James D. Idol

Born: August 7, 1928 | Harrisonville, MO, US
Died: June 15, 2015 | Columbus, OH, US

James D. Idol discusses his early interest in chemistry and decision to pursue chemistry in higher education, which led to a position with Standard Oil of Ohio. Idol pioneered an economically advantageous process for the production of acrylonitrile and played a role in the commercialization of the process. Idol moved on to Ashland Chemical Company, where he developed the propylene-CO process for methyl methacrylate, and in 1988 became a professor at Rutgers University.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0122
No. of pages: 45
Minutes: 132

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
8 December 1994
Rutgers University

Abstract of Interview

James D. Idol begins his interview with a description of his childhood in Harrisonville, Missouri. His interest in chemistry was encouraged by neighbors and by friends. He attended William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, where he studied chemistry under Professor Frank Edson and graduated with an AB in 1949. He immediately went on to graduate school at Purdue University, where he studied under Dr. Earl McBee. His interest in industrial chemistry led him to minor in chemical engineering. Upon receiving his PhD in 1955, he went to work for Standard Oil of Ohio, where he soon pioneered an economically advantageous process for the production of acrylonitrile. He then served as part of the team that developed a plant in Lima, Ohio for the commercial production of acrylonitrile in a record-breaking three years. He then turned his attention to novel uses for acrylonitrile, which led to Barex resin, among other things. In 1977, he moved on the Ashland Chemical, where he occupied a position that combined management and scientific duties. At Ashland, he developed the propylene-CO process for methyl methacrylate. His career in industry ended in 1988 when he was invited to become a professor at Rutgers University and head of the Center for Packaging Science and Engineering. He pays special attention to individuals who have influenced him throughout his life, and he concludes with some personal insights on the meanings of innovation, teamwork, and research in science and technology.


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1949 William Jewell College AB Chemistry
1952 Purdue University MS Chemistry/Organic
1955 Purdue University PhD Chemistry/Organic, minor Chemical Engineering

Professional Experience

Standard Oil Company of Ohio

1955 to 1956
Project Associate
1956 to 1960
Project Leader
1960 to 1963
Research Associate
1963 to 1965
Section Supervisor
1965 to 1968
Research Supervisor
1968 to 1977
Research Manager

Ashland Chemical Company

1977 to 1979
Research Manager
1979 to 1988
Vice President & Research Director

Rutgers University

Distinguished Professor
Director, Center for Packaging Science and Engineering
Deputy Director, National Center for Plastics Recycling Research


Year(s) Award

Modern Pioneer Award, National Association of Manufacturers


Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists


Citation for Achievement, William Jewell College


Joseph P. Stewart Distinguished Service Award, American Chemical Society


Creative Invention Award, American Chemical Society


Special Merit Award, Standard Oil of Ohio (SOHIO) Board of Directors


Life Fellow, American Institute of Chemists


Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)


Honorary D Sc. , Purdue University


Member, National Academy of Engineering


Fellow, American Association for Advancement of Science


F. G. Ciapetti Award and Lectureship, Catalysis Society of North America


Rutgers University Diploma of Recognition, Distinguished/Named Chairs


American Management Association Council Service Award


National Historic Chemical Landmark Designation to SOHIO Acrylonitrile Process

Table of Contents

Childhood and Early Education

Childhood in Harrisonville, Missouri. Family and early influences. Childhood interest in chemistry. Experience at Harrisonville High School.

College Education

William Jewel College. Undergraduate influences and experiences. Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Purdue University. Study of halogen chemistry under Earl McBee. Thesis and teaching experience.

Career at Standard Oil of Ohio

Recruitment by Everett Hughes. Influence of Dr. Franklin Veatch. Organization and dynamics of Veatch's research group. Research leading up to the development of a new acrylonitrile process. Commercialization of the process. Uses developed for acrylonitrile. Influence of Dr. Henry Gray. Position of polymer chemistry in academia.

Move to Ashland Chemical

Combination of management and scientific opportunities. Propylene-CO process for methyl methacrylate and its economic advantages. Other projects at Ashland.

Professorship at Rutgers University

Packaging schools at Rutgers and elsewhere. Need to acknowledge packaging engineering as an engineering field.


Personal meaning of scientific innovation. Thoughts on scientific teamwork and heritage. Professional contacts and associations. Concerns about downsizing. Reflections on winning the Perkin Medal. Thoughts about development of new technology.


About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was CHF’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.  Bohning passed away in September 2011.