Eugene G. Rochow

Born: October 4, 1909 | Newark, NJ, US
Died: March 21, 2002 | Fort Myers, FL, US

Eugene G. Rochow discusses his family background in Germany, his upbringing in New Jersey, and his early interests in electricity and silicon which led him to pursue degrees in chemistry at Cornell University where he worked as an assistant for Louis M. Dennis and Alfred Stock. Rochow had an extensive career in silicone production, including ethyl phenyl silicone and methyl silicone, and research on nuclear fission as a source of domestic energy but later resigned from this work because of his Quaker beliefs. Rochow also comments on his teaching at Harvard University and his Perkin Medal. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0129
No. of pages: 63
Minutes: 224

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
24 January 1995
Fort Myers, Florida

Abstract of Interview

Eugene G. Rochow begins this interview by talking about his early years in New Jersey and his family background in the Brandenburg region of Germany. Rochow's interest in electricity and silicon stems from his first radio set, which he put together using silicon crystals. Sparked by his brother Theodore's interest in chemistry, Rochow joined his brother as a chemistry assistant both in high school and at Cornell University. He worked as both lecture and laboratory assistant to Louis M. Dennis, then chair of Cornell's chemistry department, who referred Rochow to Alfred Stock as a lecture assistant. Here, Rochow relates some anecdotes about Alfred Stock. Although the Depression caused severe cuts in job opportunities, Rochow found employment with the Hotpoint Company, a General Electric Company subsidiary, where he conducted research on periclase. During this time, Rochow produced ethyl phenyl silicone, which Corning Glass Works had also just produced, for use as an insulator. He then produced methyl silicone. This led to patent and publication difficulties between GE and Corning Glass Works, now the Dow-Corning Corporation. During this time, Rochow discovered how to produce methyl silicone, first using magnesium, then using silicochloroform and copper. Further, he and Charles E. Reed developed a way to manufacture methyl silicone using fluid-bed catalysis. Rochow continued his research on silicone production and zinc promotor development until his transfer to Richmond, Washington, where he conducted research on nuclear fission as a source of domestic energy. When the U. S. Government requested GE to work on nuclear propulsion for naval vessels, Rochow, a Quaker, left to teach chemistry at Harvard University. Rochow closes with comments on how his Perkin Medal award brought him international recognition and expanded professional opportunities. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1931 Cornell University BChem Chemistry
1935 Cornell University PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

Halowax Corporation

1931 to 1932
Research Chemist

Cornell University

1932 to 1935
Assistant Chemist

General Electric Company

1935 to 1948
Research Chemist

Harvard University

1948 to 1951
Associate Professor
1951 to 1970
1970 to 1996
Professor Emeritus


Year(s) Award

Honorary MA, Harvard University


Baekeland Medal, American Chemical Society


Myer Award, American Ceramic Society


Mattiello Award, Federal Paint & Varnish Society


Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry


Honor Scroll, American Institute of Chemists


Frederick Stanley Kipping Award, American Chemical Society


Honorary DSc, Carolo-Wilhelmina Universität Braunschweig


Chemical Pioneers Award, American Institute of Chemistry


Award for Excellence in Teaching, Manufacturing Chemists Association


Inventor's Award, General Electric Company


Norris Award for Teaching of Chemistry, American Chemical Society


Alfred Stock Medal, German Chemical Society


Honorary Doctorate of Natural Science, Technische Universität, Dresden

Table of Contents

Family Background and Early Education

Childhood in Maplewood, New Jersey; family background in Brandenburg, Germany. Der Kinderfreund, text authored by ancestor. Childhood interest in electricity. Early use of silicon as a crystal detector in radio sets. Influential high school teachers in chemistry and mathematics.


Decision to attend Cornell University along with older brother, Theodore. Hechscher Research Foundation fellowship and related research requirements. Ezra X. Cornell, Cornell University founder. Chemistry department and Rochow's assistantships under Louis M. Dennis. Influential professors at Cornell. Lecture assistantship with Alfred Stock. Stock's work with boron hydrides and mercury. Stock anecdotes. Theodore Rochow's career in microscopy and text, An Introduction to Microscopy.

Early Career

Summer job with Halowax Corporation. Effects of Depression on career prospects. Summer job with Hotpoint Company, a General Electric Company subsidiary, analyzing magnesite for use in making periclase. Periclase as insulation in electric ranges. Austauschdienst exchange fellowship. Honeymoon trip to Europe.

Early Research at GE

Early work with Louis M. Navias. Otto Hahn's and Liza Meitner's work on uranium atom fission. Rochow's research on uranium hexafluoride.

Methyl Silicone; GE/Corning Glass Works Controversy

Research on ethyl phenyl silicone. First production and discovery of methyl silicone as insulator. GE-Corning controversy over methyl silicone. Production of methyl silicone using silicochloroform instead of magnesium. Dow-Corning/GE patent exchange agreement. Manufacture of methyl silicone using fluid-bed catalysis. Symposium at Toshiba with Charles E. Reed.

Later Career

Later development of the production of methyl and other silicones. Struggle with Marshall over An Introduction to the Chemistry of the Silicones. Zinc promoter development. Move to Richland, Washington, to conduct research on nuclear fission as source of domestic energy. GE's government research on nuclear propulsion for naval vessels, and decision to leave GE. Chemistry professorship at Harvard University. International recognition as result of winning Perkin Medal. Guest professorship at University of Innsbruck.


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.