Donald F. Othmer

Born: May 11, 1904 | Omaha, NE, US
Died: November 1, 1995 | New York City, NY, US

Donald Othmer discusses his upbringing in Omaha, Nebraska, his studies at the Armour Institute, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Michigan, and his experience at Eastman Kodak and Poly Tech. Othmer also recounts his adventures in Burma, his association with the government during World War II, the inception of the Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, and the Chemists' Club. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0035
No. of pages: 169
Minutes: 572

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
2 April, 11 June 1986 and 15 January 1987
Polytechnic University, New York, New York

Abstract of Interview

Donald Othmer begins the interview by sharing memories of his childhood in Omaha, Nebraska, his parents, and his schooling. He tells of his experiences as a student at the Armour Institute, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Michigan. Othmer later describes his years at Eastman Kodak, his accomplishments there and his reasons for leaving to produce his own material. He then discusses the early years at Poly Tech and the students he helped shape. Othmer also talk about his industrial work over the years. He describes his adventures in Burma and his association with the Government during World War II. He continues by recounting his experimental endeavors, his patents, and the inception of the Encyclopedia of Chemical technology. Othmer concludes by discussing the Chemists' Club, his life in Brooklyn, and the past and future of chemistry. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1923 Illinois Institute of Technology
1924 University of Nebraska BChE
1925 University of Michigan MCHE
2016 University of Michigan PhD Chemical Engineering

Professional Experience

Cudahy Packing Company


Eastman Kodak Company

1927 to 1931
Chemist and Development Engineer

Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute

1932 to 1933
1933 to 1937
Assistant Professor
1937 to 1961
Professor and Head of Department
1961 to 1988
Distinguished Professor


Year(s) Award

Tyler Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers


Barber-Coleman Award, American Society for Engineering Education


D Eng (honorary), University of Nebraska


Honor Scroll, American Institute of Chemists


Award of Merit, Association of Consulting Chemists and Chemical Engineers


Golden Jubilee Award, Illinois Institute of Technology


Chemical Pioneers Award, American Institute of Chemists


D. Eng. (honorary), Polytechnic University


Murphree Exxon Award, American Chemical Society


DEng (honorary), New Jersey Institute of Technology


Professional Achievement Award, Illinois Institute of Technology


Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry


Hall of Fame, Illinois Institute of Technology


Mayor's Award of Honor for Science and Technology, New York City


Outstanding Alumnus Award, University of Nebraska


Citation for Improvement of the Quality of Life, Borough of Brooklyn


Award for Significant Contributions to the Polytechnic University


Founders Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers

Table of Contents

Family, Early Years and Schooling

Grows up in Omaha, Nebraska under modest financial circumstances. Avid reader as an adolescent. Father is in sheet metal business, mother is active in the community. First jobs include paper route, stacking books and delivering telegrams for Western Union. Graduates Omaha Central High School in 1921.

Advanced Education

Receives scholarship to Armour Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology) for two years. Transfers to the University of Nebraska and completes remaining undergraduate work in one year. Attends the University of Michigan and works under Professor Walter L. Badger. Receives his master's degree and Ph.D. ; discusses working with Professor Badger and his other professors at the university.

Eastman Kodak

Meets recruiter from Eastman Kodak in March, 1927, and accepts position. First problem is how to concentrate acetic acid from its dilute solutions. Discusses the "boil around system" and the development of the Othmer Still. Also involved in working on the development of cellulose acetate, extractive distillation and the uses of methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE). Explains systems used by George Eastman at Kodak Park.

Resigns From Kodak, Develops Own Facilities

Frustration over use of the patents he developed and desire to produce his own market for his work. Kodak prefers that he get into management for the company, for which he has no interest. Sets up own facilities and continues work on azeotropic distillation. Also works as a consultant for the American Chemical Products Company in exchange for laboratory facilities. Offer from the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (now EXXON) to to develop synthetic rubber.

Polytechnic Institute, Brooklyn, NY

Teaching position offered in 1932. Chooses Poly for both academic and industrial freedom. Discusses the newly formed chemical engineering department, first classes, first students and the Depression's effect on them. Shares teaching methods and philosophy. Earns chairmanship in 1937.

Industrial Endeavors

Works with Tennessee Eastman as a consultant. Hopeful about the sale of his patent, but legal problems occur with Kodak. Gray Chemical Company offers job to develop acetic acid. Helps to build plant in Roulette, Pennsylvania, for production of methanol and acetic acid. Discusses the effect of charcoal and wood chemicals. Buys land in Pennsylvania.

World War II

Develops key process in producing RDX. Trained by the Government to evaluate the German chemical industry. Builds a plant to ferment alcohol in South and Central America. Teaches enlisted men at Poly. Class sizes increase dramatically after the war.


Works with TAMS in the early 1950s to design basic needs for the country. Declines to live there, but sends contact to Rangoon. Interested in the human needs and health problems of the Burmese people. Considers Burma "one of my greatest professional experiences. " Shares experiences of subsequent travels.

Technical Work

Summarizes extracting techniques. Devises method for separation of wood constituents with the Northwood Chemical Company. Two year association to do research with the American Sugar Refining Company. Experiments with temperature differences in the ocean as a source of energy. Desalination for the Saline Water Conversion Corporation. Works with PROUST for expedition of domestic and industrial sewage. Explains applications of Wet Air Oxidation (WAO) and pipeline heating.


Explains the differences between patents (experiments) and "gray matter" patents (studies). Discusses original patents with Kodak. Argues own case with the Patent Office.

Experimental Work

Experiments with the affinity series of metals. Works with German engineers Gerhard Holland and Hanz Zimmer. Further work with azeotropic distillation. Discusses the Othmer Plot.

Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology

Developed at Poly with Raymond Kirk and Eric Proskauer. Described as a "public service for the profession. " Considered counterpart to Ullmann's German Encyclopedia. Explains process of choosing authors, topics, and content.

Chemists' Club

Gradual change from academic to professional environment—more chemical executives than professors and lab chemists. Remembrances of tenure as President. Clubs in New York City being phased out.

Brooklyn, NY

Atmosphere of Brooklyn in the 1930s and various homes in Brooklyn Heights. Describes his residence, which he has lived in since 1944.

Summing Up

Discussion of old ideas brought to life by modern developments. The future of chemistry and how the field has changed. Possibilities for the future.


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.