Paul Flory. Photo by Chuck Painter / Stanford News Service.
While Wallace Carothers helped show the world that macromolecules exist, it was his protégé, Paul Flory (1910–1985), who determined the finer points of the behavior of large molecules.
Born in 1910 in Sterling, Illinois, Flory studied chemistry as an undergraduate at Manchester College and earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from The Ohio State University in 1934. He then went to work for the DuPont Company, where he became involved in polymer chemistry under the direction of Carothers. Since Carothers was an organic chemist, Flory’s abilities in physical chemistry and mathematics complemented well those of his mentor. Flory worked with Carothers to develop the basic principles of polymerization kinetics and the statistics of molecular mass distribution in polymer samples, among other things.
A year after the death of Carothers in 1937, Flory left DuPont for an academic career, returning to industry for a few years during World War II to work on the development of synthetic rubber for the war effort. In postwar academia, principally at Cornell and Stanford universities, he continued to develop his theories on the conformation of polymer chains in solution and produced his well-known book Principles of Polymer Chemistry (1953), which was the standard reference for polymer chemistry for several decades.
For the rest of his career Flory worked out rigorous mathematical theories on the thermodynamics of polymer solutions and of rubber elasticity, and statistical treatment of polymer-chain conformations. He received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1974 for his experimental and theoretical contributions to polymer science. Always a person of conscience, Flory used the prestige of the award to campaign for international human rights, especially with regard to the treatment of scientists in the Soviet block.