Izaak M. Kolthoff

Born: February 11, 1894 | Almelo, NL
Died: March 4, 1993 | St. Paul, MN, US
Photograph of Izaak M. Kolthoff

Gift of Herman Skolnik, CHF Collections

Izaak Kolthoff begins his interview by discussing his early life in Holland, his education, and the factors influencing his decision to become an analytical chemist. Kolthoff details the effects of the McCarthy era on his career and accusations of Communist sympathies. Kolthoff ends the interview by discussing his research, including his work on crystal surfaces, and his participation in synthetic rubber research during World War II.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0027
No. of pages: 29
Minutes: 128

Interview Sessions

George D. Tselos
15 March 1984
University of Minnesota

Abstract of Interview

In this interview Professor Izaak Kolthoff begins by discussing his early life in Holland, his family, and his education. Kolthoff continues with the factors influencing his decision to become an analytical chemist, and he describes the early state of analytical chemistry compared to other branches of chemistry. The interview then focuses on accusations of Communist sympathies and the effects of the McCarthy era on Kolthoff's career. Kolthoff concludes with a brief discussion of his work on crystal surfaces, the relocation of European scientists during the 1930s, and his participation in synthetic rubber research during World War II.


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1915 University of Utrecht Diploma
1918 University of Utrecht PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

University of Utrecht

1917 to 1927
Pharmaceutical Institute, Conservator
1924 to 1927
Lecturer in Applied Electrochemistry

University of Minnesota

1927 to 1962
Professor and Head of the Division of Analytical Chemistry
1962 to 1993
Emeritus Professor of Analytical Chemistry


Year(s) Award

Nichols Medal, American Chemical Society


Fisher Award


Minnesota Award, American Chemical Society


Charles Medal, Charles University, Prague


Willard Gibbs Medal, American Chemical Society


Polarographic Medal, British Polarographic Society


Kolthoff Gold Medal, Academy of Pharmaceutical Science


Olin-Palladium Medal, Electrochemical Society

Table of Contents

Childhood and Early Education

Parents' religious life. Acquires nickname of "Piet. " Early schooling in Holland. Acquires an interest in science. Moves away from family religion. Experience with anti-Semitism. Educational structure of the Gymnasium.

University Education and Decision to Become a Chemist

Comparison of European and American college-level education. Earns degree in pharmacy. Instructor encourages his interest in chemistry. Publishes paper on electrical conductance. Relationship with Hans Cohen. Decision to visit the U. S. in 1924. Influence of Wilhelm Ostwald's book. Influence of Schoorl, his teacher. Meets other chemists at IUPAC meeting in Utrecht. Walther Nernst. Peter Debye.

World War II

Synthetic rubber research. Consulting with Interscience. Potientiometric titrations with N. Howell Furman. Oldrich Tomicek. Jaroslav Heyrovsky. Analytical chemistry as maidservant of other fields. Analytical chemistry in the United States. IUPAC view of analytical chemistry. Convinces Noyes to include a section of analytical chemistry in JACS.


Accused of being Communist sympathizer. John Cowles. Senator Child. Meeting with Frederic Joliot-Curie in 1945. Support of international meeting. Name in Communist newspaper. Career further damaged in McCarthy era. Charles Turck. House Un-American Activities Committee. Judy Holliday. Heads group to get Rosenberg conviction reversed.

University of Minnesota

Work on surface of crystals. Use of radioactivity to measure surface perfections on crystals. Visits by Otto Hahn and Heyrovsky. Friendship with Hahn. An-ions, cat-ions, and on-ions. Visits to Czechoslovakia. Relocation of European scientists in 1930s. F. G. Donnan.

Other recollections

Quarrel with Eugene Ormandy. Outstanding graduate students at Minnesota. Early work on synthetic rubber. Relationship between academics and industry during synthetic rubber work. William O. Baker. Scarcity of analytical chemists as Nobel Laureates.


About the Interviewer

George D. Tselos

George D. Tselos holds a BA in biology from Carleton College, and an MA and PhD in history from the University of Minnesota.  As a specialist in archival administration, he held a position with the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University before joining the Center for History of Chemistry (now the Chemical Heritage Foundation) as Assistant Director for Archives.