Herman Mark and the Polymer Research Institute

National Historic Chemical Landmark

Dedicated September 3, 2003, at the Polymer Research Institute of Polytechnic University (now Polytechnic Institute of New York University), in New York City, New York.

Commemorative Booklet (PDF)

Herman Mark arrived at Polytechnic Institute (now the Polytechnic Institute of New York University) in Brooklyn, New York, in 1940. A prominent scientist and a pioneer in the study of polymers, Mark introduced the teaching of polymer chemistry into the school curriculum immediately, built up the program over the next few years, and by 1946 had established the Polymer Research Institute, the first academic research facility in the United States for the study of polymers.


“Polymer Research Institute” commemorative booklet
“Polymer Research Institute” commemorative booklet produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society in 2003 (PDF).

History of Polymer Chemistry

Polymers are substances made of giant molecules formed by uniting simple molecules or monomers by covalent bonds. The word comes from Greek and it means many parts. Polymers have high molecular weights, which gives them useful physical characteristics such as high viscosity, elasticity, and strength. Polymers are found everywhere. They are part of man himself: proteins and nucleic acid are polymers. Natural fibers such as wool and cotton are polymers. And of course many synthetics, such as plastics, nylon, and man-made rubber, are polymers.1

Today, the existence of macromolecules is readily accepted in the scientific world, and polymer science is a vital branch of chemistry. But that acceptance is fairly recent. As late as the early years of the 20th century, many of the most prominent chemists resisted the concept of macromolecules with molecular weights of thousands and even millions. For example, the Nobel Prize winning chemist Emil Fischer demonstrated the existence of polypeptide chains in proteins, but he remained convinced such chains could not exceed a molecular weight of 4,000. Fischer’s prestige in the first decades of the 20th century was such that it “made it more difficult to see the macromolecular concept.”2

Jons Jacob Berzelius introduced the term polymer into the scientific lexicon in 1833. Berzelius recognized that two compounds could have the same composition but different molecular weights, but he never worked with substances of high molecular weight. For the next century, scientists continued to identify polymers, and in 1907 Leo Baekeland introduced Bakelite®, the first synthetic polymer, plastic in this case, produced on a large commercial scale.

The development of polymer theory was derailed for a time by the popularity of the association theory, which grew out of the doubts of many organic chemists of the existence of macromolecules with high molecular weights. These researchers believed that the properties of what are now recognized as polymers could be explained by their colloidal nature. The association theory built on the work of Thomas Graham and it held that a substance could exist in a colloidal state just as it could occur under different conditions as a gas, a liquid, or a solid.

But some chemists continued to note the existence of substances with high molecular weights. Scientists like Michael Polanyi began employing the new techniques of X-ray diffraction to reveal that natural textile fibers, such as silk, cotton, and wool, had high molecular weights. Then in 1920, Hermann Staudinger, a professor at the Eidengenössiche Technische Hochschule in Zurich, theorized the existence of very long chains with molecular weights reaching hundreds of thousands. Staudinger also claimed these chains were held together by normal covalent bonds. In the ensuing years, Staudinger demonstrated that polymerization led frequently to long chains of covalently bonded monomers. Staudinger, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1953, coined the term macromolecules to refer to this phenomenon.

In 1926 Staudinger left Zurich to take a post at the University of Freiburg in Germany. In his farewell lecture, Staudinger discussed his concept of long chain molecules. When most of the scientists present resisted his ideas, Staudinger apparently ended by echoing Martin Luther’s famous challenge to papal authorities: “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

This encounter dramatized the differences between advocates of the association theory and the polymer faction and set the stage for a symposium on the topic in Dusseldorf, Germany, in September, 1926. The first speakers attempted to refute Staudinger’s macromolecular theory by referring to what they called pseudo-high molecular weight substances. Staudinger responded by basing his macromolecular concept on the high viscosity of polymer solutions. Herman Mark, an expert in X-ray crystallography, presented another view. Mark argued that there are instances when a molecule can be larger than an elementary cell. He pointed to cellulose, which seems to be composed of small units that appear as a large molecule. Mark’s presentation, based on his experience in X-ray analyses, did not prove the macromolecular theory, but it also did not disprove it.

Mark would become a leading advocate of macromolecules and, many years later, a guiding light of polymer education in the United States. But he clashed with Staudinger because Mark doubted Staudinger’s view that macromolecules were long, thin rigid rods. Instead, Mark argued that long chain molecules rotated around covalent bonds.

Although Mark and Staudinger disagreed on the nature of macromolecules, they did agree on their existence. Their work helped the polymer concept gain acceptance in the scientific community. Another important influence came from the work of Wallace Carothers, whose investigations at DuPont demonstrated that polymers consisting of hundreds of monomers could be synthesized. This work led to the introduction of the first synthetic fiber, nylon, in the 1930s.

Another scientific conference, this one in Cambridge, England, in September 1935, demonstrated how radically attitudes toward macromolecules had shifted. The high point of the meeting, sponsored by the Faraday Society, came when Carothers reported on his work on polymerization. By 1935, less than ten years after the Dusseldorf conference, the debate was not over the existence of macromolecules; instead, it was over their structure and properties, in essence, the differences between Staudinger and Mark. The debate was no longer over theory, but rather details.

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Herman Mark’s Early Life

Herman Mark was born in Vienna in 1895, the son of Herman Carl Mark, a physician, and Lili Mueller. Mark’s father was a Jew who converted to Lutheranism upon marriage.

The Vienna of Mark’s youth was an exciting and innovative city: Arnold Schonberg, Richard Strauss, Anton Bruckner, and Gustav Mahler expanded the boundaries of music; expressionist painters, such as Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, took art in new directions; and Sigmund Freud revolutionized concepts of the human mind. Many of the great thinkers and artists of turn-of-the-century Vienna were dinner guests at the Mark home. Other frequent guests were Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism, and Chaim Weizmann, a scientist and author who was also a prominent Zionist. Herman Mark later wrote in his autobiography that “most of my father’s friends were Jewish.”3

Several early stimuli apparently steered Herman Mark to science. One was a teacher, Franz Hlawaty, who made mathematics and physics understandable and “who influenced me greatly to select science for my career.”4 At the age of twelve, the lure of science intensified when Mark and a friend, Gerhardt Kirsch, toured the laboratories of the University of Vienna at the invitation of Kirsch’s father, who taught science. The visit excited both boys and before long they turned their bedrooms into laboratories. Both had access to chemicals through their fathers, and they were soon performing experiments.

Mark graduated high school in 1913 with the intention of going to university to study science and obtain an advanced degree. But first he had to decide whether to fulfill his one year of mandatory military service in the Austrian army before continuing his education or serve after completing his studies. Mark chose the former course, enlisting as a private in the elite Alpine infantry. He was stationed in the mountains of South Tyrol, where he found military life rather agreeable. He became an accomplished mountaineer. He even found military food passable.

Mark was scheduled to leave military service in the summer of 1914, but “unfortunately, not only for me and my classmates but for all humanity, an unexpected terrible event took place.”5 This was, of course, the assassination of the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo and the ensuing spiral of charge and counter-charge, threat and counter-threat, and troop movements that plunged Europe into World War I.

Mark’s one year of service turned into more than five, most of which he spent on the front line. By his own account, Mark was wounded three times and received fifteen medals, and at the end of the war, in November 1918, he was captured on the Italian front. Mark later wrote that the commander of the prisoner of war camp “was very kind and civilized” and allowed the prisoners books. He learned Italian, French, and English and a smattering of Spanish, studied a little mathematics and physics, and organized a course in general chemistry. He eventually was freed and arrived home in August 1919, almost a year after the war ended.6

Mark then enrolled in the University of Vienna, where he quickly made up for time lost during the war by completing three semesters a year and graduating in 1921 with a Ph.D. in chemistry. His mentor was the well-known organic chemist, Wilhelm Schlenk, who Mark described as “a researcher of great imagination and, at the same time, an inspiring teacher and educator.” Mark’s dissertation on the synthesis of pentaphenylethyl dealt with the new concept of free radicals, about which Mark later wrote: “The concept of ‘free radicals’ was not known in 1920—well, perhaps in politics, but not in chemistry.”7

In 1921 Mark went to the University of Berlin with Schlenk, who succeeded the Nobelist Emil Fischer. A year later Fritz Haber, discoverer of the process for synthesizing ammonia and director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (now the Max Planck Institute), invited Mark to join the newly organized Institute for Fiber Research, founded within the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for the study of the structure of fibers. Mark and his new wife, the former Marie (Mimi) Schramek, moved to Berlin-Dahlem to join a talented group of scientists who were working on the molecular structure of fibers using the new tools of X-ray diffraction and ultramicroscropy.

X-ray diffraction was in its infancy in the 1920s, but researchers quickly realized that it would be a valuable tool in the study of crystal structure. One of Mark’s first assignments at the Fiber Research Institute was to set up X-ray tubes. He soon became proficient in diffraction studies and, in his five years in Berlin-Dahlem, Mark became an expert crystallographer. His name appeared on more than fifty papers on the structure of metals, organic and inorganic compounds, and polymers.

Linus Pauling learned X-ray diffraction from Mark, and that knowledge led to Pauling’s seminal work on the structure of proteins.8 Mark and Pauling, who had a lifelong relationship, first met when Mark was at the Institute for Fiber Research. It was in those years that Mark also met Albert Einstein, who was a frequent visitor at the Institute. Because Mark’s laboratory had intense and powerful X-ray tubes, Einstein asked Mark and his colleagues to verify the “Compton Effect,” the strongest confirmation yet of Einstein’s light quantum theory for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. As Mark later wrote, “we were able to confirm the existence of the wavelength shift observed by Compton.”9

Mark’s work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute brought him into contact with some of the greatest scientific minds of the age, but by 1926 he was faced with the choice of becoming a specialist in the X-ray investigation of solid substances or broadening his inquiries to attempt to draw practical consequences from his work. For Mark, the resolution to this dilemma appeared when Kurt Meyer of I.G. Farben offered him the assistant directorship of research at one of the company’s laboratories. Accordingly, Mark leapt at the chance “to apply [my] present knowledge of fibers to the production of improved species and at the same time continue my fundamental studies.”10

After World War I Farben began to stress the manufacture of cellulose acetate and viscose, and Meyer wanted his researchers to look into improving the properties of these fibers and to investigate the production of synthetic fibers. He hired Mark to direct the laboratory at Ludwigschafen in the study of fibers and films. For his part, Mark was not bashful and demanded of Meyer certain conditions for employment: a team of organic and physical chemists and physicists who would study the effect of structure on such things as rigidity, elasticity, melting point, and water absorption and an emphasis on the development of new materials.

Mark later commented that in his years at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute he worked mainly with things such as X-ray tubes and high-voltage equipment and largely by himself. At Farben he now had to work with people, directing experiments and explaining to others what to do and how to do it. Though Mark found some of his new tasks onerous, Farben did allow him to pursue areas of research that, in his words, “could not possibly contribute to the business” of the company.11 For example, Farben allowed Mark to add electron diffraction equipment, the use of which was for scientific purposes only.

In his years at Farben Mark worked on the first serious attempts at the commercialization of polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, polyvinyl alcohol, and the first synthetic rubbers, Buna-N and Buna-S. Much attention was given to cellulose, for which Mark and Meyer suggested a structure by which all atoms were bound to one another in long chains by primary valence forces. This concept seemed to be a compromise between the association theory of molecular interaction and the concept of macromolecules. But in reality, Mark and Meyer accepted the latter, embracing in part the work of Hermann Staudinger. In his years at Farben, Mark published several other papers on cellulose, starch, and sugar, contributing to the emergence of polymer theory.

Mark helped make Farben a leader in manufacturing and distribution of new polymers and copolymers. In his six years at Farben, Mark listed eighty publications, including three books, and seventeen patents. These were also important years for Mark personally, as he and his wife now felt financially secure enough to have children. The family, which included two sons, lived in Mannheim along the Rhine. Hans Mark, born in 1929, describes the Mark family as “typical central Europeans” and that in these years “the Jewish assimilation was really going full swing.”12

But while these may have been heady years for Mark professionally and personally, he was not oblivious to the looming Nazi threat. In his autobiography Mark describes that he frequently traveled by train from Mannheim to Frankfurt with colleagues for business meetings. At the train station each bought a newspaper, with most taking the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or the Mannehimer Nachrichten. Mark always bought the Nazi paper, the Voelkischer Beobachter. When asked why he read “this miserable newspaper,” Mark replied: “If I want to know what is happening in Germany today, I shall read your newspapers, but I want to learn what will happen in Germany 4 or 5 years from now. Therefore, I read and believe the Voelkischer Beobachter.”13

In 1932 Mark found out how right he was. That summer he was summoned to the office of the plant’s managing director, who said to him that since Hitler would soon take power in Germany, his position as a foreigner and the son of a Jewish father made Mark vulnerable. Even if Mark were not dismissed, promotion or advancement was impossible in the future. Therefore, the director suggested Mark look for another job, “outside of Germany.”14

Mark heeded the advice and took a position as professor of physical chemistry at the University of Vienna, which brought him back to the city where he grew up. Mark’s stay in Vienna lasted six very successful years during which he designed a new curriculum in polymer chemistry and continued research in the field of macromolecules. But it also represented the first of several instances in the next decade in which Mark had to start over, both personally and professionally. This discontinuity in his career may well have prevented Mark from winning even higher accolades in his field than he achieved.15

Austria was only a temporary haven for Mark. Austrian Nazis became more and more powerful and they prevented Jewish professors from teaching courses, burned cars owned by Jews, and engaged in running street battles with young Socialists. In 1934, Nazis assassinated Engelbert Dollfuss, chancellor of Austria and Mark’s old war friend. It was in the midst of the deteriorating political situation that Mark met C.B. Thorne, an official with the Canadian International Pulp and Paper Company, in Dresden in September, 1937. At the meeting, Thorne offered Mark a position as research manager with the company in Hawkesbury, Canada, with the goal of modernizing its production of wood pulp for the purpose of making rayon, cellulose acetate, and cellophane. Mark replied that he was busy but that he would try to visit Canada the following year to help reorganize the company’s research facilities.

Mark wrote in his autobiography that “the word ‘Hawkesbury’ never left my mind and, in fact, in the end, it provided an escape route for me.”16 In early 1938 Mark began preparing to leave Austria by delegating his administrative duties to colleagues. At the same time he clandestinely started to buy platinum wire, which he bent into coat hangers while his wife knitted covers so that the hangers could be taken out of the country. Mark’s son Hans estimated that the value of the platinum was roughly $50,000, a lot of money in the 1930s.17

Hitler’s troops invaded Austria in March and declared the Anschluss, the political union of Germany and Austria. Mark was quickly arrested, thrown in a Gestapo prison, and interrogated. He was released with a warning not to contact anyone Jewish. He was also stripped of his passport. By then Mark had had enough; he went directly to the Canadian embassy and cabled Hawkesbury that he was ready to come. He retrieved his passport by paying a bribe equal to a year’s salary, and he obtained a visa to enter Canada and transit visas through Switzerland, France, and England.18

At the end of April, Mark and his family mounted a Nazi flag on the radiator of their car, strapped ski equipment on the roof, and drove across the border, reaching Zurich the next day. From there, the family traveled to England via France, and in September Mark, temporarily leaving his family behind, boarded a boat to Montreal. On board, Mark finished the English edition of his Physical Chemistry of High Polymers.

It was another example of starting over, this time with a factory that made paper and wood pulp. In fact, Mark never planned to stay long in Hawkesbury. His goal was to assist the company in modernizing and then move to an academic position. By 1939 Mark had accomplished the first part of the goal, overseeing the purchase of modern instruments and advanced equipment and training members of the research department in their use. Feeling his mission in Canada accomplished, Mark eagerly accepted an offer to become adjunct professor at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in the fall of 1940.

It is a sign of Mark’s temperament and personality that he held little anger or contempt for those who forced him out of Austria, or Germany six years earlier. He would describe the Nazis as “misguided” and scientists who supported them as “unfortunate.” But he bore few if any grudges and he was active immediately after the Second World War in reintegrating German and Austrian scientists into the world scientific community. He told his son Hans that “I went through a war that we lost, the Austrians lost, and I can’t be a believer in collective guilt.”19

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Polymer Landmarks

The links below will direct you to more National Historic Chemical Landmarks about developments in polymer chemistry and production:

Herman Mark and the Polymer Research Institute

Herman Mark was starting over—yet again.

When Mark arrived at the Polytechnic Institute he was assigned to the Shellac Bureau, under the directorship of William Gardner. Sponsored by the U.S. Shellac Import Organization, the bureau’s purpose was to oversee the testing of imports of shellac from Indonesia and India. Those imports were likely to diminish or be cut off in the near future because of the threat of war with Japan, so emphasis shifted to searching for a replacement, either natural or synthetic. Because of his tenure at I.G. Farben, Mark was familiar with synthetic resins that resembled shellac.

The needs of the Shellac Bureau provided Mark with an opportunity to introduce the study of polymers into the Institute. In addition, Mark found a faculty receptive and helpful. Most important was Isidor Fankuchen, a renowned X-ray crystallographer, Donald Othmer, a chemical engineer, and Harry Rogers, president of Polytechnic. With the support of Rogers and Raymond Kirk, head of the chemistry department, Mark began immediately teaching a course in general polymer chemistry.

Mark’s early years in Brooklyn were war years, and as such he became involved in a number of military projects that had little to do with polymers. Much of the research for these projects were done in the basement—called affectionately “the mines”—of the original Polytechnic buildings on Livingston Street in Brooklyn.21

Mark‘s first wartime project was to work on the Weasel, an armed snowmobile intended for use in military action in snow-covered mountains, such as northern Scandinavia and the Alps. Mark’s assistance was solicited to test the Weasel because during his years in Vienna Mark had done some research on heavy water in glaciers in the Alps and the Caucasus. Along with a colleague form Polytechnic, Turner Alfrey, Mark traveled to the Canadian Rockies to perform tests on snow and its impact on the Weasel, research that proved valuable when the vehicle was put into use in the European War.22

Similarly, Mark and Alfrey worked on an amphibious landing craft, code-named “Ducq,” that was even more important for the war effort than the Weasel. They performed tests at Cape Cod on the effect of wind and waves on the landing craft before the Ducq was put into mass production.

The third project that Mark worked on was an “ice craft carrier.” This was an attempt to fashion a solution to the problem created by German U-boats, which were sinking cargo ships at an alarming rate. Airplanes could threaten the U-boats, but because of the shortage of aircraft carriers, there were few places for planes to land in the north Atlantic. The idea was to use icebergs as landing craft, but to do this a solution to the brittleness of ice had to be found. Mark’s son Hans worked on this project as an adolescent and helped discover that wood pulp was the best substance for strengthening ice. A prototype was built and light aircraft landed on it, but the increasing steel production for aircraft carriers and the construction of faster cargo ships made the project unnecessary.

During the war years and right after, Mark was involved in the founding of the Chaim Weizmann Institute of Scientific Research in Palestine. Weizmann, who was born in Russia but became a British subject, was a scientist and ardent Zionist. As a cap to a long and distinguished career, he became the first president of the independent state of Israel. Prior to that, in 1942, a number of wealthy Americans and Englishmen agreed to celebrate Weizmann’s 70th birthday by creating a research institute in his honor. Mark was enlisted in the project, to which he devoted his customary enthusiasm. He organized many of the operational functions of the Institute, and purchased, through Polytech, much of its initial equipment, some of which was housed for a time in Brooklyn because of the outbreak of war when Israel gained its independence.23

Simultaneously with the war effort, Mark was working to strengthen polymer education at “Brooklyn Poly.” In 1942, he became director of the Shellac Bureau and he used that post to introduce research in synthetic coatings and polymers. In addition to teaching an introductory course in polymer chemistry, Mark organized a series of weekly symposia on Saturday mornings at which leading scientists spoke. These were widely attended, exposed students at the school to the latest in polymer research, and served over the years to give polymer education at Brooklyn Polytechnic international recognition. Mark also organized intensive summer courses for the study of macromolecular science to which he invited outside university scholars and industrial researchers. And Mark’s mere presence in Brooklyn served as a magnet, drawing five professors and sixty graduate students during the war years to work under him.

In effect, a polymer institute was being created ad hoc at the Polytechnic Institute. That was the situation when in 1946 Dean Kirk took Mark into President Rogers' office and said “Why don’t we simply give a name to something that has grown upon us? Let us call it our Institute of Polymer Research.”24 Mark says Rogers seemed initially excited, but then asked what university presidents always ask: how much will it cost? Mark replied about $200,000 a year. Rogers was mortified, until Mark added that would be the cost if they started from scratch, which they were not doing. Instead, the Institute would be staffed with the school’s professors, the equipment was already in place, and, Mark said, in essence they would continue to do what they were doing, just giving it a new name. The only cost would be a new letterhead with “Polymer Research Institute” on it.25

Mark explained: “By naming it, we gain legitimate recognition without any expense whatever, aside from those letterheads. We also become known as a place to which industry can turn for advice and instruction, and we become the nerve center of polymer science.”26 Mark believed the time was propitious, since polymer chemistry was becoming a recognized scientific field. An institute devoted to teaching and research would further that recognition. Moreover, he had experience: It was similar, though on a much larger scale, to what he had done at the University of Vienna in the 1930s.

Under Mark’s active leadership, the Polymer Research Institute, or PRI, grew and attracted many first class scientists to its facilities in a converted razor blade factory. Mark made PRI a magnet for anyone in the United States who wanted to study or teach polymer chemistry. Polytech attracted students and postdoctoral fellows from all over the world, including Great Britain, India, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Among those who came to study, teach, or do postdoctorals were Turner Alfrey, Herbert Morawetz, Charles Overberger, Gerald Oster, Murray Goodman, Paul Doty, Bruno Zimm, Frederick Eirich, Robert Simha, Arthur Tobolsky, and Eli Pearce. PRI educated undergraduates and graduate students, granting M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in polymer chemistry.

PRI was not the first institution to teach polymer chemistry in the United States. Carl “Speed” Marvel, another early giant in the field of polymer science, taught synthetic polymer chemistry as part of his organic chemistry courses at the University of Illinois and he trained about 150 doctoral students in organic polymer chemistry. But Mark’s program at PRI was different; it stressed all areas of polymer science: organic chemistry, physical chemistry, and biochemistry as well as industrial applications.27

Mark became an indefatigable champion of polymer chemistry in the United States and around the world; in doing so, he helped enhance the reputation of the Polymer Research Institute and the growing influence of the Institute in turn aided the growth of polymer education. As part of this process, Mark oversaw a number of publications devoted to polymers. His interest in this area grew out the difficulty of getting the Journal of the American Chemical Society to accept papers on polymers. The Polymer Bulletin, which contained mostly reports on work done at PRI, was launched in 1945. It was well received, so Mark began the Journal of Polymer Science the following year. In these years Mark also played a major role in getting the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry to establish a polymer section. He served as its first chairman and characteristically welcomed German scientists to attend meetings.28

Mark’s work, and the presence of the Polymer Research Institute, helped make polymer chemistry an important scientific branch. When Mark began the Institute, there were only a handful of chemists working with synthetic polymers at U.S. universities: among them were such important scientists as Carl Marvel and Paul Flory. But none succeeded in creating a facility like the Polymer Research Institute. When the Institute was founded in 1946 there were few polymer chemists in U.S. schools. That number rose to over 1,100 by 1992. Today, many prominent universities either have polymer institutes or offer polymer programs of some kind.

As Mark said in an interview in 1986, “we [PRI] had our peak in the late fifties and early sixties. Then many of our best professors went other places and we shrank.”29 But PRI remained influential, as other universities, including Illinois, where the impact of Marvel was strong, Case Western Reserve, Massachusetts, North Carolina State, and Akron, established polymer institutes. In industry, where DuPont had dominated the field, now Dow, Phillips Petroleum, Rohm and Haas, Shell, and the major rubber manufacturers developed polymer programs. Many were started by scientists who had studied or taught at PRI and all were influenced by the work of Herman Mark in establishing polymer chemistry in the United States.

Herman Mark may not have been the only impetus for the expansion of polymer education in the United States, but he clearly played a critical and formative role. As Norbert Bikales, formerly of the National Science Foundation, put it, Mark “was an agent of change. He was future oriented until the end. More than any other person, he was responsible for spreading the gospel of macromolecules.”30

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Herman Mark’s Legacy

Early in Herman Mark’s tenure in Brooklyn, his colleague Isidor Fankuchen addressed Mark as Der Geheimrat, which means privy or secret councilor, but in German universities it had a special, untranslatable meaning. It was a title bestowed by the German kaisers on prominent academicians, but it suggests the standard caricature of the “stuffed shirt,” pompous professor. Fankuchen meant Geheimrat as a joke, but it stuck as a title for Mark precisely because he was the antithesis of a true Geheimrat. Mark, who had a self-deprecating sense of humor, was pleased by the title, and he became known as the Geheimrat.31

Mark was Viennese to the core, the kind of central European who kissed lady’s hands. He seemed in many ways to meld Old and New World virtues into “a combination of a European and Viennese gentleman, with the openness to people, places and ideas which are really typically American.”32 One former colleague describes Mark as “formal in an informal way.”33 For example, he almost always wore a tie, but even when he was teaching in Vienna, Mark could be found picnicking with his students. His lack of pomposity was demonstrated by the greetings he gave all, high and low, educated and uneducated, regardless of whether he knew the person. A typical Mark greeting was “Good morning! Good morning! Good morning! How are you, Herr Professor?” It mattered little whether the visitor was indeed a professor. Mark used the title for even the most casual acquaintance in the belief it made people feel important. This disarming style could be carried rather far, as in the time Mark introduced a young man to Dean Kirk as “Dr. Smathers, who is coming to us to earn his Master’s degree.”34

Former colleagues invariably have kind words for Mark. Herbert Morawetz, who came to Brooklyn Polytech as a student and joined the faculty in 1951, describes Mark “as a man of tremendous personal charm.”35 He was always ready to help fellow faculty members and students. Murray Goodman, who taught at Polytech and served as director of the Polymer Research Institute, calls the Geheimrat “the true catalyst in helping me to develop my career.”36 Another colleague says Mark had an uncanny “ability to relate to all people at all levels.”37

Mark never “allowed any unpleasantness in his life to affect his actions.”38 He did not hesitate to invite German chemists who were known to have been pro-Nazi to give lectures at the Institute. His magnanimity included Hermann Staudinger, one of the giants in the early years of macromolecular science who disagreed with Mark on the structure of polymers. According to Morawetz, “Staudinger treated [Mark] like dirt, came here and was really received with the highest honors.”39

By the time Mark came to America and then organized the Polymer Research Institute, he had already done much of his important, creative, and seminal research. His contributions to science now were as an ambassador for polymer chemistry and education. He did this in many ways: through the symposia he organized at the Institute; by lecturing all over the world; by having a hand in polymer publications; and by keeping up with the latest research. “His great contribution in America,” Herbert Morawetz claims, “was once a year he would give a lecture, and they were wonderful lectures, on what’s going on in polymers in the world.”40 Herman Mark, Goodman says, had “a special ability to know what was going on, to be at the center, and to know what breakthroughs were imminent and to communicate that widely and broadly through the scientific world.”41

Herman Mark died on April 6, 1992, a month short of his 97th birthday. In his latter years, Mark was frequently asked the secret to his longevity, despite his penchant for cigars and liquor. His response: “It’s really quite simple. You just have to pick your parents properly.”42

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Research Notes

  1. This discussion of polymers has benefited from the following: Herbert Morawetz, Polymers: The Origins and Growth of a Science (New York: Dover Publications, 1985); a number of the essays in G. Allan Stahl, ed., Polymer Science Overview: A Tribute to Herman F. Mark (Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1981); Yasu Furukawa, Inventing Polymer Science: Staudinger, Carothers, and the Emergence of Marcromolecular Chemistry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998); Peter J.T. Morris, Polymer Pioneers: A Popular History of the Science and Technology of Large Molecules, (Philadelphia: Center for the History of Chemistry, 1986).
  2. Herman Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large: A Century of Progress, in Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams: Autobiographies of Eminent Chemists, ed. Jeffrey Seeman (Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1993), p. 41.
  3. Herman Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large: A Century of Progress, in Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams: Autobiographies of Eminent Chemists, ed. Jeffrey Seeman (Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1993), p. 9. For a fascinating account of growing up in an assimilated Viennese family in the pre-Hitler years, see George Clare, Last Waltz in Vienna, London: F.A. Thorpe, 1981.
  4. Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large, p. 8.
  5. Ibid., p. 10.
  6. Ibid., pp 9-10; G. Allan Stahl, “Herman F. Mark: The Early Years, 1895-1926,” in G. Allan Stahl, ed., Polymer Science Overview: A Tribute To Herman F. Mark (Washington, D.C. American Chemical Society, 1981), pp. 8-11.
  7. Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large, p. 15
  8. Linus Pauling, “Herman F. Mark and the Structure of Crystals,” in Stahl, ed., Polymer Science Overview, pp. 93-99; Telephone interview with Hans Mark, conducted by Judah Ginsberg, June 6, 2003.
  9. Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large, p. 31.
  10. Ibid., p. 34.
  11. Ibid., p. 37.
  12. Hans Mark interview; again, see Clare, Last Waltz in Vienna.
  13. Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large, p. 53.
  14. Ibid., p. 62.
  15. I am indebted to Murray Goodman for this insight about starting over and its affect on Mark’s career. Telephone interview conducted by Judah Ginsberg, May 29 and 30, 2003. Hans Mark says starting over never bothered his father, who just rolled with the punches.
  16. Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large, p. 85
  17. Hans Mark interview.
  18. Interview with Herbert Morawetz, conducted by Judah Ginsberg, May 27, 2003.
  19. Hans Mark interview.
  20. C.E. Carraher, “Polymer Education and the Mark Connection,” in G. Allan Stahl, ed., Polymer Science Overview: A Tribute To Herman F. Mark (Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1981), p. 142.
  21. Telephone interview with Hans Mark, conducted by Judah Ginsberg, June 6, 2003.
  22. Mark details work on this and other wartime projects in his autobiography. Herman Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large: A Century of Progress, in Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams: Autobiographies of Eminent Chemists, ed. Jeffrey Seeman (Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1993), pp. 96-101.
  23. Interview with Eli Pearce, conducted by Judah Ginsberg, May 27, 2003.
  24. Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large, p. 115.
  25. An excellent account of the origins of the Institute can be found in Morton Hunt, “Profiles: Polymers Everywhere,” Part one of two parts in The New Yorker, September 13, 1958.
  26. Quoted in ibid.
  27. Yasu Furukawa, Inventing Polymer Science: Staudinger, Carothers, and the Emergence of Marcromolecular Chemistry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), p. 199.
  28. G. Allan Stahl, “Herman Mark: The Continuing Invastion,” in G. Allan Stahl, ed., Polymer Science Overview: A Tribute To Herman F. Mark (Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1981), p. 117.
  29. Herman Mark interview conducted by James Bohning and Jeffrey Sturchio, February 3, March 17, and June 20 1986, The Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry, p. 71.
  30. Norbert Bikales, “Herman Mark’s Children,” in Sheldon Atlas, Eli Pearce, and F.R. Eirich, eds., Polymers to the Year 200 and Beyond: A Memorial Symposium for Herman F. Mark (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993), p. 142; see also, C.E. Carraher, “Polymer Education and the Mark Connection,” in Stahl, ed., Polymer Science Overview, pp. 123-142.
  31. Herman Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large: A Century of Progress, in Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams: Autobiographies of Eminent Chemists, ed. Jeffrey Seeman (Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1993), pp. 120-122; Telephone interview with Hans Mark, conducted by Judah Ginsberg, June 6, 2003.
  32. Telephone interview with Murray Goodman, conducted by Judah Ginsberg, May 29, 2003.
  33. Interview with Eli Pearce, conducted by Judah Ginsberg, May 27, 2003.
  34. For a number of anecdotes about Mark, see Morton Hunt, “Profiles: Polymers Everywhere,” Part one of two parts in The New Yorker, September 13, 1958.
  35. Interview with Herbert Morawetz, conducted by Judah Ginsberg, May 27, 2003.
  36. Murray Goodman, “Herman Mark, My Career Catalyst,” in Sheldon Atlas, Eli Pearce, and F.R. Eirich, eds., Polymers to the Year 200 and Beyond: A Memorial Symposium for Herman F. Mark (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993), p. 188.
  37. Pearce interview.
  38. Morawetz interview.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Goodman interview, May 30, 2003.
  42. Pearce interview.

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Landmark Designation and Acknowledgments

Landmark Designation

The American Chemical Society designated the Polymer Research Institute of Polytechnic University (now the Polytechnic Institute of New York University) as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in a ceremony on September 3, 2003, in New York City, New York. The text of the plaque commemorating the landmark reads:

The Polymer Research Institute was established in 1946 by Herman F. Mark, a pioneer in the study of giant molecules. The Institute brought together a number of polymer researchers to create the first academic facility in the United States devoted to the study and teaching of polymer science. Scientists associated with it later went on to establish polymer programs at other universities and institutions, contributing significantly to the development and growth of what has become a vital branch of chemistry, engineering, and materials science.


Adapted for the internet from “Polymer Research Institute,” produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society in 2003.

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Cite this Page

ACS Style

American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks. Foundations of Polymer Science: Herman Mark and the Polymer Research Institute. http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/polymerresearchinstitute.html (accessed Month Day, Year).

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Polymer education has grown from a seed at 'Brooklyn Poly' to a young giant redwood…”

— C.E. Carraher