George A. Olah

Born: May 22, 1927 | Budapest, HU
Died: March 8, 2017 | Beverly Hills, CA, US

George A. Olah reflects on winning the 1994 Nobel Prize in chemistry and discusses his upbringing in Budapest, Hungary, where he earned a PhD in organic chemistry from the Technical University of Budapest. With the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Olah and his family eventually immigrated to Ontario, Canada, where he became a research scientist at the Dow Chemical Company but later became a professor at Western Reserve University. Olah was instrumental in the merging of Western Reserve University and Case Institute of Technology, forming Case Western Reserve University, but eventually he left to become director of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0190
No. of pages: 83
Minutes: 330

Interview Sessions

James G. Traynham and Arnold Thackray
3 February 2000
Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, Los Angeles, California

Abstract of Interview

George A. Olah begins the interview with a description of his family and childhood years in Budapest, Hungary. Olah first developed an interest in chemistry after taking a chemistry course at the Technical University of Budapest. While a laboratory assistant at the Zemplen Institute, Olah received his first patent on digoxin under the mentorship of Geza Zemplen, a carbohydrate chemist and former student of Hermann Emil Fischer. With Zemplen's approval, Olah began his work on organofluorine compounds. In 1949, Olah received his PhD in organic chemistry from Technical University. That same year, he married Judith Lengyel. Olah joined the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1954 as the head of the department of organic chemistry and associate scientific director of the Central Research Institute. During a momentary collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1956, Olah, his wife, and young son fled Hungary to take refuge with family members in London, England. Finally settling in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada in 1957, Olah became a senior research scientist at the Sarnia laboratory of Dow Chemical Company. Impressed by the work of Christopher Kelk Ingold, Olah turned his research towards Friedel-Crafts reactions, alkylations, and nitrations. After moving to a Dow facility in Massachusetts, Olah was offered the position of professor and chemistry department chair at Western Reserve University. Shortly after starting at Western Reserve, Olah aided in the coalescence of Western Reserve University and Case Institute of Technology, which now form Case Western Reserve University. Following twelve years of service at Case Western, Olah decided that he wanted to apply his chemistry to the broader area of hydrocarbons, so he accepted an offer from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles as a professor of chemistry and scientific director of the Hydrocarbon Research Institute, which was later named Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute. Olah is currently the director of this institute. Olah concludes the interview with a discussion of the future of environmental chemistry, reflections on winning the 1994 Nobel Prize in chemistry, and thoughts on his family.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1945 Technical University of Budapest BS Organic Chemistry
1949 Technical University of Budapest PhD Organic Chemistry

Professional Experience

Technical University of Budapest

1949 to 1954
Assistant Professor to Associate Professor of Organic Chemistry

Hungarian Academy of Sciences

1954 to 1956
Head of Department of Organic Chemistry and Associate Scientific Director of Central Research Institute

Dow Chemical Company

1957 to 1964
Senior Research Scientist

Case Western Reserve University

1965 to 1967
Professor and Chairman, Department of Chemistry
1967 to 1969
Chairman of Combined Departments of Chemistry
1967 to 1977
C.F. Mabery Distinguished Professor of Research in Chemistry

University of Southern California

1980 to 2001
Distinguished Professor of Chemistry
1983 to 2001
Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Distinguished Professor of Organic Chemistry
1991 to 2001
Director, Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute

Honors

Year(s) Award
1964

Award in Petroleum Chemistry, American Chemical Society

1967

Leo H. Baekeland Award

1970

Morley Medal

1972

Fellow, J. S. Guggenheim Foundation

1976

Member, U. S. National Academy of Sciences

1979

Award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society

1979

Alexander von Humbolt-Stiftung Award for Senior U. S. Scientist

1987

Michelson-Morley Award, Case Western Reserve University

1988

Fellow, J. S. Guggenheim Foundation

1989

California Scientist of the Year Award

1989

Roger Adams Award in Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society

1990

Honorary Member, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

1992

Richard C. Tolman Award, American Chemical Society, Southern California Section

1993

Chemical Pioneers Award, American Institute of Chemists, Inc.

1993

William Lloyd Evans Award, Ohio State University

1994

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

1995

George Washington Award, American Hungarian Foundation

1996

Cotton Medal, American Chemical Society, Texas A&M University

1996

Kapista Medal, Russian Academy of Natural Sciences

1996

Inventor of the Year Award, New York Intellectual Property Lawyers Association

1996

Award in Petroleum Chemistry renamed George A. Olah Award in Petroleum Chemistry, American Chemical Society

1996

Golden Plate Award, American Academy of Achievement

1997

State Prize of the Republic of Hungary for Contributions to the Fame of Hungary

1999

Golden Medal of Charles University, Prague, Czechoslovakia

1999

Hanus Medal, Czechoslovak Chemical Society

2000

Cope Award, American Chemical Society

Table of Contents

Childhood and Early Education
1

Growing up in Budapest, Hungary. Effect of World War I. Piarist Brothers. Living next to the Budapest Opera House. Interest in philosophy and Hungarian history.

College Education
4

Organic chemistry at Technical University of Budapest. Love of chemistry. Effect of World War II. Death of brother in Russian prisoner camp. Mentorship of Geza Zemplen while at the Zemplen Institute. Hermann Emil Fischer. Work on glycosides. Leo Szilard. Balcony laboratory. Meeting and marriage to wife, Judith Lengyel.

Early Career
14

Working at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Effect of World War II. Fleeing Hungary. London, England. Christopher Kelk Ingold. IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) lecture. Being a refugee. Lecture at Cambridge University. Ingold's and Alexander Todd's assistance in finding employment. Work of Ame Pictet. Move to Montreal, Québec, Canada.

Career at Dow Chemical Company
20

Sarnia, Ontario, Canada laboratory. Scientific contributions. Reflections on relationship with wife and years in Hungary. Thoughts on religion. Move to Sarnia. Herbert (Ted) D. Doan. 1964 American Chemical Society (ACS) prize in petroleum chemistry. Writing of Friedel-Crafts Chemistry. Fred McLarrety. George Wittig. Impression of Dow. Reflections on years before leaving Hungary. Disbelief in innate scientific ability. Carbocation and superacid chemistry. James B. Conant. Non-classical ion controversy. Move to Dow facility in Massachusetts.

Career at Case Western Reserve University
46

Coalescence of Western Reserve University and Case Institute of Technology. Opinion on being a university professor and administrator. Development of new reactions and reagents. Writing as a favorite pastime. Decision to leave Case Western.

Career at University of Southern California (USC)
49

Creation of Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute. Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker. Superacids. Use of gasoline alkylation during World War II. Vladimir Nikolayevich Ipatieff and Herman Pines. Hydrogen fluoride research. Importance of finding chemical solutions to environmental problems. Current research on electrophilic and nucleophilic solvation.

Conclusion
59

The significance of finding new non-natural fuel sources. The future of environmental chemistry using hydrocarbons. Value of teaching chemistry to non-science majors. Correcting environmental problems with chemical solutions. Receiving the 1994 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Making the world a safer place for his sons and grandchildren.

Notes
72
Index
75

About the Interviewer

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

James G. Traynham

James G. Traynham is a professor of chemistry at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. He holds a PhD in organic chemistry from Northwestern University. He joined Louisiana State University in 1953 and served as chemistry department chairperson from 1968 to 1973. He was chairman of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1988 and is currently councilor of the Baton Rouge section of the American Chemical Society. He was a member of the American Chemical Society’s Joint-Board Council on Chemistry and Public Affairs, as well as a member of the Society’s Committees on Science, Chemical Education, and Organic Chemistry Nomenclature. He has written over 90 publications, including a book on organic nomenclature and a book on the history of organic chemistry.