Donald Othmer

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Donald Othmer
Donald and Mildred Othmer Wedding Photo 1950.TIF
Donald and Mildred Othmer, 1950
Born (1904-05-11)May 11, 1904
Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.
Died November 1, 1995(1995-11-01) (aged 91)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality American
Alma mater University of Nebraska-Lincoln (B.S., Chemical Engineering, 1924)
University of Michigan (M.S., Chemical Engineering, 1925; Ph.D., Chemical Engineering, 1927)
Awards Chemical Pioneer Award (1977)
Perkin Medal (1978)
E. V. Murphree Award (1978)
Scientific career
Institutions Eastman Kodak, Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, Polytechnic University

Donald Frederick Othmer (May 11, 1904 – November 1, 1995)[1][2] was an American professor of chemical engineering, an inventor, multi-millionaire and philanthropist, whose most famous work is the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology.

Early life and education[edit]

Othmer was born in Omaha, Nebraska on May 11, 1904. He attended Omaha Central High School, then gained a scholarship to the chemical engineering program at Armour Institute of Technology (now Illinois Institute of Technology), in Chicago. However, he changed to the University of Nebraska, graduating in 1924 in Chemical Engineering. He completed a Masters at the University of Michigan in 1925 and completed a PhD thesis entitled "The effect of temperature, purity and temperature drop on the rate of condensation of steam" at the same university in 1927.

Professional life[edit]

From 1927 to 1931 he worked as an engineer at the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York, producing 40 patents. In 1932 he joined the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn as an instructor in the newly independent Department of Chemical Engineering. He was to remain there. In 1937 he became Head of Department, which continued until 1961, when he was named Distinguished Professor. His duties ended in 1976 when he was made Professor Emeritus, but he never officially retired and was actively involved with what was by then the Polytechnic University until his death on November 1, 1995.

In 1950, following a divorce, he married his second wife, Mildred Jane Topp, also from Omaha, and an English major from the University of Nebraska. They were together for 45 years and she died in 1998.


He was a teacher for nearly 60 years, supervising many masters and doctoral students. While an academic, he continued to invent, and is credited with more than 150 US patents,[3] as well as 350 papers, including important ones on the theory and practice of distillation.

In 1945, together with Dr. Raymond Eller Kirk (1890–1957), a chemist at the same institute, he began the work which became the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, a major reference work. (At that time the only comparable reference work was Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, in German.) In 1947 the first volume was published, and it was completed in 1949. The fifth edition was completed in 2007 with 27 volumes.

For this and other achievements he received awards from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Chemists and the Society of Chemical Industry. In 1987 he received the New York City Mayor’s Award of Honor for Science and Technology. He was named by the readers of Chemical and Engineering News as one of the 75 greatest chemical scientists ever.

Beginning with a $25,000 investment in a Warren Buffett partnership in the early sixties, the Othmers accumulated a substantial stake in Berkshire Hathaway. At the time of Mildred Othmer's death, their estate totaled more than $750 million, much of which was disbursed in major bequests.[4] These included Polytechnic University, Long Island College Hospital, Brooklyn, the University of Nebraska and the Chemical Heritage Foundation, resulting in the Othmer Library of Chemical History.[5] A major bequest was made to Planned Parenthood of New York, resulting in the Othmer Institute.

He and his wife had supported many other causes in their lifetimes, particularly in the fields of local history, medical care and institutions related to chemistry and chemical engineering. They are commemorated by buildings and awards including the AIChE Sophomore Academic Excellence Award.

Things named after Donald Othmer[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ "C&EN's Top 75". Chemical and Engineering News. January 12, 1998. Retrieved 1 July 2013. 
  2. ^ "Donald F. Othmer Dies at 91; Acclaimed Chemical Engineer". The New York Times. November 3, 1995. p. D-22. 
  3. ^ "Donald F. Othmer". Chemical Heritage Foundation. Retrieved 1 July 2013. 
  4. ^ Arenson, Karen W. (July 13, 1998). "Staggering Bequests by Unassuming Couple". The New York Times. Archived from the original on January 17, 2001. 
  5. ^ Quinones Miller, Karen E. (July 14, 1988). "Chemistry Foundation Here Finds Element Of Surprise A Professor Left It Millions". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 2008-10-22. 
  6. ^ R. Katzen (1992) Chemical Engineering Communications vol 116 issue 1, pages 31-33 "The Othmer Still - the foundation of all other advances in distillation"

External links[edit]