Alan G. MacDiarmid

Born: April 14, 1927 | Masterton, NZ
Died: February 7, 2007 | Drexel Hill, PA, US

Alan G. MacDiarmid begins his interview by discussing his childhood and the two books that sparked his interest in chemistry. MacDiarmid, with degrees from University of New Zealand, University of Wisconsin, Madison, and University of Cambridge, focused his work on inorganic chemistry and accepted a faculty position at University of Pennsylvania. MacDiarmid discusses his lengthy career at Penn, his Nobel Prize-winning work with Hideki Shirakawa and Alan Heeger, and the benefits of interdisciplinary research. 

Access This Interview

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.


Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0325
No. of pages: 47
Minutes: 269

Interview Sessions

Cyrus C. M. Mody
19 December 2005
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Abstract of Interview

Alan G. MacDiarmid begins the interview by discussing his childhood in New Zealand and goes on to describe how two books, both chemistry-related, sparked his interest in chemistry. Due to economic hardship, MacDiarmid juggled working and attending the University of New Zealand part time to complete his bachelor's and master's degree. Denied a scholarship to study in England, MacDiarmid came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a Fulbright Scholar to study inorganic chemistry. After obtaining a M.S. in 1952 and a PhD in 1953, MacDiarmid left Wisconsin and finally got to fulfill his dream of studying at the University of Cambridge under H. J. Emeleus. Focusing on inorganic chemistry, MacDiarmid obtained a PhD in 1955 and accepted a position at the University of Pennsylvania after a brief stint as assistant lecturer in the University of St. Andrews. MacDiarmid did his most seminal work at Penn, where he remained for fifty-plus year and is still a faculty member. His early research in America was funded by Cold War related projects overseen by government funding agencies such as the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Office of Naval Research. Then on a visit to Japan, MacDiarmid serendipitously met with Hideki Shirakawa, who was doing similar research on conductive metals. Over tea they discussed their work, and MacDiarmid invited Shirakawa to Philadelphia. It was there, collaborating with another Penn faculty member, Alan Heeger, that the three published influential works that led to the discovery of conducting polymers and their shared Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2000. MacDiarmid, an inorganic chemist, emphasized the importance of inter-disciplinary research with Shirakawa, an organic chemist; and Heeger, a physicist. MacDiarmid describes how interdisciplinarity can advance current research and promote innovation. He concludes the interview by suggesting possible future research directions and the need to decrease dependency on fossil fuels. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1948 University of New Zealand BSc Chemistry
1950 University of New Zealand MSc Chemistry
1952 University of Wisconsin, Madison MS Chemistry
1953 University of Wisconsin, Madison PhD Inorganic Chemistry
1955 University of Cambridge PhD Inorganic Chemistry

Professional Experience

University of St. Andrews

1955 to 1956
Assistant Lecturer

University of Pennsylvania

1955 to 1956
Instructor in Chemistry
1956 to 1961
Assistant Professor
1961 to 1964
Associate Professor
1964 to 1988
1988 to 2007
Blanchard Professor of Chemistry

University of Texas at Arlington

2002 to 2007
James Von Ehr Chair of Science and Technology, Professor of Chemistry and Physics

Jilin University

2004 to 2007
Professor of Chemistry


Year(s) Award

Philadelphia Section Award, American Chemical Society


Frederic Stanley Kipping Award, American Chemical Society


Madison Marshall Award, American Chemical Society


Doolittle Award, American Chemical Society


Royal Society of Chemistry Centenary Medal and Lectureship (UK)


Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists


Top 100 Innovation Award, Science Digest


John Scott Award, City of Philadelphia


Francis J. Clamer Award, The Franklin Institute


Chemistry of Materials Award, American Chemical Society


Nobel Prize in Chemistry (With Heeger, Shirakawa)


Rutherford Medal, The Royal Society of New Zealand


Member, Order of New Zealand


Member, National Academy of Engineering


Member, National Academy of Science


Fellow, Royal Society of London, England


Friendship Award, State Administration of Foreign Experts Bureau, P. R. China


Establishment of the Alan G. MacDiarmid Laboratories of Polymer Research, Karnatak University, India


Establishment of the MacDiarmid Institute of Innovation and Business,

Table of Contents

Childhood and Influences

Growing up in New Zealand. Developing interest in chemistry. Early education. Economic hardship and having to work at a young age.

Education at University of New Zealand

Studying part-time and working as lab boy and janitor. Influence of Bobby Monro and developing interest in inorganic chemistry. Master's thesis on sulfur nitride. Desire to study in England.

Education at University of Wisconsin

Fulbright Scholarship. Adapting to American educational system. Becoming a Knapp Fellow. Dissertation research on radioactive tracers under Norris Hall.

Education at University of Cambridge

Initial impression. Influence of and working with H. J. Emeleus. Silicon hydride work. Reflection on social class structures.

Career at University of Pennsylvania

Government funded work on propellants. Studying silicon analogues of carbon compounds. Nobel research on conducting polymers with Hideki Shirakawa and Alan Heeger. Importance of interdisciplinary research. Current research directions. Involvement with University of Texas and other institutions.


Outlook on future of polymers. Other applied research directions.


About the Interviewer

Cyrus C. M. Mody

Cyrus Mody is an assistant professor of history at Rice University. Prior to that position he was the manager of the Nanotechnology and Innovation Studies programs in the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. He has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and materials engineering from Harvard University and a PhD in science and technology studies from Cornell. He was the 2004–2005 Gordon Cain Fellow at CHF before becoming a program manager. Mody has published widely on the history and sociology of materials science, instrumentation, and nanotechnology.