The two lives of Hermann Mark (1895-1992)

At the Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn, Hermann Mark was assigned to what was known as the Shellac Bureau in September 1940. This laboratory, which was funded by the US Shellac Import Organization, was responsible for the control and chemical characterisation of deliveries of shellac when they arrived from India and Indonesia (Mark 1993, 93 and Deichmann 2001, 184). Since imports declined because of the war and the trade routes across the world’s oceans were no longer safe, the head of the Shellac Bureau, William Howlett Gardner (1902-1993) tried to find natural or synthetic substitute materials that the US companies which processed shellac could be supplied reliably. A project for which Hermann Mark was eminently suitable: 

“During my years in Ludwigshafen, I was well informed about synthetic resins with properties similar to and even superior to those of shellac. During my consulting years with I. G. Farben (1932-1938), I had kept up with progress in the field. Several vinyl ester polymers […] together with polyacrylic and polymethacrylic esters […] were close to natural shellac in many respects. Specifically, from 1928 to 1932 we had carried out work on the synthesis, characterization and application of such systems in other units of the company, Farbwerke Hoechst and Wacker Chemie. They had worked out useful copolymers and polyblends, not only for the replacement of shellac but also for the preparation and production of an entire family of soluble resins. […] It was a lucky coincidence that I was able to transfer from Germany to the United States a science and technology that was interesting and valuable for my new employer“ (Mark 1993, 93-94). 

In 1942, Mark was appointed a full professor. Soon afterwards, he received approval from Dean Raymond Kirk (1890-1957) to establish a research centre for polymer chemistry with associated teaching operations at the Polytechnic Institute, “the first graduate programme of this kind at an American university” (Deichmann 2001, 184). As the Polymer Research Institute, it replaced the Shellac Bureau (Mark 1978, 124). “In contrast to other institutes […], which specialised either in the synthesis or the properties of polymers, Mark tried to cover all aspects of polymer chemistry. By bringing physicists, chemists and technicians together, he succeeded […] in establishing modern polymer science as a multidisciplinary branch of academic research” (Deichmann 2001, 184-185) – modelled on the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes and facilities in Germany (Mark 1993, 104). In the “pioneering activities” carried out by the Polymer Research Institute, the research scientists – including some of Mark’s former students from Germany or Austria – concentrated on analysis of the different polymerisation processes (photo, emulsion and suspension polymerisation as well as – later on – solid phase and high-speed polymerisation) and on structural information, molecular weight and viscosity measurements of high polymers (Mark 1978, 123, Mark 1993, 95 and Beneke 2005, 13). 

In Hitler’s Germany, Mark had in the meantime been deprived of his citizenship and he was stripped of his doctorate on 7. November 1944. Astonishingly, two texts written by Mark had succeeded in being published beforehand, in spite of ubiquitous censoring: in 1939, a volume of lectures was published by the Viennese company Franz Deuticke that included Mark’s contribution “Small causes – large effects in the progress made in natural sciences” and in 1940, Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft in Leipzig published the 345-page monograph “General basics of high polymer chemistry”. 

As an exile, Mark had no inhibitions about holding lectures worldwide and maintaining contact with polymer research scientists all over the world, in order “to create an international community of polymer scientists” (Deichmann 2001, 186). During his time in Vienna from 1932 to 1938, he had developed into an international player in the new polymer sciences field, when the Nazis were already in government in Germany. There were strict rules about foreign travel by scientists in Germany, to the detriment of the “father of macromolecular chemistry” too – Hermann Staudinger, who was based in Freiburg im Breisgau and was even subject to a travel ban for years. In the USA, Mark continued to drive the internationalisation of his field: 

“Toward the end of the war […], my main concern was to make the work and our institute internationally known. I planned to initiate and sponsor the founding of similar institutions that would constitute a network of polymer research centers cooperating as closely with each other as the prominent schools of organic chemistry did in Oxford and Munich“ (Mark 1993, 103).

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