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What is the Donald F. & Mildred Topp Othmer Library of Chemical History?

The Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Donald F. & Mildred Topp Othmer Library of Chemical History collects, preserves, and makes accessible materials relating to the history of science, technology, and medicine, with an emphasis on chemistry and chemical engineering from ancient to modern times. On Saturday, I profiled The John C. Haas Archive of Library & Business, which is an offshoot of the Othmer Library that opened last year, and wrote about the foundation and growth of the Chemical Heritage Foundation (C.H.F.) in Philadelphia.

Founded as the Center for the History of Chemistry in 1982, the CHF is a collections-based non-profit organization that preserves the history and heritage of chemistry, chemical engineering, and related sciences and technologies. The founder and chancellor of the CHF, Arnold Thackray, had the backing of former Rohm & Haas Company Chairman John C. Haas (1918-2011), which led to support from the University of Pennsylvania, the American Chemical Society, DuPont Chairman Edward G. Jefferson (1921-2006), and others.

The Othmer Library has over 150,000 volumes. It houses approximately 160,000 print and microform volumes; rare books and manuscripts, including Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia published in 1687; archival materials; and historical photographs. Together these collections, span nearly six miles of shelves, forming what the CHF believes to be "an unrivaled resource for the history of chemistry and related sciences, technologies, and industries."

The Othmer Library began to collect rare books with acquisitions from The Chemists’ Club. One of Donald F. Othmer’s bequests to the CHF was his personal library.

Purchases of individual books have most notably come through the Sidney M. Edelstein Book Fund. The Othmer Library has also acquired books through other donations and bequests.

In 2004, the Othmer Library became the steward of the Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, a collection of about 6,000 titles dating from the late 15th Century to the early 20th Century. The CHF describes this as "one of the richest, most comprehensive, and most cohesive single deposits of books on the history of chemistry in the world."

An academic who taught at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, Donald Othmer (1904-1995) co-wrote the book on modern chemical engineering, along with Professor Raymond Kirk, The Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology. He was also an inventor who obtained more than 150 patents.

His greatest invention was the Othmer still, which the CHF calls "a simple yet groundbreaking laboratory device for the determination of vapor-liquid equilibrium data." Othmer was a man who liked to do things for himself. He learnt to blow glass so that he could build the Othmer still himself and hand-wrote his own patent applications so as to avoid the standard practice of using lawyers.

Donald Frederick Othmer was born on May 11, 1904, in Omaha, Nebraska, to Frederick and Freda Othmer. At a young age, he became interested in technology and chemistry. In 1921, he received a scholarship that enabled him to attend Chicago’s Armour Institute of Technology (which later merged with Lewis Institute to form the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1940).

He attended classes at the Armour Institute of Technology before he transferred to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1924. He went on to earn both his master’s degree and his doctorate at the University of Michigan.

After he received his doctorate in 1927, Othmer took a job with the Eastman Kodak Company, in Rochester, New York. While there, he began to work for the first time with acetic acid and distillation.

In 1931, he left Eastman Kodak and began to work on his own, in the field of distillation. However, as this was near the beginning of the Great Depression, he found it difficult to find investors in his new distillation processes or stills, he had to seek employment and received two job offers, one at Standard Oil of New Jersey and one at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (now the Polytechnic University).

Othmer perceived he would have more freedom to act as an inventor, consultant, and entrepreneur while teaching than if he worked for a large company. Consequently, in the fall of 1932 he went to work as a professor for the Chemical Engineering Department of Polytechnic University in Brooklyn. He would remain active in this department until his death in 1995. With a side career as a private consultant, Othmer consulted for hundreds of companies, both in the United States and abroad.

According to the CHF, "his most notable contributions to the field of chemical engineering were in the areas of acetic acid recovery, synthetic fibers, desalination, distillation, methanol, wallboard, and sugar refining."

He helped create the technology necessary for the purification and separation of chemicals and for the creation of paint, fresh water, synthetic fiber, plastic, and refined fuel. Othmer gained fame by receiving over 150 patents worldwide for his creation of and improvements in various chemical processes. One of his most notable inventions was the 'Othmer still,' a basic laboratory device for the determination of vapor-liquid equilibrium data that he developed while working out the problems of acetic acid recovery.

Despite his busy schedule of teaching, consulting, writing, traveling, and inventing, Othmer found time to act as an integral member of several chemical societies and organizations, including the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Chemists, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Institute of Consulting Engineers, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He also served as the president of the esteemed Chemists’ Club.

They had already gained the reputation of being magnanimous philanthropists when they were alive. For example, in 1988, they offered a challenge grant to establish the Donald F. and Mildred Topp Othmer Library of Chemical History. Today, Ronald Brashear is the Arnold Thackray Director of the Othmer Library of Chemical History at CHF.

Donald & Mildred Othmer surprised many people when their estate was worth $800,000,000. They had acquired so much wealth through three income streams - commercialization of his inventions, his consulting fees, and his professor's salary - frugal lifestyles, and wise investments.

Donald & Mildred Othmer's bequests to the CHF were the sum of $100,000,000, his books, and his papers. The Donald F. Othmer Papers are in The John C. Haas Archive of Library & Business. The CHF explained how the impact of the bequest transformed the organization.

The bequest made less than a decade... [after the challenge grant] allowed the library to soar to new heights. It also allowed CHF to move from two rooms on the University of Pennsylvania campus to beautiful buildings in the heart of Old City, Philadelphia; to hire experienced archivists, librarians, curators, and researchers; to expand its collections; and to provide physical space and operations for scholars to undertake original research.

The Othmer name is connected to aspects of CHF beyond the Othmer Library. The CHF has formed the Othmer Legacy Society to honor those who are creating a lasting legacy for tomorrow’s generations by including CHF in their estate plans.

The highest honor the CHF bestows is the Othmer Gold Medal. Each year, the CHF, the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, The Chemists’ Club, and the American Section of the Société de Chimie Industrielle present the Othmer Gold Medal to an outstanding individual who has made multifaceted contributions to chemical and scientific heritage.

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