of Combined Departments of Chemistry (Case Institute and Western Reserve University)

Case Western Reserve University

1967 - 1977 C. F. Mabery Distinguished Professor of Research in Chemistry

Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute

1977 - 1977 Professor of Chemistry and Scientific Director

University of Southern California

1980 Distinguished Professor of Chemistry

University of Southern California

1983 Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Distinguished Professor of Organic Chemistry

Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute

1991 Director


1964 Award in Petroleum Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1967 Leo H. Baekeland Award
1970 Morley Medal
1972 Fellow, J. S. Guggenheim Foundation
1976 Member, U.S. National Academy of Sciences
1979 Award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1979 Alexander von Humbolt-Stiftung Award for Senior U.S. Scientist
1987 Michelson-Morley Award, Case Western Reserve University
1988 Fellow, J. S. Guggenheim Foundation
1989 California Scientist of the Year Award
1989 Roger Adams Award in Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1990 Honorary Member, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
1992 Richard C. Tolman Award, American Chemical Society, Southern California Section
1993 Chemical Pioneers Award, American Institute of Chemists, Inc.
1993 William Lloyd Evans Award, Ohio State University
1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1995 George Washington Award, American Hungarian Foundation
1996 Cotton Medal, American Chemical Society, Texas A&M University
1996 Kapista Medal, Russian Academy of Natural Sciences
1996 Inventor of the Year Award, New York Intellectual Property Lawyers Association
1996 Award in Petroleum Chemistry renamed "George A. Olah Award in Petroleum Chemistry," American Chemical Society
1996 Golden Plate Award, American Academy of Achievement
1997 State Prize of the Republic of Hungary for Contributions to the "Fame of Hungary"
1999 Golden Medal of Charles University, Prague, Czechoslovakia
1999 Hanus Medal, Czechoslovak Chemical Society
2000 Cope Award, American Chemical Society

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Childhood and Early Education 1

Growing up in Budapest, Hungary. Effect of World War I. Piarist Brothers. Living next to the Budapest Opera House. Interest in philosophy and Hungarian history.

College Education 4

Organic chemistry at Technical University of Budapest. Love of chemistry. Effect of World War II. Death of brother in Russian prisoner camp. Mentorship of Geza Zemplen while at the Zemplen Institute. Hermann Emil Fischer. Work on glycosides. Leo Szilard. Balcony laboratory. Meeting and marriage to wife, Judith Lengyel.

Early Career 14

Working at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Effect of World War II. Fleeing Hungary. London, England. Christopher Kelk Ingold. IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) lecture. Being a refugee. Lecture at Cambridge University. Ingold's and Alexander Todd's assistance in finding employment. Work of Ame Pictet. Move to Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Career at Dow Chemical Company 20

Sarnia, Ontario, Canada laboratory. Scientific contributions. Reflections on relationship with wife and years in Hungary. Thoughts on religion. Move to Sarnia. Herbert (Ted) D. Doan. 1964 American Chemical Society (ACS) prize in petroleum chemistry. Writing of Friedel-Crafts Chemistry. Fred McLarrety. George Wittig. Impression of Dow. Reflections on years before leaving Hungary. Disbelief in innate scientific ability. Carbocation and superacid chemistry. James B. Conant. Non-classical ion controversy. Move to Dow facility in Massachusetts.

Career at Case Western Reserve University 46

Coalescence of Western Reserve University and Case Institute of Technology. Opinion on being a university professor and administrator. Development of new reactions and reagents. Writing as a favorite pastime. Decision to leave Case Western.

Career at University of Southern California (USC) 49

Creation of Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute. Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker. Superacids. Use of gasoline alkylation during World War II. Vladimir Nikolayevich Ipatieff and Herman Pines. Hydrogen fluoride research. Importance of finding chemical solutions to environmental problems. Current research on electrophilic and nucleophilic solvation.

Conclusion 59

The significance of finding new non-natural fuel sources. The future of environmental chemistry using hydrocarbons. Value of teaching chemistry to non-science majors. Correcting environmental problems with chemical solutions. Receiving the 1994 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Making the world a safer place for his sons and grandchildren.

Notes 72

Index 75

  About the Interviewer

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

James G. Traynham

James G. Traynham is a professor of chemistry at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. He holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Northwestern University. He joined Louisiana State University in 1953 and served as chemistry department chairperson from 1968 to 1973. He was chairman of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1988 and is currently councilor of the Baton Rouge section of the American Chemical Society. He was a member of the American Chemical Society’s Joint-Board Council on Chemistry and Public Affairs, as well as a member of the Society’s Committees on Science, Chemical Education, and Organic Chemistry Nomenclature. He has written over 90 publications, including a book on organic nomenclature and a book on the history of organic chemistry.

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