The Polymer Research Institute
Herman Mark was starting over – yet again.
When Mark arrived at the Polytechnic Institute he was assigned to the
Shellac Bureau, under the directorship of William Gardner. Sponsored by
the U.S. Shellac Import Organization, the bureau’s purpose was to
oversee the testing of imports of shellac from Indonesia and India. Those
imports were likely to diminish or be cut off in the near future because
of the threat of war with Japan, so emphasis shifted to searching for
a replacement, either natural or synthetic. Because of his tenure at I.G.
Farben, Mark was familiar with synthetic resins that resembled shellac.
The needs of the Shellac Bureau provided Mark with an opportunity to introduce
the study of polymers into the Institute. In addition, Mark found a faculty
receptive and helpful. Most important was Isidor Fankuchen, a renowned
X-ray crystallographer, Donald Othmer, a chemical engineer, and Harry
Rogers, president of Polytechnic. With the support of Rogers and Raymond
Kirk, head of the chemistry department, Mark began immediately teaching
a course in general polymer chemistry.
Mark’s early years in Brooklyn were war years, and as such he became
involved in a number of military projects that had little to do with polymers.
Much of the research for these projects were done in the basement –
called affectionately “the mines” - of the original Polytechnic
buildings on Livingston Street in Brooklyn.1
Mark‘s first wartime project was to work on the Weasel, an armed
snowmobile intended for use in military action in snow-covered mountains,
such as northern Scandinavia and the Alps. Mark’s assistance was
solicited to test the Weasel because during his years in Vienna Mark had
done some research on heavy water in glaciers in the Alps and the Caucasus.
Along with a colleague form Polytechnic, Turner Alfrey, Mark traveled
to the Canadian Rockies to perform tests on snow and its impact on the
Weasel, research that proved valuable when the vehicle was put into use
in the European War.2
Mark and Alfrey worked on an amphibious landing craft, code-named “Ducq,”
that was even more important for the war effort than the Weasel. They
performed tests at Cape Cod on the effect of wind and waves on the landing
craft before the Ducq was put into mass production.
The third project that Mark worked on was an “ice craft carrier.”
This was an attempt to fashion a solution to the problem created by German
U-boats, which were sinking cargo ships at an alarming rate. Airplanes
could threaten the U-boats, but because of the shortage of aircraft carriers,
there were few places for planes to land in the north Atlantic. The idea
was to use icebergs as landing craft, but to do this a solution to the
brittleness of ice had to be found. Mark’s son Hans worked on this
project as an adolescent and helped discover that wood pulp was the best
substance for strengthening ice. A prototype was built and light aircraft
landed on it, but the increasing steel production for aircraft carriers
and the construction of faster cargo ships made the project unnecessary.
During the war years and right after, Mark was involved in the founding
of the Chaim Weizmann Institute of Scientific Research in Palestine. Weizmann,
who was born in Russia but became a British subject, was a scientist and
ardent Zionist. As a cap to a long and distinguished career, he became
the first president of the independent state of Israel. Prior to that,
in 1942, a number of wealthy Americans and Englishmen agreed to celebrate
Weizmann’s 70th birthday by creating a research institute in his
honor. Mark was enlisted in the project, to which he devoted his customary
enthusiasm. He organized many of the operational functions of the Institute,
and purchased, through Polytech, much of its initial equipment, some of
which was housed for a time in Brooklyn because of the outbreak of war
when Israel gained its independence.3
Simultaneously with the war effort, Mark was working to strengthen polymer
education at “Brooklyn Poly.” In 1942, he became director
of the Shellac Bureau and he used that post to introduce research in synthetic
coatings and polymers. In addition to teaching an introductory course
in polymer chemistry, Mark organized a series of weekly symposia on Saturday
mornings at which leading scientists spoke. These were widely attended,
exposed students at the school to the latest in polymer research, and
served over the years to give polymer education at Brooklyn Polytechnic
international recognition. Mark also organized intensive summer courses
for the study of macromolecular science to which he invited outside university
scholars and industrial researchers. And Mark’s mere presence in
Brooklyn served as a magnet, drawing five professors and sixty graduate
students during the war years to work under him.
In effect, a polymer institute was being created ad hoc at the
Polytechnic Institute. That was the situation when in 1946 Dean Kirk took
Mark into President Rogers office and said “Why don’t we simply
give a name to something that has grown upon us? Let us call it our Institute
of Polymer Research.”4
Mark says Rogers seemed initially excited, but then asked what university
presidents always ask: how much will it cost? Mark replied about $200,000
a year. Rogers was mortified, until Mark added that would be the cost
if they started from scratch, which they were not doing. Instead, the
Institute would be staffed with the school’s professors, the equipment
was already in place, and, Mark said, in essence they would continue to
do what they were doing, just giving it a new name. The only cost would
be a new letterhead with “Polymer Research Institute” on it.5
Mark explained: “By naming it, we gain legitimate recognition without
any expense whatever, aside from those letterheads. We also become known
as a place to which industry can turn for advice and instruction, and
we become the nerve center of polymer science.”6
Mark believed the time was propitious, since polymer chemistry was becoming
a recognized scientific field. An institute devoted to teaching and research
would further that recognition. Moreover, he had experience: it was similar,
though on a much larger scale, to what he had done at the University of
Vienna in the 1930s.
Under Mark’s active leadership, the Polymer Research Institute,
or PRI, grew and attracted many first class scientists to its facilities
in a converted razor blade factory. Mark made PRI a magnet for anyone
in the United States who wanted to study or teach polymer chemistry. Polytech
attracted students and postdoctoral fellows from all over the world, including
Great Britain, India, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union.
Among those who came to study, teach, or do postdoctorals were Turner
Alfrey, Herbert Morawetz, Charles Overberger, Gerald Oster, Murray Goodman,
Paul Doty, Bruno Zimm, Frederick Eirich, Robert Simha, Arthur Tobolsky,
and Eli Pearce. PRI educated undergraduates and graduate students, granting
M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in polymer chemistry.
PRI was not the first institution to teach polymer chemistry in the United
States. Carl “Speed” Marvel, another early giant in the field
of polymer science, taught synthetic polymer chemistry as part of his
organic chemistry courses at the University of Illinois and he trained
about 150 doctoral students in organic polymer chemistry. But Mark’s
program at PRI was different; it stressed all areas of polymer science:
organic chemistry, physical chemistry, and biochemistry as well as industrial
Mark became an indefatigable champion of polymer chemistry in the United
States and around the world; in doing so, he helped enhance the reputation
of the Polymer Research Institute and the growing influence of the Institute
in turn aided the growth of polymer education. As part of this process,
Mark oversaw a number of publications devoted to polymers. His interest
in this area grew out the difficulty of getting the Journal of the
American Chemical Society to accept papers on polymers. The Polymer
Bulletin, which contained mostly reports on work done at PRI, was
launched in 1945. It was well received, so Mark began the Journal
of Polymer Science the following year. In these years Mark also played
a major role in getting the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry
to establish a polymer section. He served as its first chairman and characteristically
welcomed German scientists to attend meetings.8
Mark’s work, and the presence of the Polymer Research Institute,
helped make polymer chemistry an important scientific branch. When Mark
began the Institute, there were only a handful of chemists working with
synthetic polymers at U.S. universities: among them were such important
scientists as Speed Marvel and Paul Flory. But none succeeded in creating
a facility like the Polymer Research Institute. When the Institute was
founded in 1946 there were few polymer chemists in U.S. schools. That
number rose to over 1100 by 1992. Today, many prominent universities either
have polymer institutes or offer polymer programs of some kind.
As Mark said in an interview in 1986, “we [PRI] had our peak in
the late fifties and early sixties. Then many of our best professors went
other places and we shrank.”9
But PRI remained influential, as other universities, including Illinois,
where the impact of Marvel was strong, Case Western Reserve, Massachusetts,
North Carolina State, and Akron, established polymer institutes. In industry,
where DuPont had dominated the field, now Dow, Phillips Petroleum, Rohm
and Haas, Shell, and the major rubber manufacturers developed polymer
programs. Many were started by scientists who had studied or taught at
PRI and all were influenced by the work of Herman Mark in establishing
polymer chemistry in the United States.
Herman Mark may not have been the only impetus for the expansion of polymer
education in the United States, but he clearly played a critical and formative
role. As Norbert Bikales, formerly of the National Science Foundation,
put it, Mark “was an agent of change. He was future oriented until
the end. More than any other person, he was responsible for spreading
the gospel of macromolecules.”10
Telephone interview with Hans Mark, conducted by Judah Ginsberg, June
Mark details work on this and other wartime projects in his autobiography.
Herman Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large: A Century
of Progress, in Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams: Autobiographies
of Eminent Chemists, ed. Jeffrey Seeman (Washington, D.C.: American
Chemical Society, 1993), pp. 96-101.
Interview with Eli Pearce, conducted by Judah Ginsberg, May 27, 2003.
Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large, p. 115.
An excellent account of the origins of the Institute can be found in Morton
Hunt, “Profiles: Polymers Everywhere,” Part one of two parts
in The New Yorker, September 13, 1958.
Quoted in ibid.
Yasu Furukawa, Inventing Polymer Science: Staudinger, Carothers, and
the Emergence of Marcromolecular Chemistry (Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), p. 199.
G. Allan Stahl, “Herman Mark: The Continuing Invastion,” in
G. Allan Stahl, ed., Polymer Science Overview: A Tribute To Herman
F. Mark (Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1981), p. 117.
Mark interview conducted by James Bohning and Jeffrey Sturchio, February
3, March 17, and June 20 1986, The Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry,
Bikales, “Herman Mark’s Children,” in Sheldon Atlas,
Eli Pearce, and F.R. Eirich, eds., Polymers to the Year 200 and Beyond:
A Memorial Symposium for Herman F. Mark (New York: John Wiley &
Sons, 1993), p. 142; see also, C.E. Carraher, “Polymer Education
and the Mark Connection,” in Stahl, ed., Polymer Science Overview,