Donald F. Othmer

Donald F. Othmer

Donald Othmer as a young man. Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections.

Donald F. Othmer (1904–1995), coeditor of the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, an essential reference in the field of chemical engineering, held more than 150 U.S. and foreign patents, most of which he obtained while working as a full-time professor at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now the Polytechnic Institute of New York University).

Othmer’s high school teachers in solid geometry and chemistry alerted him to the then new field of chemical engineering. From Central High School in Omaha, Nebraska, he went to the Armour Institute in Chicago (now Illinois Institute of Technology), the University of Nebraska, and the University of Michigan. With a Michigan doctorate in chemical engineering in hand, he went to work for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, which was then converting to the production of “safety” film—cellulose acetate—instead of the dangerously explosive cellulose nitrate. While working out the problems of acetic acid recovery from the acetate-making process, Othmer invented a basic laboratory device, the “Othmer still,” for the simple and precise determination of vapor-liquid equilibrium data. Today it is used in industry worldwide and is also commonly found in physical-chemistry teaching laboratories. When the Depression forced a slowdown in Kodak’s expansion, Othmer decided to run his own business as an independent consultant, until lean economic times made selling patent rights an increasingly problematic activity.

Donald F. Othmer

Donald Othmer, with a gold-plated Othmer still in the background. Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections.

In 1932 Othmer joined Brooklyn Polytechnic as a professor of chemical engineering, a position that provided him economic stability. There he collaborated on the Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology with Raymond Kirk, a colleague in the chemistry department. Othmer continued to devise process innovations and patent them, commonly following up topics introduced by his students, who were often already working in the chemical industry but taking classes in the evenings or weekends to complete academic degrees. Othmer’s patents cover methods, processes, and equipment for the manufacture and processing of chemicals, solvents, synthetic fibers, acetic acid, and methanol. He long advocated using methanol as a fuel for motor vehicles because it contains fewer pollutants and in the long run is more plentiful than gasoline. Other projects included providing potable water through desalinization plants and improving the processing of domestic and industrial sewage. Vacations and summers found Othmer traveling worldwide to advise on the installation of his various patented processes.

Othmer and his wife, Mildred, generously donated profits from their long-term investment in funds managed by the famed investor Warren Buffett, a fellow Omaha native, to support medical care facilities and institutions devoted to chemistry and chemical engineering. Othmer was the recipient of both the Founders Award of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Society of Chemical Industry’s Perkin Medal.

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