Leo Mandelkern

Born: February 23, 1922 | New York City, NY, US
Died: May 31, 2006 | Tallahassee, FL, US

Leo Mandelkern begins the interview by discussing his early life and education at Cornell University, including his graduate work and associations with J. G. Kirkwood, Franklin Long, and Paul Flory. Mandelkern also recalls his career at the National Bureau of Standards as well as his recent work at Florida State University. He concludes by commenting on methods of solving scientific controversies. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0029
No. of pages: 43
Minutes: 175

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
28 April 1986
Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida

Abstract of Interview

In this interview Professor Leo Mandelkern begins with his early years in New York City and his undergraduate education at Cornell University. This is followed by his service as a meterologist during World War II. In the central portion of the interview, Mandelkern describes his graduate education at Cornell, including his association with J. G. Kirkwood, Franklin Long, and Paul Flory. Particular emphasis is given to his postdoctoral work with Flory and collaborative work with Harold Scheraga. The details of Mandelkern's career at the National Bureau of Standards include Bureau operations and management in the 1950s. The interview continues with more recent work at Florida State, including students and post-docs, and concludes with comments on methods of solving scientific controversies, especially as it relates to his role in the problem of the folded chain. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1942 Cornell University AB Chemistry
1949 Cornell University PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

Cornell University

1949 to 1952
Research Associate

National Bureau of Standards

1952 to 1962
Physical Chemist

Florida State University

1962 to 1987
Professor of Chemistry
1970 to 1974
Associate Director, Institute of Molecular Biophysics


Year(s) Award

Medal Award for Meritorious Service, United States Department of Commerce, National Bureau of Standards


Arthur S. Fleming Award, Washington DC Junior Chamber of Commerce


Witco Award in Polymer Chemistry, American Chemical Society


Florida Award, American Chemical Society, Lakeland, Florida


Mettler Award, North American Thermal Analysis Society

Table of Contents

Childhood and Early Education

Parents. High school in Brooklyn. Physics, chemistry, and history teachers. Growing up in New York City. Regents Scholarship.

Undergraduate Education at Cornell

History major. Switch to chemistry major. Chemistry courses and instructors. Jacob Papish. Simon Bauer. Jack Johnson. Undergraduate research with J. G. Kirkwood. Undergradute student colleagues.

Service in World War II

Meteorology program. Training at Miami Beach, University of North Carolina, and the University of Chicago. Assigned to U. S. Signal Corp. Meteorological equipment maintenance in the South Pacific.

Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Work at Cornell

Thesis work with Franklin Long. Introduction to polymers. Courses with Kirkwood, Richard Feynman, and Hans Bethe. Student colleagues. Baker Lectures. Postdoctoral period with Paul Flory. Early work on polymer crystallinity. Flory's group and research. Collaboration with Harold Scheraga on protein hydrodynamic properties. Difficulties in publishing paper with Scheraga. Flory as research mentor.

National Bureau of Standards

Organization of the Bureau. L. A. Wood. Norman Bekkedahl. Scientific and intellectual freedom. Work in polymer crystallinity, glass transition temperatures, and sedimentation equilibria. Polymer Structure Section. Coworkers. Bureau facilities. Reasons for leaving the Bureau.

Florida State University

The folded-chain problem. Move to Florida State University. Michael Kasha. Origin and early history of the Institute of Molecular Biophysics. Administrative responsibilities. Book on crystallization of polymers. Difficulties with the folded chain concept.

Polymer Education and Research

Introduction to Macromolecules. Polymer education at the undergraduate level. Conformational analysis of peptides. Graduate students and their careers. Scientific controversy and the folded chain problem.


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.