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Topic of the Month February 2012
Courageous questioning of established thinking
The life and work of Hermann Staudinger
Hermann Staudinger (23. 3. 1881 – 8. 9. 1965) gave plastics chemisty its theoretical foundations. Although his outstanding career as a scientist – doctorate at 22, professorship at 26 – culminated in the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Staudinger has remained largely unknown – as a public figure too – and only specialists are familiar with his life and work nowadays. A series that is starting here on www.k-online.de aims to rectify this. It portrays Staudinger as a productive and unorthodox thinker, who refused to accept conventional arguments in both his scientific and political activities – until his ideas finally became mainstream convictions. Part 1: 1881-1919.
“Pioneer of polymer research”, “founder of plastics chemistry”, “father of macromolecules”: all chemistry textbooks abandon their normal matter-of-fact style when they start talking about Hermann Staudinger. Tribute is still being paid to him for his achievements even though he died 47 years ago now. Just about every chemist is still familiar with the name “Staudinger”, which plays a prominent role in the history of the field rather than being a mere footnote. Flashback to Stockholm on 10. December 1953, when Staudinger was presented the Nobel Prize in Chemistry by King Gustav Adolf of Sweden at the age of 72, after he had retired from his professorship. The absolute highlight of Staudinger’s life and work, which had been devoted to basic research, the theoretical foundations for his field, combined with untiring experimental work which took him from Worms, where he was born, to the chemical laboratory at Freiburg University, where he spent much of his life as director for twenty-five years. More than 500 different publications under his name are a reflection of the meticulous nature of Staudinger’s scientific work. Six universities (Mainz, Turin, Salamanca, Karlsruhe, Zurich and Strasbourg) awarded him honorary doctorates, while he was an honorary member of countless scientific associations as well.
Plenty left for biographers to investigate
Staudinger has remained largely unknown outside the academic community, however. A fate that he shares with other pioneers in the plastics chemistry field – even those who were originally famous for their inventions but were soon forgotten in spite of the success of their creations: who still associates nylon with Wallace Hume Carothers (1896-1937), PVC with Fritz Klatte (1880-1934) or Plexiglas / Perspex with Otto Röhm (1876-1939)? The winner of the 1953 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was never really a celebrity, although he did not try to avoid the limelight, as we will see later on. To this day, no biographer has written a detailed, historically accurate description of his life either, to go alongside Staudinger’s “Arbeitserinnerungen”, which appeared in 1961 (see References) – neither has his life been put in its historical context nor has light been shed on his character and personality on the basis of this. This is particularly surprising, because Staudinger’s scientific and political activities happened during the most turbulent decades of recent history, influenced by sudden paradigm shifts and regime changes and – above all – shaken by two World Wars. German Empire, Weimar Republic, Nazi dictatorship, Post-War Germany: upheavals in government and society affect the scientific community too – including chemists, who are said to have little interest in politics. Positions had to be adopted – particularly by holders of prominent functions: accepting or rejecting the status quo, opportunistic and flexible or confrontation. Unlike others in his field, Staudinger did not retreat into an ivory tower in his role as a basic research scientist; instead of this, he expressed his opinions on issues that had nothing to do with his scientific field when he considered this necessary and it did not seem to him to be acceptable to remain silent.