Mittasch, Alwin

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(b. Grossdehsa, Germany, 27 December 1869; d. Heidelberg, Germany. 4 June 1953)

physical chemistry.

Mittasch was a leading authority on contact catalsis. As head of catalytic research for the Badische Anilin- und Soda-Fabrik (BASF) he guided the research that led to inexpensive, durable compound catalysts for the Haber-Bosch synthetic ammonia process, the Ostwald process for oxidation of ammonia to nitric acid, the water gas reaction, and various hydrogenations in the gas phase. His career and private life were singularly untroubled, touched only marginally by the military and political upheavals through which he lived.

The fourth of the six children of a village schoolmaster, Mittasch grew up happily in Wendish Saxony. For lack of money the boy was sent to a teacher-training school instead of a university. At nineteen Mittasch began teaching in a rural grade school. Three years later, in 1892, he secured an appointment to a city school in Leipzig. Here he soon attended public lectures at the university, being particularly drawn to those of Ostwald on energy relations in chemical systems. He resolved to become a middle school science teacher, but as his undergraduate studies progressed, and with Ostwald’s encouragement, he determined to become a physical chemist. After seven years of university studies (in addition to full-time teaching), Mittasch advanced to doctoral candidacy. His thesis under Max Bodenstein, on the kinetics and catalytic aspects of nickel carbonyl formation and decomposition, led directly to a career in catalytic chemistry.

After short interludes as Ostwald’s assistant and then as analyst in a lead and zinc fabricating company, he was hired by the BASF in 1904. Here Mittasch assisted Carl Bosch in seeking an industrial process for fixing nitrogen via cyanides or nitrides. This work was abandoned in 1909 in favor of the commercially more promising Haber ammonia synthesis directly from nitrogen and hydrogen. However, the experience that he had just gained helped Mittasch in seeking a cheaper catalyst than Haber’s osmium. Assuming that in the Haber process the metal catalyst briefly forms a nitride intermediate and remembering that nitride formation occurs best in the presence of certain stable oxides, Mittasch directed an exhaustive search that led not only to an optimal, cheap catalyst of iron, aluminum, and potassium oxides, but also to much knowledge about catalyst poisons and activators. His discovery of the utility of compounded catalysts formed the basis of a massive research program he directed at the BASF for the next two decades. Besides the catalysts for important industrial processes his research yielded much data on high pressure and temperature reactions in the gaseous phase. He became particularly impressed by the manner in which the selection of a specific catalytic mixture can favor the yield of a desired compound while inhibiting the formation of other possible products.

After his retirement in 1934, he made this last observation the basis of an elaborate philosophy of causality, about which he wrote two books and several articles. Much better received by critics than these often abstruse writings were his scholarly and extensive publications on the history of catalysis.


I. Original Works. Mittasch wrote some twenty-one books, which include Von Davy und Döbereiner his Deacon, ein Halbes Jahrhudert grenzfläschenkatalyse (Berlin, 1932), with Erich Theis; Julius Robert Mayer’s Kausalbegriff (Berlin, 1940); Geschichte der Amoniaksynthese (Weinheim, 1951); Wilhelm Ostwalds Auflösungstheorie (Heidelberg, 1951); and Friedrich Nietzsche als Naturphilosoph (Stuttgart, 1952).

Mittasdfs numerous patents and technical articles and much else that he published can be located through the Chemisches Zentralblatt and Chemical Abstracts. His published speeches, books, book reviews, and articles of a historical, philosophical, and broader scientific nature are listed in an “Autobibliography” on pp. 747–759 of his book Von der Chemie zur Philosophie (Ulm, 1948); a supplement covering 1948–1953 is provided at the close of the obituary written by Karl Holdermann,“Alwin Mittasch in Memoriam,” in Chemische Berichte, 90 (1957), LIV The archive of the BASF reports that it holds some of Mittasch’s correspondence and other papers of minor historical significance. There is also an unpublished autobiography, Chronik meines Lebens, the location of which is unknown.

II. Secondary Literature. Several obituaries and tributes are listed in the bibliography by Karl Holdermann. There are others at the BASF archives. In addition there is a chapter on “Alwin Mittasch,” by Alfred von Nagel, in Ludwigshafener Chemiker, I (Dusseldorf, 1958), 137–170.

See also Eduard Farber,“From Chemistry to Philosophy: The Way of Atwin Mittasch (1869–1953);” in Chymia, 11 (1966), 157–178.

John J. Beer

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