Herman Francis Mark

Herman Francis Mark

Herman Francis Mark in 1986 displaying Hermann Staudinger’s rigid-rod model of macromolecules. Photograph by James J. Bohning. CHF Collections

Along with Hermann Staudinger and Wallace Carothers, Herman Francis Mark (1895–1992) was a cofounder of polymer science. In the 1920s his X-ray crystallographic studies of cellulose showed it to be made of giant molecules containing thousands of atoms, as Staudinger had proposed. They disagreed, though, over whether these macromolecules were rigid, as Staudinger held, or flexible due to rotation around their covalent bonds. In the long run, Mark won this argument and gained acceptance for his related formulation of the relationship between the solution viscosity of a polymer and its molecular weight.

Mark was born in Vienna in 1895, the son of a Jewish physician who had converted to Lutheranism. After military service in World War I, young Mark studied chemistry at the University of Vienna and was awarded his doctorate in 1921. He soon became a member of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Fiber Research in Berlin, where he investigated the new technique of X-ray crystallography. In 1927 he joined the huge German chemical firm IG Farben, where he conducted research on cellulose, polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, and some of the early synthetic rubbers.

When the Nazis came to power, Mark decided it was prudent, because of his Jewish heritage, to return to the University of Vienna as a professor of physical chemistry. After Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, he escaped to Switzerland and made his way to Canada and then the United States. There he joined the faculty of Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (now the Polytechnic Institute of New York University), where he established a strong polymer program that included not only research but the first undergraduate polymer education in the United States. To this day, most American polymer chemists can trace their academic lineage back to Mark and the Polymer Research Institute.

Mark traveled tirelessly around the United States as a consultant to several companies. He also spearheaded an active program publishing monographs and journals to propagate the field of polymer science. Among his early publishing projects was an edition of the papers of Wallace Carothers.

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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@

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