Othmer, Donald

caption Donald Othmer as a young man. (Source: Chemical Heritage Foundation)

Donald Othmer (1904–1995), co-editor of the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, held more than 150 U.S. and foreign patents, most of which he obtained while working as a full-time professor of chemical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York (formerly Brooklyn Polytechnic).

Othmer's high school teachers in solid geometry and chemistry alerted him to the then new field of chemical engineering. From Central High School in Omaha, Nebraska, he went to the Armour Institute in Chicago (now Illinois Institute of Technology), the University of Nebraska, and the University of Michigan. With a Michigan doctorate in chemical engineering in hand, he went to work for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, which was then converting to the production of "safety" film—cellulose acetate—instead of the dangerously explosive cellulose nitrate. While working out the problems of acetic acid recovery from the acetate-making process, Othmer invented a basic laboratory device, the "Othmer still," for the simple and precise determination of vapor–liquid equilibrium data. It is used in industry worldwide and is also commonly found in physical chemistry teaching laboratories. When the Depression forced a slowdown in Kodak's expansion, Othmer decided to run his own business as an independent consultant, until lean economic times made selling patent rights an increasingly problematic activity.

caption Donald Othmer, with a gold-plated Othmer still in the background. (Source: Chemical Heritage Foundation)

In 1932 Othmer joined the Brooklyn Polytechnic faculty, a position that provided him economic stability. There he collaborated on the Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology with Raymond Kirk, a colleague in the chemistry department. Othmer continued to devise process innovations and patent them, commonly following up topics introduced by his students, who were often already working in the chemical industry but taking classes in the evenings or weekends to complete academic degrees. Othmer's patents cover methods, processes, and equipment for the manufacture and processing of chemicals, solvents, synthetic fibers, acetic acid, and methanol. He long advocated using methanol as a fuel for motor vehicles because it contains fewer pollutants and in the long run is more plentiful than gasoline. Other projects included providing potable water through desalinization plants and improving the processing of domestic and industrial sewage. Vacations and summers found Othmer traveling worldwide to advise on the installation of his various patented processes.

Donald Othmer and his wife, Mildred, donated generously over the years to support medical care facilities and institutions devoted to chemistry and chemical engineering.

Further Reading



Foundation, C. (2008). Othmer, Donald. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/155079


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