Herman Mark to
Herman Mark was born in Vienna in 1895, the son of Herman Carl Mark, a
physician, and Lili Mueller. Mark’s father was a Jew who converted
to Lutheranism upon marriage.
The Vienna of Mark’s youth was an exciting and innovative city:
Arnold Schonberg, Richard Strauss, Anton Bruckner, and Gustav Mahler expanded
the boundaries of music; expressionist painters, such as Oskar Kokoschka
and Egon Schiele, took art in new directions; and Sigmund Freud revolutionized
concepts of the human mind. Many of the great thinkers and artists of
turn-of-the-century Vienna were dinner guests at the Mark home. Other
frequent guests were Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism, and Chaim
Weizmann, a scientist and author who was also a prominent Zionist. Herman
Mark later wrote in his autobiography that “most of my father’s
friends were Jewish.”1
Several early stimuli apparently steered Herman Mark to science. One was
a teacher, Franz Hlawaty, who made mathematics and physics understandable
and “who influenced me greatly to select science for my career.”2
the age of twelve, the lure of science intensified when Mark and a friend,
Gerhardt Kirsch, toured the laboratories of the University of Vienna at
the invitation of Kirsch’s father, who taught science. The visit
excited both boys and before long they turned their bedrooms into laboratories.
Both had access to chemicals through their fathers, and they were soon
Mark graduated high school in 1913 with the intention of going to university
to study science and obtain an advanced degree. But first he had to decide
whether to fulfill his one year of mandatory military service in the Austrian
army before continuing his education or serve after completing his studies.
Mark chose the former course, enlisting as a private in the elite Alpine
infantry. He was stationed in the mountains of South Tyrol, where he found
military life rather agreeable. He became an accomplished mountaineer.
He even found military food passable.
Mark was scheduled to leave military service in the summer of 1914, but
“unfortunately, not only for me and my classmates but for all humanity,
an unexpected terrible event took place.”3
was, of course, the assassination of the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo
and the ensuing spiral of charge and counter-charge, threat and counter-threat,
and troop movements that plunged Europe into world war.
Mark’s one year of service turned into more than five, most of which
he spent on the front line. By his own account, Mark was wounded three
times and received fifteen medals, and at the end of the war, in November
1918, he was captured on the Italian front. Mark later wrote that the
commander of the prisoner of war camp “was very kind and civilized”
and allowed the prisoners books. He learned Italian, French, and English
and a smattering of Spanish, studied a little mathematics and physics,
and organized a course in general chemistry. He eventually was freed and
arrived home in August 1919, almost a year after the war ended.4
Mark then enrolled in the University of Vienna, where he quickly made
up for time lost during the war by completing three semesters a year and
graduating in 1921 with a Ph.D. in chemistry. His mentor was the well-known
organic chemist, Wilhelm Schlenk, who Mark described as “a researcher
of great imagination and, at the same time, an inspiring teacher and educator.”
Mark’s dissertation on the synthesis of pentaphenylethyl dealt with
the new concept of free radicals, about which Mark later wrote: “The
concept of ‘free radicals’ was not known in 1920 – well,
perhaps in politics, but not in chemistry.”5
In 1921 Mark went to the University of Berlin with Schlenk, who succeeded
the Nobelist Emil Fischer. A year later Fritz Haber, discoverer of the
process for synthesizing ammonia and director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute
(now the Max Planck Institute), invited Mark to join the newly organized
Institute for Fiber Research, founded within the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute
for the study of the structure of fibers. Mark and his new wife, the former
Marie (Mimi) Schramek, moved to Berlin-Dahlem to join a talented group
of scientists who were working on the molecular structure of fibers using
the new tools of X-ray diffraction and ultramicroscropy.
X-ray diffraction was in its infancy in the 1920s, but researchers quickly
realized that it would be a valuable tool in the study of crystal structure.
One of Mark’s first assignments at the Fiber Research Institute
was to set up X-ray tubes. He soon became proficient in diffraction studies
and, in his five years in Berlin-Dahlem, Mark became an expert crystallographer.
His name appeared on more than fifty papers on the structure of metals,
organic and inorganic compounds, and polymers.
Linus Pauling learned X-ray diffraction from Mark, and that knowledge
led to Pauling’s seminal work on the structure of proteins.6
and Pauling, who had a lifelong relationship, first met when Mark was
at the Institute for Fiber Research. It was in those years that Mark also
met Albert Einstein, who was a frequent visitor at the Institute. Because
Mark’s laboratory had intense and powerful X-ray tubes, Einstein
asked Mark and his colleagues to verify the “Compton Effect,”
the strongest confirmation yet of Einstein’s light quantum theory
for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. As Mark later wrote, “we
were able to confirm the existence of the wavelength shift observed by
Mark’s work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute brought him into contact
with some of the greatest scientific minds of the age, but by 1926 he
was faced with the choice of becoming a specialist in the X-ray investigation
of solid substances or broadening his inquiries to attempt to draw practical
consequences from his work. For Mark, the resolution to this dilemma appeared
when Kurt Meyer of I.G. Farben offered him the assistant directorship
of research at one of the company’s laboratories. Accordingly, Mark
leapt at the chance “to apply [my] present knowledge of fibers to
the production of improved species and at the same time continue my fundamental
After World War I Farben began to stress the manufacture of cellulose
acetate and viscose and Meyer wanted his researchers to look into improving
the properties of these fibers and to investigate the production of synthetic
fibers. He hired Mark to direct the laboratory at Ludwigschafen in the
study of fibers and films. For his part, Mark was not bashful and demanded
of Meyer certain conditions for employment: a team of organic and physical
chemists and physicists who would study the affect of structure on such
things as rigidity, elasticity, melting point, and water absorption and
an emphasis on the development of new materials.
Mark later commented that in his years at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute
he worked mainly with things such as X-ray tubes and high-voltage equipment
and largely by himself. At Farben he now had to work with people, directing
experiments and explaining to others what to do and how to do it. Though
Mark found some of his new tasks onerous, Farben did allow him to pursue
areas of research that, in his words, “could not possibly contribute
to the business” of the company.9
For example, Farben allowed Mark to add electron diffraction equipment,
the use of which was for scientific purposes only.
In his years at Farben Mark worked on the first serious attempts at the
commercialization of polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, polyvinyl alcohol,
and the first synthetic rubbers, Buna-N and Buna-S. Much attention was
given to cellulose, for which Mark and Meyer suggested a structure by
which all atoms were bound to one another in long chains by primary valence
forces. This concept seemed to be a compromise between the association
theory of molecular interaction and the concept of macromolecules. But
in reality, Mark and Meyer accepted the latter, embracing in part the
work of Hermann Staudinger. In his years at Farben,
Mark published several other papers on cellulose, starch, and sugar, contributing
to the emergence of polymer theory.
Mark helped make Farben a leader in manufacturing and distribution of
new polymers and copolymers. In his six years at Farben, Mark listed eighty
publications, including three books, and seventeen patents. These were
also important years for Mark personally, as he and his wife now felt
financially secure enough to have children. The family, which included
two sons, lived in Mannheim along the Rhine. Hans Mark, born in 1929,
describes the Mark family as “typical central Europeans” and
that in these years “the Jewish assimilation was really going full
But while these may have been heady years for Mark professionally and
personally, he was not oblivious to the looming Nazi threat. In his autobiography
Mark describes that he frequently traveled by train from Mannheim to Frankfurt
with colleagues for business meetings. At the train station each bought
a newspaper, with most taking the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
or the Mannehimer Nachrichten. Mark always bought the Nazi paper,
the Voelkischer Beobachter. When asked why he read “this
miserable newspaper,” Mark replied: “If I want to know what
is happening in Gremany today, I shall read your newspapers, but I want
to learn what will happen in Germany 4 or 5 years from now. Therefore,
I read and believe the Voelkischer Beobachter.”11
In 1932 Mark found out how right he was. That summer he was summoned to
the office of the plant’s managing director, who said to him that
since Hitler would soon take power in Germany, his position as a foreigner
and the son of a Jewish father made Mark vulnerable. Even if Mark were
not dismissed, promotion or advancement was impossible in the future.
Therefore, the director suggested Mark look for another job, “outside
Mark heeded the advice and took a position as professor of physical chemistry
at the University of Vienna, which brought him back to the city where
he grew up. Mark’s stay in Vienna lasted six very successful years
during which he designed a new curriculum in polymer chemistry and continued
research in the field of macromolecules. But it also represented the first
of several instances in the next decade in which Mark had to start over,
both personally and professionally. This discontinuity in his career may
well have prevented Mark from winning even higher accolades in his field
than he achieved.13
Austria was only a temporary haven for Mark. Austrian Nazis became more
and more powerful and they prevented Jewish professors from teaching courses,
burned cars owned by Jews, and engaged in running street battles with
young Socialists. In 1934, Nazis assassinated Engelbert Dollfuss, chancellor
of Austria and Mark’s old war friend. It was in the midst of the
deteriorating political situation that Mark met C.B. Thorne, an official
with the Canadian International Pulp and Paper Company, in Dresden in
September 1937. At the meeting, Thorne offered Mark a position as research
manager with the company in Hawkesbury, Canada, with the goal of modernizing
its production of wood pulp for the purpose of making rayon, cellulose
acetate, and cellophane. Mark replied that he was busy but that he would
try to visit Canada the following year to help reorganize the company’s
Mark wrote in his autobiography that “the word ‘Hawkesbury’
never left my mind and, in fact, in the end, it provided an escape route
In early 1938 Mark began preparing to leave Austria by delegating his
administrative duties to colleagues. At the same time he clandestinely
started to buy platinum wire, which he bent into coat hangers while his
wife knitted covers so that the hangers could be taken out of the country.
Mark’s son Hans estimates that the value of the platinum was roughly
$50,000, a lot of money in the 1930s.15
Hitler’s troops invaded Austria in March and declared the Anschluss,
the political union of Germany and Austria. Mark was quickly arrested,
thrown in a Gestapo prison, and interrogated. He was released with a warning
not to contact anyone Jewish. He was also stripped of his passport. By
then Mark had had enough; he went directly to the Canadian embassy and
cabled Hawkesbury that he was ready to come. He retrieved his passport
by paying a bribe equal to a year’s salary, and he obtained a visa
to enter Canada and transit visas through Switzerland, France, and England.16
At the end of April, Mark and his family mounted a Nazi flag on the radiator
of their car, strapped ski equipment on the roof, and drove across the
border, reaching Zurich the next day. From there, the family traveled
to England via France, and in September Mark, temporarily leaving his
family behind, boarded a boat to Montreal. On board, Mark finished the
English edition of his Physical Chemistry of High Polymers.
It was another example of starting over, this time with a factory that
made paper and wood pulp. In fact, Mark never planned to stay long in
Hawkesbury. His goal was to assist the company in modernizing and then
move to an academic position. By 1939 Mark had accomplished the first
part of the goal, overseeing the purchase of modern instruments and advanced
equipment and training members of the research department in their use.
Feeling his mission in Canada accomplished, Mark eagerly accepted an offer
to become adjunct professor at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in
the fall of 1940.
It is a sign of Mark’s temperament and personality that he held
little anger or contempt for those who forced him out of Austria, or Germany
six years earlier. He would describe the Nazis as “misguided”
and scientists who supported them as “unfortunate.” But he
bore few if any grudges and he was active immediately after the Second
World War in reintegrating German and Austrian scientists into the world
scientific community. He told his son Hans that “I went through
a war that we lost, the Austrians lost, and I can’t be a believer
in collective guilt.”17
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), p. 9. For a fascinating account of growing up in an assimilated
Viennese family in the pre-Hitler years, see George Clare, Last Waltz
in Vienna, London: F.A. Thorpe, 1981.
Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large, p. 8.
Ibid., p. 10.
Ibid., pp 9-10; G. Allan Stahl, “Herman F. Mark: The Early Years,
1895-1926,” in G. Allan Stahl, ed., Polymer Science Overview:
A Tribute To Herman F. Mark (Washington, D.C. American Chemical Society,
1981), pp. 8-11.
Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large, p. 15
Linus Pauling, “Herman F. Mark and the Structure of Crystals,”
in Stahl, ed., Polymer Science Overview, pp. 93-99; Telephone
interview with Hans Mark, conducted by Judah Ginsberg, June 6, 2003.
Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large, p. 31.
Ibid., p. 34.
Ibid., p. 37.
Hans Mark interview; again, see Clare, Last Waltz in Vienna.
Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large, p. 53.
Ibid., p. 62.
I am indebted to Murray Goodman for this insight about starting over and
its affect on Mark’s career. Telephone interview conducted by Judah
Ginsberg, May 29 and 30, 2003. Hans Mark says starting over never bothered
his father, who just rolled with the punches.
Mark, From Small Organic Molecules to Large, p. 85
Hans Mark interview.
Interview with Herbert Morawetz, conducted by Judah Ginsberg, May 27,
Hans Mark interview.