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Donald F. Othmer

Donald F. Othmer

CHF Collections

  • Born: May 11, 1904, Omaha, Nebraska
  • Died: November 1, 1995

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0035
Interview Dates: April 2, 1986 and June 11, 1986 and January 15, 1987
Location: Polytechnic University, Brooklyn, New York
Interviewer: James J. Bohning
No. of pages: 169
Minutes: 600

  Abstract of Interview

Donald Othmer begins the interview by sharing memories of his childhood in Omaha, Nebraska, his parents, and his schooling. He tells of his experiences as a student at the Armour Institute, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Michigan. Othmer later describes his years at Eastman Kodak, his accomplishments there and his reasons for leaving to produce his own material. He then discusses the early years at Poly Tech and the students he helped shape. Othmer also talk about his industrial work over the years. He describes his adventures in Burma and his association with the Government during World War II. He continues by recounting his experimental endeavors, his patents, and the inception of the Encyclopedia of Chemical technology. Othmer concludes by discussing the Chemists' Club, his life in Brooklyn, and the past and future of chemistry.


1921 Armour Institute of Technology (now Illinois Institute of Technology)
1924 B.Ch.E. University of Nebraska
1925 M.CH.E. University of Michigan
1927 Ph.D., Chemical Engineering, University of Michigan

  Professional Experience

Cudahy Packing Company

1924 - 1924 Chemist

Eastman Kodak Company and Tennessee Eastman Corporation

1927 - 1931 Chemist and Development Engineer

Chemical Engineering Consultant

1931 Registered Professional Engineer: New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania

Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn

1932 - 1933 Instructor, Chemical Engineering Department

Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn

1933 - 1937 Assistant professor, Chemical Engineering Department

Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn

1937 - 1961 Professor and Head of Chemical Engineering Department

Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn

1961 Distinguished Professor, Chemical Engineering Department


1958 Tyler Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers
1958 Barber-Coleman Award, American Society for Engineering Education
1962 D. Eng. (honorary), University of Nebraska
1970 Honor Scroll, American Institute of Chemists
1975 Award of Merit, Association of Consulting Chemists and Chemical Engineers
1975 Golden Jubilee Award, Illinois Institute of Technology
1977 Chemical Pioneers Award, American Institute of Chemists
1977 D. Eng. (honorary), Polytechnic University
1978 Murphree Exxon Award, American Chemical Society
1978 D. Eng. (honorary), New Jersey Institute of Technology
1978 Professional Achievement Award, Illinois Institute of Technology
1978 Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry
1981 Hall of Fame, Illinois Institute of Technology
1987 Mayor's Award of Honor for Science and Technology, New York City
1989 Outstanding Alumnus Award, University of Nebraska
1989 Citation for Improvement of the Quality of Life, Borough of Brooklyn
1989 Award for Significant Contributions to the Polytechnic University
1991 Founders Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family, Early Years and Schooling 1

Grows up in Omaha, Nebraska under modest financial circumstances. Avid reader as an adolescent. Father is in sheet metal business, mother is active in the community. First jobs include paper route, stacking books and delivering telegrams for Western Union. Graduates Omaha Central High School in 1921.

Advanced Education 4

Receives scholarship to Armour Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology) for two years. Transfers to the University of Nebraska and completes remaining undergraduate work in one year. Attends the University of Michigan and works under Professor Walter L. Badger. Receives his master's degree and Ph.D.; discusses working with Professor Badger and his other professors at the university.

Eastman Kodak 15

Meets recruiter from Eastman Kodak in March, 1927, and accepts position. First problem is how to concentrate acetic acid from its dilute solutions. Discusses the "boil around system" and the development of the Othmer Still. Also involved in working on the development of cellulose acetate, extractive distillation and the uses of methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE). Explains systems used by George Eastman at Kodak Park.

Resigns From Kodak, Develops Own Facilities 40

Frustration over use of the patents he developed and desire to produce his own market for his work. Kodak prefers that he get into management for the company, for which he has no interest. Sets up own facilities and continues work on azeotropic distillation. Also works as a consultant for the American Chemical Products Company in exchange for laboratory facilities. Offer from the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (now EXXON) to to develop synthetic rubber.

Polytechnic Institute, Brooklyn, NY 45

Teaching position offered in 1932. Chooses Poly for both academic and industrial freedom. Discusses the newly formed chemical engineering department, first classes, first students and the Depression's effect on them. Shares teaching methods and philosophy. Earns chairmanship in 1937.

Industrial Endeavors 53

Works with Tennessee Eastman as a consultant. Hopeful about the sale of his patent, but legal problems occur with Kodak. Gray Chemical Company offers job to develop acetic acid. Helps to build plant in Roulette, Pennsylvania, for production of methanol and acetic acid. Discusses the effect of charcoal and wood chemicals. Buys land in Pennsylvania.

World War II 76

Develops key process in producing RDX. Trained by the Government to evaluate the German chemical industry. Builds a plant to ferment alcohol in South and Central America. Teaches enlisted men at Poly. Class sizes increase dramatically after the war.

Burma 88

Works with TAMS in the early 1950s to design basic needs for the country. Declines to live there, but sends contact to Rangoon. Interested in the human needs and health problems of the Burmese people. Considers Burma "one of my greatest professional experiences." Shares experiences of subsequent travels.

Technical Work 93

Summarizes extracting techniques. Devises method for separation of wood constituents with the Northwood Chemical Company. Two year association to do research with the American Sugar Refining Company. Experiments with temperature differences in the ocean as a source of energy. Desalination for the Saline Water Conversion Corporation. Works with PROUST for expedition of domestic and industrial sewage. Explains applications of Wet Air Oxidation (WAO) and pipeline heating.

Patents 111

Explains the differences between patents (experiments) and "gray matter" patents (studies). Discusses original patents with Kodak. Argues own case with the Patent Office.

Experimental Work 117

Experiments with the affinity series of metals. Works with German engineers Gerhard Holland and Hanz Zimmer. Further work with azeotropic distillation. Discusses the Othmer Plot.

Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology 128

Developed at Poly with Raymond Kirk and Eric Proskauer. Described as a "public service for the profession." Considered counterpart to Ullmann's German Encyclopedia. Explains process of choosing authors, topics, and content.

Chemists' Club 137

Gradual change from academic to professional environment—more chemical executives than professors and lab chemists. Remembrances of tenure as President. Clubs in New York City being phased out.

Brooklyn, NY 142

Atmosphere of Brooklyn in the 1930s and various homes in Brooklyn Heights. Describes his residence, which he has lived in since 1944.

Summing Up 147

Discussion of old ideas brought to life by modern developments. The future of chemistry and how the field has changed. Possibilities for the future.

Notes 155

Index 162

  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.

Of Related Interest

Hear It Firsthand

The Center for Oral History captures and preserves the stories of notable figures in chemistry and related fields, with over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information please visit CHF’s Oral History Program or e-mail oralhistory@

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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