He was … one of the grandfathers of polymer chemistry, and he started the first polymer graduate work in America. There was no such thing at the time…
~ Professor Herbert Morawetz on Dr. Herman Mark
This Father’s Day, NYU Tandon School of Engineering is commemorating one our institution’s greatest father figures, Herman F. Mark, founding director of the Polymer Research Institute and a groundbreaking figure in the study of polymers.
As an Austrian and the son of a Jewish man, Mark was forced to flee Germany in 1938 in order to escape Hitler’s impending takeover. His lengthy journey eventually took him to the United States, where he accepted a position in 1942 as an adjunct professor of chemistry at what was then known as the Polytechnic Institute.
Having studied and taught chemistry at the University of Vienna, as well as having worked on the molecular structures of fibers at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Germany, Mark was well-prepared for the role. It was here in Brooklyn, however, that he was able to implement a revolutionary new curriculum on polymer chemistry and subsequently, in 1946, found the Polymer Research Institute.
The study of synthetic polymers was at its infant stage in America when Mark formed the Institute. As late as the early 20th century, many of the world’s most prominent chemists resisted the concept of macromolecules. Today, thanks to Mark’s research and influence, scientists have a vast understanding of polymers. (These are extremely important substances made of giant molecules formed by uniting simple molecules, or monomers, by covalent bonds.) Polymers have high molecular weights, which give them useful characteristics such as high viscosity, elasticity, and great strength. It is through the study of polymers that innovative fibers such as polyester, spandex, and Kevlar were later developed. The Institute became world-renowned, drawing students and postdoctoral fellows from around the globe. In addition to creating the Institute, Mark also founded the first American polymer journal, the Journal of Polymer Science, in 1946.
Deeply involved in the lives of his colleagues and students, he possessed an exceptionally amicable personality. Notable chemist Harry C. Wechsler once wrote of him, “A loose but vibrant polymer community was being forged at Brooklyn Poly, a ‘family’ of polymer scientists of diverse history and from many lands. At its head, or more accurately pulsing at its heart, was, of course, Herman Mark, the Geheimrat.” (The nickname referred to a high-ranking court official and implied pomposity, and peers attached it to the warm and decidedly unpompous Mark ironically and affectionately.)
Mark died in 1992 with a number of accolades to his name, including the National Medal of Science and the Wolf Prize in Chemistry.
His contribution to science lives on, and in 2003, the Polymer Research Institute was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society.