00:00:00TSELOS: [...] This is George Tselos at the University of Minnesota Campus Club
interviewing Dr. Izaak M. Kolthoff on March 15, 1984. We're going to talk today
with Dr. Kolthoff about a number of aspects of his career both as a scientist
and as a person involved in public affairs. I'd like to start, Dr. Kolthoff,
00:01:00with some background about your family and your early upbringing. Who were your
parents and what did they do? What sort of an early family life did you have?
KOLTHOFF: There is relatively little to say about my parents. In one sense
though, there is quite a bit to say about my dad, who was a businessman. I came
from a part of Holland that you might call the center of the textile industry.
00:02:00My father was an agent for several British companies. He was a middleman. His
main personal interest was Jewish affairs. He was probably the most orthodox Jew
that could be found in Europe or any other part of the world.
As a matter of fact, by the time that I had grown up, he didn't carry a
handkerchief any more on the Sabbath day. He put it around his middle. This is
one thing that I've always remembered. My mother, on the other hand, was not the
00:03:00slightest bit interested in this sort of thing. True, she kept very kosher; she
would not cheat in that matter. Yet, she was completely free of any religious
feelings. To please my dad she might go to synagogue on Saturdays.
TSELOS: Did you have any brothers or sisters?
KOLTHOFF: One brother and one sister.
TSELOS: Were they older or younger?
KOLTHOFF: I was the youngest. One brother died before I was born, so I never
TSELOS: What were your parents' attitudes towards your education? Did they want
you to go into a particular line of work from an early age, or did they let you
follow your own inclinations?
00:04:00KOLTHOFF: No, I did what all the other kids did. First there was kindergarten.
There's where I got my name, Pietje. A friend of mine from those days would
always say, "Hey, Pietje, tell me what is going on," or something like that.
None of my other friends knew me by the nickname Piet. Most of my family
accepted its usage. My dad refused to use it, however. The name became known
around here the first year that I came here because of Willie Lindsay. You know
00:05:00him. He was professor in the School of Music, and knew German quite well. He was
not very shy as far as reading other people's mail was concerned. In the old
Campus Club he would look at the mail and say, "There's a card for you and your
mother writes 'Liebig Piet'." That's how the name Piet was introduced here.
After kindergarten I went through the regular school where at about the age of
ten I was taught French--the universal language in those days. I took three
00:06:00years of French before I went to high school. There I took five years of French
. This is the only language that I flunked when in high school. The quality of
teaching in the high schools of Holland was subpar. I think that it is even
worse in the United States today.
You probably want to ask me about how I got interested in science in general and
in physics and chemistry in particular. I don't know why I got interested in
chemistry. It's awfully hard to say why you do get interested in something.
00:07:00Nevertheless, I did get interested when I was fourteen, I guess, and took three
years of chemistry. Anyway, my chemistry teacher was a character and would have
been better as a lecturer or professor at a university. He had his Ph.D. in
chemistry and he really didn't care whether his students cheated or not. He
always assigned problems and then he went through the class to get answers.
00:08:00During my last two years in high school he taught quite a few of the more
advanced scientific topics. None of my teachers needed to take education
courses; they knew how to teach their subjects.
TSELOS: Were you also attending a Jewish school while you were in elementary and
KOLTHOFF: No. I do recall, however, that before school started I would go to the
synagogue at 7:00 in the morning, and then rush home at 7:30 because school
started at 8:00. In those days I was as orthodox as my dad. Later, when I was a
student, it occurred to me that I really didn't know what I was praying about.
00:09:00Even though I could translate the prayers, which were all said in Hebrew, and
even though I said them correctly and my voice was even better than a cantor's,
I started to think, during my student days, that the prayers didn't make any
sense to me. I was not conservative or religious, or whatever you want to call
it, and so I changed. Doing this hurt my father immensely because my brother and
00:10:00sister, who were older, had already pulled free from the Jewish religion. And so
had my mother. It was very clear that she did things only to please my dad.
TSELOS: So you did not remain actively Orthodox after that point?
KOLTHOFF: No. No. It was one or the other. I still remember with pleasure the
jealousy of my friends on Jewish holidays when I went to high school. They were
all terribly jealous that I didn't have to go to school.
00:11:00I bring this matter up because I rarely experienced anti-Semitism. Of course, it
exists also in Holland as well as elsewhere. But in my own personal life, it's
hardly affected me at all. I still recall when Willie Lindsay dragged me into
social life here. I visited a leading society lady, Mrs. Pillsbury, for the
first time. She and I happened to be alone for a while. It was not a
00:12:00particularly nice occurrence. She must have been told that I was Jewish because
she told me that she was an anti-Semite. You don't forget these things, you
know. The first thing that I said was, "If you think I feel extremely flattered
to be invited by Mrs. Pillsbury, I have to disappoint you." I also said, "Maybe
when we know each other better we may like each other." We later became very
good friends, you know. I got a very lovely letter from her on my ninetieth
birthday. I said that what interests me is why you are an anti-Semite. She
answered, "Because Jews sell things under the market price." I told her that I
00:13:00can't argue with you on that because it's not my field at all. (I don't know
whether you want me to tell you things of this nature; it's all very personal.)
TSELOS: Well, I think that you've treated one topic about which I have an
interest, the development of your religious views. I was wondering whether you
were looking toward a scientific career when you left high school. Had you
decided that you would pursue a scientific career at the time you went on to university?
KOLTHOFF: Well, I don't think I had given any thought to the future. I was
interested in chemistry. I wanted to study chemistry, but the law in Holland
00:14:00made it a difficult thing to do. The kind of high school I went to concentrated
on modern languages. We had to take a final exam in French, German, and English.
We had to submit a list of twenty books we had read in each of these languages.
The Gymnasium stressed a classical education. We spent much less time on the
sciences. By the way, I think that the system in place now that allows students
00:15:00to take this subject and not take that subject has made their education much
less sound than ours was.
In my young days, you could get a diploma from the high school at the end of the
third year. At that time, about sixty or seventy percent of the students left
school and obtained a job. We started the first year of high school with between
fifty and sixty students and ended up the last year with twelve or thirteen
students. It was really quite an education.
As you undoubtedly have read or heard, the law was changed in 1918--the year
that I was able to get a Ph.D. Otherwise I wouldn't have gotten a Ph.D. The new
00:16:00law recognized that the old way was outdated. It was the same as in Germany. I
don't know how it was in England; I know very little about the situation in England.
The American university setup is completely different from that in Europe, which
is classical. What impressed me very much when I first came here and learned a
little more about American universities was that education towards a bachelor's
degree really was intended to educate young people to become useful citizens.
That qualification didn't play any role at all in the classical universities
00:17:00where undergraduate education was simply the bridge you had to cross in order to
go on to advanced studies. After attending college for two or three years, you
took examinations, and if you passed those exams, you got something comparable
to a bachelor's degree here. The next stage was not called graduate school, but
graduate education was and is comparable to graduate school.
TSELOS: I recall that your first degree was in pharmacy.
KOLTHOFF: Yes, it was. Pharmacy and medicine were taught in the classical
university because there was no other place where it could be done. They
certainly needed the pharmacists and the M.D.'s. They did not take what was
called the classical examination, however. It was the same examination, but it
00:18:00was a state and not a University examination. This was kind of silly. I finished
in 1915, I think, but I had been doing quite a bit of scientific research in the
meanwhile. I had published by then several papers. I didn't work for the Ph.D.
at that time because I couldn't get that degree. We knew in 1917 that the law
was going to be changed in 1918. So, I got my degree in 1918 when it was
changed. I had an advantage because my teacher had a background similar to mine
00:19:00but had also taken the classical examination and had then gotten his education
with van't Hoff, the famous chemist from Amsterdam.
I'm changing the subject completely now, but my teacher, [Nicholaas] Schoorl,
noticed my interest in what I was doing. He never suspected that I might be
impatient, for example, when washing my filter before I made a gravimetric
determination. It was the first thing the student had to do and I recall that I
got a high result. We could cheat because we knew what we were supposed to get.
I never did that; rather I reported whatever I found. But I also remember when I
00:20:00washed the filter that I never waited until all the water was gone. So, when I
got a high result Schoorl referred me to a paper in the Journal of the American
Chemical Society of 1912 where they described the word
coprecipitation. In 1936 [Ernest] Sandell and I
published a book and we referred to that same paper.
When I learned about coprecipitation I got interested in it.
Very soon after we did those gravimetric experiments, we started with volumetric
00:21:00analysis. We used a burette and made titrations. There were only a few
indicators in those days, and I didn't understand that you used an indicator,
like methyl orange, for the titration of a strong acid, but for a weak acid you
use phenolphthalein. I recall that my teacher referred me to a paper he had
written in 1904 in the Dutch Chemical Weekly. I didn't
understand a word of it, so I had to go back to the very beginning.
In those days my teacher would encourage me by making available whatever
00:22:00instruments he could afford to get. That was not always possible until about
1915. In 1915 he got a beautiful new laboratory that was connected through a
corridor with the chemistry lab called the van't Hoff Laboratory.
Ernst Cohen was a favorite pupil of van't Hoff and he headed the chemistry lab.
Cohen wrote the most outstanding book on van't Hoff in German; he wrote
perfectly flawless in German as well as in Dutch. But
he looked down terribly on people who studied pharmacy; he considered them as
laymen in chemistry. So, it happened, I think it was in 1917, that I published
several papers, one of which enabled one to make a fairly good guess about what
00:23:00the dissolved solids would be through the electrical
conductance. In order to write an acceptable paper I
had to do quite a few experiments by mixing things up and seeing what the
In connection with my remark about Ernst Cohen. We were connected through a
corridor with the chemistry lab. I could walk into that lab at any time. At that
time, the man who had the same position as I had in those days in pharmacy was
very helpful to me in several ways. He gave me advice and so on. Anyhow, after I
published that paper on electrical conductance, Ernst Cohen told his students
00:24:00not to read it. He said that it's all nonsense and there is nothing any good in
it. Immediately after the lecture was over, a whole gang of students came and
told me what he had said.
I was furious, of course, and went over to speak with him, but very politely.
"Professor," I said, "I understand that you disagree with me." Well, he had to
admit finally that he hadn't read my paper very carefully. Yet, he was convinced
that it couldn't be any good. I told him that at the least I expected that he
would correct himself at his next lecture and tell his students the truth. I
forget now what else I said. I was pretty mad. Cohen went to my boss, Schoorl,
and said that I had been pretty rude to him.
00:25:00Schoorl called me into his office because at the time he was acting as my
professor again. I still recall that I said to Cohen, "Cohen, you're verrecken."
That is a phrase that you can't translate, but it's similar in meaning to the
phrase the Hitlerites used about the Jews, "Juden verrecke". It is a mean thing
to say. But in Dutch it didn't have the same connotation as it had in German.
Anyhow, Schoorl was mad at me again, "You can't talk about a professor that way.
You go and apologize." I said, "No, I'm not going to apologize." He said, "Well,
he can do you more harm than good." He said that because in 1924 the faculty had
00:26:00to approve my becoming a lecturer in electrometrics. At the time a lecturer was
called a "privatdocent." You didn't get a penny's salary, being a privatdocent,
although you could require the student who wanted to take the course to pay a
fee. I refused to charge a fee because I was sure I wouldn't get a single
student that way.
I'm jumping now a little from one topic to another because I'm going to speak
about how I developed an interest in visiting the United States. in 1924. In
1923 [Charles] Foulk, a professor at Ohio State University who had been working
00:27:00with the famous Wilhelm Ostwald, visited me and said, "Why don't you come and
make a lecture tour in the States?" That's where the idea began. I don't want to
go into a more personal matter concerning a relationship with a woman that made
me quite upset. My old boss Schoorl said, "Why don't you get away for a few
months and make that lecture tour and get over your feelings." I never visited
Minnesota during that trip.
TSELOS: Did Cohen ever retract his criticism?
KOLTHOFF: Several years later, when I went to say goodbye to him because I was
00:28:00leaving for the States, he told me, "Kolthoff, you may remember the Dutch have a
very good name in the United States and you can easily spoil it." I've never
forgotten that. I've told this to some of the people who know Ernst Cohen. I saw
him every summer before the war, when I used to visit Holland. I always thought
of my position here as a temporary one. I came for a year. Even though the
position was made a permanent one after one year, I almost went back to
Amsterdam to stay in 1931.
TSELOS: Well, from what you've said it would seem that your interest in
00:29:00analytical chemistry really developed from the fact that there was so little
explanation for the analytical techniques that were being used at the time and
that it was really an undeveloped field in many ways. Would that be correct?
KOLTHOFF: Yes, it was purely empirical. We used Autenrieth's book, I
believe. But even the old Treadwell book, best known
for analytical chemistry, gave only the procedures.
You do this and you do that. You weigh, you dissolve, etc. It did not explain.
00:30:00As I mentioned before, when I showed interest in the explanations of things, my
old boss would refer me to the literature.
He was a first-class scientist, but he published very little after he became
professor because he had a strong social concern. Consider that all the people
who became directors of food and drug laboratories in Holland had the same
education that I had in analytical chemistry.
00:31:00[END OF AUDIO FILE 1.1]
It is difficult to say how I became interested in chemistry. I had enough
interest during the first year that I took chemistry, or had to take chemistry
in high school. I made myself a laboratory under the sink in the kitchen of our
00:32:00home. And, of course, I was particularly attracted to making things that had a
nice color. It was really more like playing than having a great scientific
interest. I happened to be interested in the chemistry that we got in high
school and did something for which the students here, for example, would get
expelled. That happened many years ago when we were being taught how to make
gunpowder. I got myself a good eczema by showing that the gunpowder really
worked. I don't think that they teach students how to make gunpowder anymore
00:33:00because the temptation for them to play with it is too great.
[untranscribed material, 32:55 – 33:40] TSELOS: You mentioned that your professor in Holland had a strong social
00:34:00concern--that many of his students went to work for the government checking for
adulterated food and this sort of thing. Did he talk much about the social
responsibility of using scientific knowledge?
KOLTHOFF: No, I don't think it ever came up in any of his lectures. Quite
simply, the courses were given and we were strongly advised to take those
courses. He became the chairman of the faculty committee that dealt with food
He was a very hard worker, but at the same time he was a real sportsman. We went
00:35:00horseback riding together, swimming together, and soon rowing together. He even
had a sailboat. I would go sailing with him on the Zuider Zee, which is now a
lake. Of course, I learned then to know him much better as a person. He was
always very modest. When he was to receive a high decoration from the Dutch
Queen he told me, "I'm not going to accept it." I advised him differently. I
said, "You'll make matters much worse if you don't accept it because then
everyone will know that you have been offered it. So, you might as well take it."
00:36:00TSELOS: Did you have any contact yourself with Ostwald or any of the people that
we had inquired about?
KOLTHOFF: No, I never met Wilhelm Ostwald, although he is responsible for my
interest in analytical chemistry. In 1912 I went to a book sale and bought ten
books for fifty cents. One of the books, which Herb Laitinen now has, was by
Ostwald, "The Scientific Foundations of Analytical Chemistry."
Ostwald wrote at the beginning of that book that
00:37:00analytical chemists are the maidservants of other chemists. This made quite an
impression upon me because I didn't want to become a maidservant. Ostwald's book
greatly affected my interest in the scientific aspects of analytical chemistry.
I would later criticize Ostwald's book pretty severely because, strangely
enough, Ostwald didn't mention any of Nernst's work. [Walther] Nernst was a
famous electrochemist, who did important electrochemical work, a completely
classical piece of work, right in Ostwald's lab.
Whether Ostwald was jealous or not, I don't know.
00:38:00Ostwald has written quite a number of books on the history of chemistry and the
history of inorganic chemistry. He was quite an outstanding man on the whole. He
even won the Nobel Prize [in 1909]. You may ask me what did he do, what was his
own contribution to chemistry? Well, writing all of those books is quite a
contribution in itself.
I guess that the second person responsible for my interest in analytical
00:39:00chemistry was Schoorl, my teacher. I want to talk to you about him because I can
say many interesting things about him. In 1915, for example, during the first
World War, the temperature in the lab was not permitted to get higher than
fifteen degrees centigrade. The authorities would be furious if the temperature
got higher. That was pretty chilly, less than sixty degrees Fahrenheit.
TSELOS: That would be cold to work in!
KOLTHOFF: Well, it was necessary because there was not enough fuel in the
country. As a matter of fact, there was not enough fuel because they sold too
00:40:00much to the Germans. There was a great shortage in Germany and the Dutch
profited greatly from it.
Sorensen, a Dane with Carlsberg Laboratories near Copenhagen, had written a long
paper in 1909 in which he introduced the concept of
pH. He had written it first in Danish, I guess, but
then published the paper in the Biochemische Zeitschrift in German. He prepared
00:41:00the first set of what we call buffer solutions, that is solutions of known pH.
They were used for years and years until an American biochemist, Beverly Clarke,
made a new set. Quite generally, they are still being used today. Sorenson also
wrote in detail about how you could determine the pH with indicators and also
electrometrically. Sorenson got particularly interested in the things that I
wrote about indicators and I recall that he came to Holland in 1917. I didn't
see much of him, because my boss felt pretty good about having a famous man like
00:42:00Sorenson visiting. My boss had a nice office, beautiful chairs and everything. I
saw Sorenson for only a few minutes--well, maybe we talked a little bit longer.
After the first World War, there was a great deal of hatred toward Germany in
countries like Belgium, Britain, and so on, which had suffered. This hatred was
also reflected in the scientific organizations. So, because the Dutch had not
been in the First World War, they organized the first postwar chemical
00:43:00conference in 1921 in Utrecht, where my alma mater is. I think that is where a
meeting of the IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) was
held. I met several people there including Niels Bjerrum, whom I got to know
better after I came to this country. I was invited once to give a talk to a
group of Scandinavian chemists. In those days, when you gave a lecture here in
America you couldn't just start; first you had to tell a funny story. I made
00:44:00mistakes on that score, but anyhow, when I talked to that group, Niels Bjerrum
was chairman and he introduced me. After I had finished my lecture he said,
"Well, you people all found out Kolthoff is Americanized now because he starts
by telling stories." He had also learned about this introductory habit by giving
lectures here. It really was expected that you tell a funny story. That was Bjerrum.
I'd like to mention Joel Hildebrand. In 1949 when I got the Nichols Medal, I
mentioned quite a few people from whom I had learned so much. I referred to Joel
00:45:00Hildebrand as one of my early teachers. In 1912 or 1913, my boss, Schoorl,
referred me to a paper written by Joel Hildebrand, who had gotten his Ph.D. in
Europe like most of the outstanding American chemists in those
days. I learned from that paper. Analytical Chemistry
mentioned in an article, however, that I had referred to Hildebrand as I did
because he wrote me a letter in 1949 that stated, "You found gold where others
have only found dust." Anyway, Hildebrand's paper,
00:46:00the pH paper, was a classic. All of this leads me back again to Nernst.
I never met Nernst personally, but he was Herr Geheimrat Nernst. In Germany,
this is the highest title that one can get. He felt that way. I recall a meeting
of the Deutsche Chemische Gesellschaft in 1924. The chairman introduced Nernst
and quite a number of other speakers. The meeting started at 8:00 o'clock and
every speaker had twenty minutes at most. Nernst, however spoke on and on and
on, and nobody dared to interrupt him. The next speaker was [Kasimir] Fajans,
00:47:00who in the Hitler period came over from Munich to Michigan. You wanted to talk
about that anyhow. The chairman said to Fajans, "Will you please think of your
time, you have only so much time." Fajans replied, "I will not speak as long as
the Herr Geheimrat has done!" Funny the dumb things that stick with you in your life!
At that time I met Huckel of the Debye-Huckel theory. Huckel was a student of
Debye, who was Dutch. Debye was ten years older than I. He won the Nobel Prize,
00:48:00but not because he was rightfully famous. Peter Debye was a very faithful
Catholic. In 1912 he taught for a year in Holland, but the older professors made
things difficult for him. He had a good sense for teaching. I recall that the
students who took his lectures were very excited. He had never had a billiard
cue in his hand, but he taught them all of the laws of collision. There was
tremendous interest then in knowing how to play billiards. Anyhow, because he
couldn't get along with the older professors he went to Germany. He came to
America just before the start of the Second World War and went to Cornell University.
TSELOS: I was surprised that he was able to leave Germany easily in 1940. That
00:49:00was my impression, that he left in 1940.
KOLTHOFF: Yes. He left in 1940. I still have his letter. It was written in
Dutch, of course. What should he do about his citizenship? He had remained a
Dutch subject while he was in Germany. He had used it for quite a number of
years. What should he do with it? You don't have to do anything except take out
your first papers. You have to wait five years before you can take out your
00:50:00This might interest you. Ed Meehan can tell you what kind of teacher Debye was.
When Ed and I ran the show for the Office of Rubber Reserve, Debye had developed
an optical method to determine particle size. We wanted to learn that method so
we decided to visit Debye. Because Ed's field included optics, he went to visit
Debye one day before I did. I thought that since it's his field he would pick it
up better than I. When I arrived at Debye's place Debye said to Ed, "You explain
the method to Kolthoff. I explained it to you yesterday." Debye had to admit
(reluctantly) that Ed had explained it very well. He had nothing to add to it!
00:51:00No kidding! Funny how those things stick with you. Debye was very impressed.
TSELOS: One of the things that I wanted to discuss with you was whether you had
been at all involved in consulting work or any kind of chemical work that had a
direct application to industrial concerns while you were still in Europe.
KOLTHOFF: No. I never was, at least not until the rubber situation--but that was
00:52:00toward the end of the Second World War. We developed a recipe for rubber that
could be made at a much lower temperature than previously. Paul Flory, the man
who got the Nobel Prize and who is now at Stanford, was at Esso in those days,
MEEHAN: He was at Esso and at Cornell.
KOLTHOFF: I know that at one of the meetings we were asked whether we could get
better quality rubber. Flory said that looking for different chemicals wouldn't
help at all, but he made it clear that the temperature used during production
was a major factor. So we developed a kind of process for which Phillips later
00:53:00got the patent. You see anything that has been financed by the government can be
used by anyone within the country. Otherwise, we might have patented it. At that
time I was a kind of consultant. That was the only time when I had been a
consultant to a company. I was more than a consultant to a book publishing
company, Interscience, which sold out to John Wiley. Two people, a Dutchman and
a German, started it in this country [Maurits Dekker and Eric Proskauer]. They
00:54:00got me in as an advisor but they didn't have a penny to pay me. So, I think that
they made me one of the directors when the business improved somewhat.
TSELOS: Prior to World War II and your work on the rubber project, then, you
really were not involved in industrial consulting to any extent?
KOLTHOFF: No. At Phillips I was consulting less than one day a month for only a
couple of years. It may have been four or something like it.
TSELOS: I was wondering how you and Professor N. Howell Furman got together in
the mid-twenties to do the work that you did on potentiometric titrations.
KOLTHOFF: I had been doing considerable work on potentiometric titrations. I
00:55:00recall that in 1924 I had a Czech working for me by the name of Tomiaek. He
later became a professor in Prague. Through Tomiaek I got to know [Jaroslav]
Heyrovsky, the man who developed polarography, receiving a Nobel Prize in 1959.
TSELOS: How did you get together with Furman?
KOLTHOFF: Well, we were interested in that kind of work because in those days,
analytical chemistry was looked down upon as the maidservant of the other
fields. That was still true even in this country when I came here, though the
situation improved here very much earlier than in Europe. Not until the
00:56:00mid-1950s would professors of analytical chemistry be appointed to positions at
bona fide universities. The British were the slowest to do so. I know that in
1953 I gave a talk at Oxford and I forget what comparison I made, but anyhow, I
told them that they were awfully slow at picking things up, etc.
Furman was going to work with me for a year in Utrecht. He and his wife and
daughter actually came over to Utrecht, but before I really started to work with
him I received a cable asking me to come to Minnesota. Furman therefore went to
00:57:00work with [William] Treadwell, a man whose name I mentioned at the very
beginning of the interview. Treadwell's father had written a classical book for
analytical chemistry. Incidentally, Furman's daughter
lives in the Twin Cities. She's married to a biochemist and still calls me Uncle Piet.
The situation in analytical chemistry was very unfavorable in this country when
I came here. I asked colleagues in physical chemistry to help. They did. People
would officially major in physical chemistry and satisfy the requirements of a
minor in my field, but I would be their major advisor. For example, Herb
Laitinen got his major in physical chemistry. This procedure changed
00:58:00considerably at the end of the 1930s.
In those days, a fellow with a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry was used as an
analyst, but not as a scientific analyst in industry. He was not called upon to
solve the real problems; he simply made analyses. That changed considerably.
Treadwell told me that analytical chemistry was viewed by the (international)
IUPAC as a second-rate kind of activity. Analytical chemists then published
papers, but in the old-fashioned way.
I wrote a letter about 1950 to the professor of organic chemistry at Columbia
00:59:00University who happened to be president of the IUPAC [Marston T. Bogert]. I told
him that it is scandalous to have analytical chemistry treated as it is by the
01:00:00International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). I was asked to take
the place of a young chemist who was sick and couldn't attend a meeting of the
IUPAC. A Dutchman was chairman and he asked me kindly to leave because they
didn't consider me to be an analytical chemist. I said, "Gentlemen, I am sorry,
but you need first to talk to Albert Noyes who is the chairman of the group in
Washington and Linus Pauling who is here." I said that I will stay at the
meeting, but if it were agreeable to them I would not return to their meetings.
I couldn't get very much cooperation from either Albert Noyes or Linus Pauling.
01:01:00There was still that feeling that analytical chemistry was not a real science.
For years Albert Noyes was editor of The Journal of the American Chemical
Society, and I was an associate editor. I often mentioned to him that the table
of contents always contained organic chemistry, physical chemistry, and
inorganic chemistry, but no analytical chemistry. Finally, after I distributed a
note about this matter, they put analytical chemistry in the table of contents.
01:02:00[END OF AUDIO FILE 1.2]
01:03:00[5 minute discussion of memory issues not transcribed.]
TSELOS: [Let's talk now about your being accused of being a Communist
sympathizer in the late 1940s and early 1950s.]
01:07:00KOLTHOFF: I remember that John Cowles, who was the big man of Minneapolis
newspapers, sent me a copy of a letter written by Senator Child to James
Morrill. The letter included me in its discussion of "Reds" at the University of
Minnesota. I called John Cowles and said, "John, this is funny. I have just been
talking to the Pentagon and here I get this letter." He asked, "Can I use it?" I
said, "No, I don't want anyone to make excuses for the things I do. You know
me." We usually talked together about twice a year in a general way.
TSELOS: How did you get to know Cowles?
KOLTHOFF: Well, as I told you, I had gotten to know Mrs. Pillsbury. Once you get
acquainted with one person, you get to know the whole group of people with whom
01:08:00she associates. I used to ride horseback regularly with Mrs. Peck. Her husband
was President of Northern States Power Company.
TSELOS: Right. I remember.
KOLTHOFF: Once this matter of the letter got started, I called Gideon Seymour, a
leading man in the newspaper. Cowles was the man with the money, but Seymour
really made a good paper out of the morning paper. I spoke to him about this
matter and he said, "Yes, we'll ask him. I have never refused to have lunch with
anyone and I am tempted to write an editorial about old Senator Child and ask
01:09:00him when he stopped sucking his thumb?" Funny, I can remember this thing very
well because it pleased me no end to hear it. Morrill wrote a letter that I
didn't like and then sent me the copy. He said that I had an international
reputation, but that that had nothing to do with whether I was a Communist or not.
I went to Russia in 1945 with a group of scientists. While there, I met
[Frederic] Joliot-Curie who impressed me very much. He was not in my field at
01:10:00all; he was a physicist. You may recall him. He married one of Marie Curie's
daughters. Well, both he and his wife interested me very much because they were
world citizens. You would not expect this kind of person to be an arch
Communist. But Joliot-Curie became the leader of the French Communists.
01:11:00He later wrote to me asking if I would be willing to be the sponsor of a
meeting? I think that this thing really caused all of the difficulties. The
meeting would be an international one and be held in Oslo or one of the
Scandinavian capitals. I would be a sponsor of it. This occurred after the bomb
had fallen on Japan and scientists were talking about their responsibilities as
human beings. I wrote back saying that I had no objection to being a sponsor.
01:12:00This then appeared in a Communist paper in New York. My name was mentioned and
the paper went into details.
TSELOS: Would it have been the Daily Worker? The Daily Worker was the main
KOLTHOFF: I think so. Anyhow, when I learned of that, I wrote to Joliot-Curie
01:13:00saying that I didn't know that the meeting was Communist-dominated, that I
wouldn't lend my name to it, and that I wanted to talk as a world citizen, not
as a Communist. He apologized in a letter after that meeting had been held. It
didn't matter because I didn't go to the meeting. I had nothing to do with it
whatsoever. My name had been mentioned, however, and that has caused me
continuing difficulty. Joliot-Curie got sick and died relatively soon after.
My reputation was further damaged in the McCarthy days when a man (whose name I
now forget) made a mistake and wrote an article with the title, "Reds in
01:14:00American Universities," for a conservative monthly
magazine. He singled out two of us in Minnesota. One
was the president of a college in St. Paul, I forget. . .
TSELOS: Macalester or Hamline?
KOLTHOFF: I think it was Charles [Charles J. Turck, President of Macalester
College in St. Paul] . . . I knew him superficially and he and I were singled
out. Well, anyhow, when this happened, when that paper was published, I called
01:15:00Charles and said, "My condolences to you." He said, "You don't know how funny
this is. A week ago, I was made President of the Presbyterian Churches in the
United States." That finished that whole story, you know. Nobody took that
article seriously any longer.
TSELOS: As long as we've gotten onto this topic of politics, why don't we
01:16:00continue with it. I think that I'd like to return to the rubber project and a
couple of other things later. One of the things that you had mentioned in one of
your letters was that there was something that you thought should be mentioned
about the House Un-American Activities Committee.
KOLTHOFF: Well, I got a call from the paper after midnight. I was told that I
had been cited to belong to thirty-one subversive organizations and I was asked
for my response. I said, "Well, write in the paper that it is now one o'clock in
01:17:00the morning and that I have to be up and working for the Air Force by nine
o'clock tomorrow morning." I also told them to write in the paper that I had
received grants for scientific work. It had become quite clear during the war
that scientific research was going to play a leading role in the policies of the country.
01:18:00They did indeed publish the story and they mentioned Judy Holliday in
it. I think that she was a movie star?
MEEHAN: She was a movie star, in "Born Yesterday."
KOLTHOFF: Well, they wrote about her and then at the very end of the article
singled me out in Minnesota.
Now, in those days I had called Linus Pauling the day that Khruschev had the
nuclear bomb tested and told him that this was against the international
agreement. After the article appeared I called Linus and said, "I think you
01:19:00should do something about the article because your name was mentioned." He said,
"I have already sent a cable to protest against it." Pauling was exposed and had
real trouble with the thing. I knew Pauling at the time, though not intimately.
We did talk a little more to each other when we were both accused of being
Communists. He never had been a Communist. That is the end of that story.
01:20:00TSELOS: I've read the newspaper article about your ninetieth birthday. It
appeared in February in the Minneapolis papers. It
mentioned that in the 1950s, well, I think it was the 50s, maybe it was later,
that you and former governor Elmer Benson had become sponsors of the effort to
get Morton Sobell released. I was wondering whether this was something on which
you worked actively with former governor Benson or was it simply that the two of
you had signed a petition?
KOLTHOFF: I don't know anything about that. All I know is that one day in
Chicago I attended a luncheon and. . . Who was the man you mentioned, a man's
01:21:00name with whom I would have done something, Sobell?
TSELOS: Sobell, right. He was a friend of the Rosenbergs. He was sentenced to
KOLTHOFF: Well, I know that at that luncheon I heard the man with whom Sobell
had worked. I gave money and afterwards I read about it. The man said, "Well he
is a little bit Communist, just as I am." He said, "I supervised his work and I
know him quite well and this thing is exaggerated. Even the Rosenberg situation.
01:22:00. . " During my horseback riding days, when I used to go to Arizona I met a
Supreme Court Justice, a friend of the people who ran the place. I forgot his
name. It's terrible forgetting names. Anyway, we went riding together. He
complained that the people. . .
TSELOS: Was that Pierce Butler of Minnesota?
KOLTHOFF: No, I never knew him. I was good friends with the Pierce Butler who
was the son of the Justice. He always told me, "Young fellow, young fellow, I'll
go with you to Washington." I would say, "I'll get myself in trouble if I'm
01:23:00being called before McCarthy and told not to do things. I'll tell him a couple
of things that I probably will regret later." He said, "Young fellow, I will go
with you." I said, "I want you to know as much as possible about exactly what I
have been doing so that you know ways that they can attack me, if they want to
attack me now."
The Justice in Arizona was another Justice with whom I did quite a bit of
riding. He was somewhat unhappy because people always introduced him as Supreme
Court Justice so and so. He complained to me about it. We had some drinks
together, so that we could talk a little more personally. I brought up the
Rosenbergs' case. He said he could interpret it only in the following way. "The
01:24:00Communists had given the case to a lawyer who was a Communist because they
wanted to make victims out of the Rosenbergs. To me, this was an injustice. It
still is. I headed a national group to get the verdict reversed, or at least to
get the people to know that it was a murder and that injustice had been done."
01:25:00Again by doing such a thing, one can be labeled a Communist simply because you
send some money, that's all. I don't know whether the Rosenbergs were guilty or
TSELOS: We jumped ahead to the 1950s. I'd like to go back and talk about some
events in the '30s and '40s. One of the things that I was interested in was your
early work at Minnesota with precipitates of various kinds. One of the things we
were interested in was how you came to the idea of incorporating radioisotopes
01:26:00in the solutions.
KOLTHOFF: Well, we were interested in determining what we call the specific
surface of crystals because that played quite a role in the impurities which you
find within the crystals. Otto Hahn, who was the man who split the atom, was one
of the people who had done work with radioactive things. It happened that Dr.
Lind, the man who got me here, had quite a reputation as a nuclear chemist, as
did one of his students, Charlie Rosenblum.
MEEHAN: Yes, I know the name, but I never knew him.
01:27:00KOLTHOFF: That was before your time, I guess. When did you come in?
KOLTHOFF: It must have been awfully close to that time. Oh no, it is earlier
because it was around 1933 that Otto Hahn and Heyrovsky were both here. It was
quite an event for the students to have those two people come here. No, he
started much earlier than I was thinking of. That was when I started to use
radioactive matter to determine the surface and we did this examination which
became quite widely known. We added together at room temperature an inactive
lead solution and a sulfate solution. Various times after the mixing a
radioactive lead solution was added to the suspension of inactive lead sulfate
and the mixture was well shaken. When the lead sulfate suspension was well aged
01:28:00after various recrystallizations and the radioactive isotope was then added to
the suspension the exchange remained limited to the surface of the aged
crystals. The method could be and has been applied in our laboratory to a study
of the extent of perfections of various crystallized precipitates after various
methods of precipitation.
These studies accounted for the empirical methods of "aging" after the
precipitation in the empirical procedures in the outdated cookbook methods of
gravimetric analysis. Quite a few of the students in those days were working
with different kinds of precipitates and using a radioactive method.
Otto Hahn was at Cornell for three months. They still have that position I
01:29:00believe--"foreign lecturer". Coming back again to the nonchemical part, I'll
tell you, they wrote to me from Cornell, "Don't touch any politics with him
because he really explodes." Since I was more or less his host I picked him up
at the railroad station and decided to keep my mouth shut about politics. We
hadn't gone one block when he showed me the cable he got from Max Planck in
1933. "Come back and save whatever can be saved." He never would have shown me
this thing except that he had written me from Cornell. He was violently
01:30:00anti-Hitler. He saw the harm that Hitler was doing to the country by causing all
of the Jewish workers as well as non-Jewish non-Hitlerites to emigrate. Hitler
also caused Debye and quite a few other people to leave.
Every year toward Christmas or New Year's, I used to get a card from Otto Hahn.
He would write it in German. This story is funny. (You might as well include a
few funny things about famous people like Otto Hahn.) Otto Hahn wrote to me
about "how often do I think of 'schoenen and freien Tage' (beautiful and free
01:31:00days) in Minneapolis." What's funny you ask? Oh, I often ask people from abroad,
"Did you have any difficulties when you started teaching in English?" I asked
Hahn this question. He said, "No, I have my students correct me." So, in his
first lecture, he talked about "a-nions" and "cay-tions". The students told him
that that was "an-ions" and "cat-ions". So, that evening while in the faculty
club he ordered his dinner with "onions". They didn't understand that he wanted
onions. I mean that is completely logical. That was the same week that Heyrovsky
01:32:00was here. That was when Jim Lingane decided he would work on polarography for
his doctor's thesis.
TSELOS: That was the next question that I was going to ask you. How did you
begin to study this topic and why did you find this technique to be so fascinating?
KOLTHOFF: Well, as I told you, I got acquainted with Heyrovsky in 1924. I had
01:33:00this Czech friend, Oldrich Tomicek, who became a professor of analytical
chemistry in Prague. Well, may I interrupt this story to say something personal,
and that I didn't use to defend myself against accusations of being a Communist.
After the war I went to Czechoslovakia a couple of times. I was there when their
01:34:00president was buried. What was his name? Masaryk?
TSELOS: This was in 1948, at the time of the coup?
KOLTHOFF: It was after they had become Communist, I guess, after the Communists
had moved in. Well, it really doesn't make much difference. [. . .]
01:35:00[END OF AUDIO FILE 1.3]
TSELOS: We were talking about. . .
KOLTHOFF: Being in Prague at the time that the president was being buried. At
that time before I started a technical talk, I said that Jim Lingane and I had
written a book on polarography in 1939 that was dedicated to Heyrovsky and
contained a footnote with the motto of my university in Holland at
Utrecht. It read: "May the sun of justice shine on
us." I then continued, "I hope that the sun of justice will shine on your people
01:36:00again." You could absolutely hear a pin drop. Only about twenty or twenty-five
people left. I was told that they would have gone to the police to report my
remarks. I was very happy about that; yet, I never have been complimented by all
the people who considered me to be a Communist, for having said that.
TSELOS: During the 1930s you took an active role in assisting the relocation of
01:37:00a number of European scientists to this country. How did you get involved in that?
KOLTHOFF: No, I couldn't tell you; I really don't know. I would think that it
might have been through, you had mentioned him, the biochemist [Ross] Gortner. I
think that it was through Gortner. What I do recall very well is that the
Rockefeller Foundation had said that these European scientists will be an asset
to this country and if so, go ahead and relocate them in this country. They said
that we will pay the universities to take them. We will pay the first year's
salary and half of the salary of the second year, and if they are actually very
01:38:00good, the university should keep and finance them.
TSELOS: But how did you contact the Rockefeller Foundation?
KOLTHOFF: I think that Gortner must have done something.
TSELOS: Oh, I see.
KOLTHOFF: That was a touchy subject and I had to be careful when doing these
things. It was to our advantage to get some of the people like [Herbert] Freundlich.
01:39:00F.G. Donnan, a famous chemist in London, took a liking to me. I was greatly
honored and since I went to Holland every summer, I usually took a ferry across
the North Sea and got off at Southhampton. Donnan said, "I wish you people could
do something about Freundlich." He said, "We have so many refugees that there is
no money available to take care of so many people." So, you understand, I got
Gortner involved again because I did not want to do anything directly with
01:40:00bringing the people over.
Once I got into a terrible quarrel with Gene Ormandy; never talked to him since.
TSELOS: The conductor?
KOLTHOFF: Yes. I lived in our old Campus Club and that was right next to, what
is the name of the concert hall?
MEEHAN: Northrop Auditorium. The building is still there.
KOLTHOFF: The Campus Club was there and while coming out of it I saw Ormandy
coming from rehearsal. I said, "Gene, I want to talk to you." He said, "I am
busy, very busy." I said, "I am busy, too." My famous last words were, "You can
01:41:00go straight to hell!" He would not listen. I said, "Do you know any outstanding
musicians or people who are composers?" All that I got out of him at that time
was "I'm busy, I'm very busy."
TSELOS: When you were at Minnesota, in the 1930s, who were your outstanding
students at that time?
KOLTHOFF: Well, there were quite a few. Jim Lingane, who got a job at Harvard.
01:42:00He's retired now. Herb Laitinen went to Illinois.
MEEHAN: Don't forget Sandell.
KOLTHOFF: Right. Sandell was one of my first students. Who else was there? A
fellow who went to Ohio State University. It must have been quite a number.
01:43:00MEEHAN: There's Henry Yutzy.
KOLTHOFF: Yes. He became a vice president of Eastman Kodak. Pete Carr, I think,
has figured out that more than nine hundred teachers in analytical chemistry
trace their training back to me, so to speak. There's six or seven generations
of them. I think that I had quite a good group, like the man who came from
Harvard. He always remained supersensitive, but he was a very good worker.
01:44:00TSELOS: How did you get involved, in the beginning, in the rubber project? Could you tell me something about the nature of the work? We have talked to [Carl S.] Marvel about this also. We’ve done an interview with Marvel but we wanted to get this from several perspectives. In the aspects of the rubber project that the two of you were working on, were you assigned specific problems? Or were you assigned a general topic and then expected to choose the areas that you wanted to pursue?
KOLTHOFF: Our whole problem was that we simply did not know what the problems
were. No, I am not joking. In the very beginning, I said to Maurice Visscher,
"I'm so damned mad. I'd like to publish that the big companies, Goodyear,
Goodrich, Firestone, all disliked the idea that university people would come in
and stick their noses in their business." We didn't know what the problems were.
You asked what problem? We didn't have a problem. We didn't know the problem.
01:46:00Surely, we could analyze those things and so I recall that Ed Meehan and I went
together to Goodyear and Goodrich and were told, "We want to know the purity of
the standard substances which are being used to make rubber, but there is a
committee working on them already so we don't need you for that."
Without admitting so, they needed us pretty badly because there was one
substance that they needed desperately to know about. One of our men had worked
on that topic particularly. The substance was used in a very small amount, yet
01:47:00it determined whether the rubber would be soft or hard. If that substance was
not used, the rubber would get ebonized. The Japs had taken New Guinea and most
of it was made from. . .
MEEHAN: Coconut oil.
KOLTHOFF: And then it was put in a kind of a shaker so that we could do the same
thing that the plants do when making the rubber. It was not a good rubber, but
at least we could see how the speed of shaking the mixture affected it. It took
quite a while before that was found out. First, we had to get a method to
01:48:00determine how much was present and how that changed during the polymerization.
That became a very major issue. We would then write to the big plants because we
couldn't say whether it was a better rubber or not. They had to test it in a
pilot plant. Finally, it appeared that the shaking was being done much too
intensely and had to be done with considerably less speed.
TSELOS: How long did it take for you to get effective cooperation with the
companies, that is, to find out what they were doing and how what you were
working on related to their production problems? Or did they ever really communicate?
01:49:00KOLTHOFF: Well, every month we had meetings and called together the people who
worked in universities and the chemists from the companies.
MEEHAN: It was a pretty free exchange.
KOLTHOFF: I also think that we knew by that time the problems encountered in
order to get a better-quality rubber. We knew certain technical things and
started working on them. Many of the problems were being discussed at those meetings.
TSELOS: So, once you got in direct communication with industrial chemists, there
was better communication than there was in the beginning when you were just
dealing with the executives?
01:50:00KOLTHOFF: Yes. We became good friends. We had major difficulties to work out in
TSELOS: Did you travel extensively from plant sites in addition to doing your
KOLTHOFF: Ed and I went together at the beginning because . . .
MEEHAN: Yes, I remember visiting several plants.
KOLTHOFF: But, they wouldn't tell us the problems at that time and we didn't
know them. I think that the substance that we spoke about is mercaptan, which
01:51:00was the first really major thing that we did work on. Well, they also wanted to
determine the composition of styrene and polystyrene because these two
substances were also used to form rubber. They wanted to know how much of one to
use and how much of the other. Also how they were affected by temperature, and
how they were affecting other things. Later, I think, they started to appreciate
the cooperation of the academic chemists. You know, that was all secret work.
Don't you remember that Du Pont, I think, used ferricyanide instead of the other
01:52:00oxidizing agent. I think it was Du Pont. Gordon Guss left some secret work on
MEEHAN: That's kind of comical, in that respect. There was a document marked
secret and confidential and he left it in his berth.
KOLTHOFF: That was Guss, wasn't it, Meehan? He died at a young age. He got his
Ph.D. here, too. He went to South Dakota.
TSELOS: What kind of supervision did the government officials exercise over the
project? Was it a matter of simply writing a check and letting you do your work
or did they try to exercise close supervision? I'm wondering about the
relationship between your lab work and government people.
01:53:00KOLTHOFF: No. There was a special office in Washington that. . . What was it called?
TSELOS: Rubber Research or something like that.
KOLTHOFF: I suppose that as long as they got some value for the money, they were satisfied.
MEEHAN: They required a report every month.
TSELOS: The people that you were dealing with, that is on the government side of
it, were they essentially non-scientific administrators?
MEEHAN: Williams was the first one and he was a chemist.
KOLTHOFF: Yes. And Bill, Bill. . .
KOLTHOFF: Well, Bill Baker knows quite a bit about our things in that period. We
became close friends.
TSELOS: Did you feel that the government's pouring these funds into synthetic
rubber research and a number of other areas caused a major and favorable postwar
change in attitude towards government funding of research? Did you notice that?
KOLTHOFF: Definitely, because the three branches of the armed forces, Army and
Navy and Air Force, immediately started making funds available. And they did not
01:55:00have to be for things that they were directly interested in. I'm quite sure
01:56:00about that because I worked for a year or two with the Air Force. [Untranscribed material, 1:55:00 – 1:56:12] It had been recognized that the scientists played a very important role in the war effort.
TSELOS: How much of your research after World War II was devoted to things
related to synthetic rubber? Did any of that continue?
KOLTHOFF: Practically none. We did develop quite a number of interesting
problems from the rubber program that had nothing to do anymore with rubber;
01:57:00induced reactions, for example. Several functions were, at least to me, and I
think to you also, kind of new. Things like micelles and chain transfer
01:58:00agents--those things we could apply in our academic work. It is interesting that
technical scientists would be used to great advantage at the time when the
country would really need to have them go into practical applications. They
never would have started anything in this field or any other field for which
01:59:00there was a shortage. There must have been other fields as well. Research that
Meehan and I had been conducting shows typically how a purely academic thing can
be turned to practical advantage. And not only me, but Speed Marvel. No, I think
that the war has been--the rubber crisis has been--a good example of how
02:00:00scientists would be used by the government to great advantage.
TSELOS: There is a question that comes up here about the relationship between
these political charges against you in the early 1950s and your government work?
Did these charges by people like McCarthy and some of the other people ever
02:01:00affect your security clearance?
KOLTHOFF: Well, I don't know. I often got visited by some government person
asking about trips to Russia, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia. I often got visited by
someone, but it never dawned on me then, as it could now, that they suspected me.
TSELOS: Of course, I suspect many of the visits were simply to get information
from you about your trip, rather than . . .
02:02:00KOLTHOFF: That's the way I always took it. [Untranscribed material, 2:01:40 – 2:03:02]
TSELOS: I was going to ask you a rather general question. Why have almost no
analytical chemists ever been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry? That's one
thing that is rather noticeable as you look over the fields of people who
received the Nobel Prize. I think that you've really gone a long way towards
answering that question in terms of your comments about the longstanding
prejudice against the field.
KOLTHOFF: Well it is not only that, you see. I really think that you must make a
02:04:00big discovery or develop a new technique that will find a very general
application. It has to be something which. . . now, like you have in the medical
field, it is easier there to answer it than in a science field, but it still
must open a new avenue to follow. I don't think that there will be . . . well,
there is an analytical chemist who is a Britisher and got the Nobel Prize.
MEEHAN: Martin, I think.
KOLTHOFF: I think he's the only one, although I don't know if he calls himself
02:05:00an analytical chemist. I should have asked him when I met him once. Another
analytical chemist may win a Nobel Prize if what he develops has broad, general,
and new applications.
MEEHAN: Well, the style is changing now.
TSELOS: You've received quite a number of awards, Nichols, Fisher, Gibbs, and so
02:06:00on. Would you single out any one of these as having been particularly gratifying
to you for certain reasons?
KOLTHOFF: They are all gratifying. It is difficult to answer your question
because I would think that the amount of satisfaction one feels is determined
more by the quality of the group of people who have gotten it over the years.
This determines whether it is an honor to be a member of one group or not. I
would think that people who have received the Gibbs Medal will have gotten a few
02:07:00of the other medals as well. I think that the committees go over the names and
reputations of the candidates very carefully. They have plenty of difficulty in
deciding who to honor.
TSELOS: Thank you very much for your insights and comments about your long and
productive career as an analytical chemist.
[END OF AUDIO FILE 1.4]
[END OF INTERVIEW]