Mark, Herman Francis

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Mark, Herman Francis

b. 3 May 1895 in Vienna, Austria; d. 6 April 1992 in Austin, Texas), chemist known for pioneering work with polymers, important long-chain constituents of plastics and natural substances.

Mark was one of the three children of Herman Carl Mark, a Viennese surgeon, and Lili Mueller. His father was a Jewish convert to Lutheranism, and his mother was a Lutheran. Mark was raised comfortably in Vienna, one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. Mark loved museums, music, and sports, especially soccer, skiing, skating, and mountain climbing. Between 1910 and 1914 he attended seminars and talks at the University of Vienna given by leading scientists, including Albert Einstein, Ernest Rutherford, and Marie Curie—“all of whom,” he remembered, ’made deep and unforgettable impressions on a young mind.’

After enlisting in the armed forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1913, Mark served with distinction on the front lines during World War I, was wounded three times, was captured by the Italians in 1918 and was held prisoner for eleven months. He ended the war the most highly decorated company-grade officer in the Austrian army. Returning to Vienna in 1919 Mark took up the study of chemistry, a field in which he had become interested while recovering from wounds. He earned his Ph.D. degree at the University of Vienna in 1921. He married Marie Schramek on 19 August 1922; they had two children.

After a period of postdoctoral work at the University of Berlin, Mark joined a new research group at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry that was devoted to investigating the nature of fibrous substances such as cellulose, wool, and silk. The great question of the day concerned the molecular nature of such materials: were they made of aggregates of smaller bits and pieces, or did they involve giant molecules (macromolecules) Mark’s work in the late 1920s helped to prove that these natural fibers consisted of enormously lengthy and flexible molecular threads, long chains of atoms with unique properties. In many substances they appeared to be made of identical subunits joined end-to-end; in this case they were called polymers.

At the end of 1926 Mark became a research director for I. G. Farbenindustrie, Germany’s largest chemical corporation. His job was to find ways to make polymer-based commercial products and stronger and more durable materials. Financially secure and happy, Mark spent the next six years furthering his studies. At Farben, Mark gathered a research group that took a multifaceted approach to problems. He used every new technique available, pioneering the application of X-ray diffraction, electron diffraction, and spectroscopy to fiber studies, and bringing together physicists, organic chemists, physical chemists, and chemical engineers to attack problems from many angles. It was a productive approach. The Mark group developed ways to align, stretch, crystallize, and spin long-chain molecules into new forms; for example, they used cellulose as a raw material to create industrial quantities of cellulose acetate (a substitute for silk). Mark discovered ways to create artificial rubber and developed an industrial process for producing polystyrene.

Then came the rise of Nazism. In 1932 Mark was informed by a superior at Farben that because he was Austrian (hence a foreigner) and because his father had been born Jewish, it was unlikely despite his fine work that he would receive promotions or advancement. Mark thanked him for his frank comments and began looking for other jobs. His first step took him back to Vienna, where in the summer of 1932 he began teaching as professor of physical chemistry at the University of Vienna. During the next few years he created the world’s first comprehensive educational program for polymer science, devising the curriculum and writing important textbooks. However, he was once again forced to flee the Nazis. The day after Hitler’s takeover of Austria in March 1938, Mark was arrested, interrogated for several days, and stripped of his passport. It took a year’s salary in bribes to retrieve it. Mark and his family escaped from Vienna to Zurich, then to Canada, where he took a position as head of research for a paper company.

In 1940 Mark accepted a faculty position at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he would remain for the next several decades and retired as dean emeritus in 1990. At Brooklyn he became an influential teacher and continued his productive research. He founded the Polymer Research Institute in 1942 and became its first director. It quickly became a leading world center for research into a field that proved extremely important in postwar development, and which attracted a number of leading scientists. Mark’s research during these years moved polymer science from a descriptive phase, in which the molecular structure of various polymers was discovered and manipulated, into a more theoretical phase, in which he helped to develop methods of predicting the behavior of different polymers. Now his field was moving rapidly, with new plastics, fibers, paints, and other materials the result.

Mark’s influence was changing, too. Rather than doing basic research, he became important as a communicator in the fast-growing field. Many of the valuable advances in polymer research after 1945 were due to Mark’s ability to spread what he called the “polymer gospel.” To help spur worldwide communication he founded the Journal ofPolymer Science; served as editor of the Journal of Applied Polymer Science; and was associate editor of the Journal of Applied Physics, the Journal of Chemical Physics, and the Textile Research Journal. He wrote about twenty books on polymer chemistry as well as more than five hundred articles for journals. He also organized a once-a-month Saturday morning conference on polymers in New York City that attracted hundreds of scientists. His open, friendly, enthusiastic manner made him an ideal proselytizer. Mark died after a short illness in Austin, Texas, where he was living with his son Hans.

The rapid development of polymers, especially plastics and synthetic fibers, in the latter half of the twentieth century had a profound effect on society. Virtually no one in developed nations goes a day without using a device made from or dependent upon these materials. Herman Mark as much as any single person made this possible.

Mark wrote a short autobiography, From Small Organic Molecules to Large: A Century of Progress (1993), published posthumously. Obituaries are in the (London) Independent (18 Apr. 1992) and (London) Times (2 May 1992). An oral history interview with Mark conducted in 1986 can be found at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Thomas Hager