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Haldor F. A. Topsøe

Haldor F. A. Topsøe

CHF Collections, Photograph by Douglas Lockard

  • Born: May 24, 1913, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Died: May 20, 2013

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0180
Interview Date: April 19, 1999
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
Interviewers: David C. Brock and Leo B. Slater
No. of pages: 33
Sponsor: American Institute of Chemical Engineers
American Institute of Chemical Engineers

  Abstract of Interview

Haldor Topsøe begins the interview with a discussion of his early life and family background. Born in Copenhagen, he grew up in Denmark, and was very involved in his father's Samfundshjælpen, which taught him the importance of collaboration between social classes. Topsøe studied at the Technical University, taking numerous courses in physics, chemistry, and chemical engineering. When he married in 1936, he became involved in his father-in-law's activities in teaching young people to run businesses. As a chemical engineer, and later, a businessman, Topsøe gained an interest in the relationship between economics and science. He discusses his firm's involvement in catalysis, how Haldor Topsøe A/S began, and the scientific research that had previously been done on catalysis. Topsøe further discusses the transfer of technology to India and the Third World, the impact of the Green Revolution on chemical industries, and his company's work in refining. He concludes with comments on the future of innovation.


1936 Chemical Engineering, Danish Technical University

  Professional Experience

Aarhus Oliefabrik A/S

1936 - present Position Unknown

Haldor Topsøe A/S

1939 - present Founder


1944 G. A. Hagemann Medal
1968 Honorary Doctor of Philosophy, Aarhus University
1969 Honorary Doctor of Technology, Danish Technical University
1982 C. F. Tietgen Medal
1984 Queen's Medal for Meritorious Services
1985 Royal Academy of Sciences Gold Medal
1986 Honorary Doctor of Technology, Chalmers University
1988 Odre National de la Légion d'Honneur
1989 Francis New Memorial Medal
1991 The Hoover Medal
1996 "Order of Intellectual Capacity," Morocco
1997 Eminent Chemical Engineer Award, Delhi, India
2008 The Chemists' Club's Winthrop-Sears Medal

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Forming Haldor Topsøe A/S 1

Growing up in Copenhagen. Father's involvement in Smafundshjælpen. Political beliefs. Denmark's political atmosphere. Importance of collaboration. Studying at Technical University. Interest in physics, chemistry, and chemical engineering. Marriage. Sharing father-in-law's involvement in training young people in business.

Early Career 3

Interrelation of economics and science. Input/output analysis. Economists as advisors. Interest in catalysis.

Forming Haldor Topsøe A/S 8

Financial help from family and friends. Importance of optimism. Relationship between physics and chemistry. Niels Bohr and the Copenhagen School. Previous research on catalysis. New instrumental techniques.

Technology Transfer 16

Interest in the Third World. Connection to agricultural research. Influence of the Green Revolution. Giving technology to India.

Petrochemicals 19

Work in refining. Ralph Landau. Interest in hydrogenation. Constructing a refinery in Kuwait. Downsizing of large petrochemical firms. Fischer-Tropsch process.

Conclusion 22

Importance of research. Trouble with niche products. Corporate difficulties with shareholders. Emphasis on profits rather than research. Importance of producing good scientists and engineers.

Notes 29

Index 30

  About the Interviewer

David C. Brock

David C. Brock is a senior research fellow with the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. As a historian of science and technology, he specializes in the history of semiconductor science, technology, and industry; the history of instrumentation; and oral history. Brock has studied the philosophy, sociology, and history of science at Brown University, the University of Edinburgh, and Princeton University.

In the policy arena Brock recently published Patterning the World: The Rise of Chemically Amplified Photoresists, a white-paper case study for the Center’s Studies in Materials Innovation. With Hyungsub Choi he is preparing an analysis of semiconductor technology roadmapping, having presented preliminary results at the 2009 meeting of the Industry Studies Association.

Leo B. Slater

Leo Slater was the 2001–2002 John C. Haas Fellow and a senior research historian at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, where he also served as Director of Historical Services from 1997 to 2000. A former research chemist at the Schering-Plough Research Institute, he received his doctorate in History from Princeton University in 1997.

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