Hermann Staudinger (1881-1965)

Hermann Staudinger was a German chemist known for his pioneering work in polymer chemistry. He was born in 1881 in Worms, Germany, the son of a philosophy professor influenced by socialism and pacifism. Initially he intended to become a botanist, but was encouraged by his father to incorporate some chemistry into his botanical studies at the universities of Halle, Darmstadt and Munich. This became his main interest, and he studied for a PhD in chemistry in 1903 at the University of Halle.

Staudinger then took up a position as a lecturer at the University of Strasbourg in 1907, where he discovered ketenes, which would later prove useful in the development of antibiotics such as penicillin. Later that year he was also appointed Professor of Organic Chemistry at the Technical University of Karlsruhe. In 1912 he moved to Switzerland to become a professor of chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. There, in 1919, he discovered what is known as the Staudinger reaction, the chemical reaction between azides and phosphines or phosphites.

It was also from Switzerland that he criticised Germany’s involvement in the First World War and the chemist Fritz Haber’s development of gas warfare. In 1926 he returned to Germany to take up a job at the University of Freiburg, forcing him to renounce this opposition.

From his time at Karlsruhe onwards, Staudinger began researching polymers, initially synthetic rubber. In 1920 he introduced the concept of macromolecules in opposition to the idea of micelles, small molecules gathered together in colloids. He believed that polymers and other large molecules really were very long chains held together by normal covalent bonds. Though his ideas were rejected at first, further evidence emerged from the mid-1920s onwards to support his theory.

Staudinger lost his job at the university after his colleague the philosopher Heidegger leaked information to the Nazis concerning his pacifist views during the First World War. He was also denied funding to purchase much-needed instruments. After the war he took up the study of biomolecules.

He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1953 for his ground-breaking macromolecular discoveries, which paved the way for the production of plastics and synthetic materials. Staudinger died in 1965 in Freiburg.