Donald L. Katz

Born: August 1, 1907 | Jackson County, MI, US
Died: May 29, 1989 | Ann Arbor, MI, US

Donald L. Katz discusses his family background and his educational background, including his studies in chemical engineering at University of Michigan, which culminated in a PhD. While Katz initially joined Phillips Petroleum Company as a research engineer after his education, he was soon invited back to the University of Michigan for an academic appointment. Katz remained at Michigan for over fifty years, and he reflects on his research, including heat transfer investigations, and various aspects of chemical engineering education and the academic chemical engineering profession.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0052
No. of pages: 68
Minutes: 268

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
22 August 1986
Holland, Michigan

Abstract of Interview

The late Donald Katz starts the interview by briefly referring to his current projects but then describes his family background and his genealogical interests, stimulated by his 1952 trip to his father's birthplace in a German village. Katz went to a small country school in rural Michigan but was encouraged by a church minister to attend high school in a nearby town. After working in a machine shop, Katz entered the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and majored in chemical engineering. He put himself through college by hard effort; cleaning offices, restaurant work and some summers back in machine shops. As he continued into graduate studies, Donald Katz acted as George Brown's assistant, helping other graduate students and junior faculty, and with patent cases. He recalls courses, coworkers and faculty at Ann Arbor and gives three anecdotes illustrating the influence of surface chemistry, as taught by Floyd Bartell, at later stages of Katz's career. When Katz started his research career at Phillips Petroleum he was assigned to reservoir studies and he summarizes some of his activities during this period. An invitation by Brown brought Katz back to the University of Michigan and he details his early researches and consulting work. The war years altered some of his teaching and research responsibilities and led him, for instance, into heat transfer investigations. On Brown's promotion to Dean, Katz took over as departmental chairman for several years. During this part of the interview Donald Katz describes his involvement in the introduction of computer education into the chemical engineering curriculum, both at Ann Arbor and nationally. Other recollections follow: safety and the hazards of bulk chemicals; pipelines; the underground storage of gas and air; the origins of the Handbook of Natural Gas Engineering. Katz concludes his interview with some thoughts on the changes in the academic chemical engineering profession over his long career.


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1931 University of Michigan BSE Chemical Engineering
1932 University of Michigan MS Chemical Engineering
1933 University of Michigan PhD Chemical Engineering

Professional Experience

Phillips Petroleum Company

1933 to 1936
Research Engineer

University of Michigan

1936 to 1942
Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering
1942 to 1943
Associate Professor
1943 to 1964
1951 to 1962
Chairman, Chemical Engineering Department
1964 to 1977
A. H. White University Professor
1977 to 1989
Emeritus Professor


Year(s) Award

Hanlon Award, Gas Processors Association


President, American Institute of Chemical Engineers


Michigan Engineer of the Year, Society of Petroleum Engineers


Distingushed Lecturer, Society of Petroleum Engineers


Visiting Professor, National School of Chemistry, Rio de Janeiro


John Franklin Carll Award, Society of Petroleum Engineers


Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award, University of Michigan


Founders Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers


Warren K. Lewis Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers


Member, National Academy of Engineering


William H. Walker Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers


Honorary Member, Phi Lambda Upsilon


Mineral Industries Award, American Institute of Mining Engineers


Distinguished Public Service Award, U. S. Coast Guard


Murphree Award, American Chemical Society


Gas Industry Research Award, American Gas Association


Lucas Gold Medal, American Institute of Mining Engineers


Award of Merit, Michigan Historical Society


Selected as an Eminent Chemical Engineer, 75th Anniversary of American Institute of Chemical Engineers


National Medal of Science


Designated Distinguished Member, Society of Petroleum Engineers


Honorary Member, American Institute of Mining Engineer

Table of Contents

Childhood and Early Education

Family background. Genealogical interests stimulated by 1952 trip the father's German birthplace. Sibling, stepfather. Attendance at country school, encouragement to continue on to high school. Work in machine shop.

Studies at the University of Michigan

Admission to University and extramural employment as office cleaner, restaurant worker and summers in the machine shop. First car and tour of North Dakota. Assistant to George Granger Brown, laboratory studies on distillation, some related to patent cases. PhD research. Courses and faculty at Michigan. Influence of Bartell and his teaching of surface chemistry; anecdotes on surface chemical applications useful to Katz in his career. Further discussion of chemical engineering at University of Michigan in 1930s. Effect of the Depression, especially on fellow students.

Phillips Petroleum Company

The laboratories at Bartlesville, initial assignments on oil reservoirs. Set up of field well testing unit. Organization of Phillips research activities.

Faculty position at University of Michigan

Return to Ann Arbor as assistant professor, beginning research projects and outside consulting. The bibliography on PVT properties of hydrocarbons. Summer work in industry. Early graduate students; fatal accident to one of them. War years at the University, changed teaching responsibilities and research interests. Safety concerns. Properties of liquid metals, work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Chairman of Chemical Engineering Department

Successor to Brown as departmental chairman, further reminiscences of Brown. Changes in the chemical engineering curriculum; impact of computational studies. Ford Foundation funding for the introduction of computer education into chemical engineering. Origins of the Handbook of Natural Gas Engineering. Consulting on pipelines. Sabbatical in South America. Safety procedures and the hazards of transportation of chemical substances. Underground storage of gas and air. Changes in the chemical engineering profession.


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.