Oral history interview with George A. Olah

Oral history interview with George A. Olah

  • 2000-Feb-03

George A. Olah begins the interview with a description of his family and childhood years in Budapest, Hungary. Olah first developed an interest in chemistry after taking a chemistry course at the Technical University of Budapest. While a laboratory assistant at the Zemplen Institute, Olah received his first patent on digoxin under the mentorship of Geza Zemplen, a carbohydrate chemist and former student of Hermann Emil Fischer. With Zemplen's approval, Olah began his work on organofluorine compounds. In 1949, Olah received his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Technical University. That same year, he married Judith Lengyel.

Olah joined the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1954 as the head of the department of organic chemistry and associate scientific director of the Central Research Institute. During a momentary collapse of the Iron Wall in 1956, Olah, his wife, and young son fled Hungary to take refuge with family members in London, England. Finally settling in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada in 1957, Olah became a senior research scientist at the Sarnia laboratory of Dow Chemical Company. Impressed by the work of Christopher Kelk Ingold, Olah turned his research towards Friedel-Crafts reactions, alkylations, and nitrations.

After moving to a Dow facility in Massachusetts, Olah was offered the position of professor and chemistry department chair at Western Reserve University. Shortly after starting at Western Reserve, Olah aided in the coalescence of Western Reserve University and Case Institute of Technology, which now form Case Western Reserve University. Following twelve years of service at Case Western, Olah decided that he wanted to apply his chemistry to the broader area of hydrocarbons, so he accepted an offer from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles as a professor of chemistry and scientific director of the Hydrocarbon Research Institute, which was later named Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute. Olah is currently the director of this institute. Olah concludes the interview with a discussion of the future of environmental chemistry, reflections on winning the 1994 Nobel Prize in chemistry, and thoughts on his family.

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Place of interview
  • 83 pages
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
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  • Science History Institute
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  • Courtesy of Science History Institute
Digitization funder
  • Audio synchronization made possible through the generous funding of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

About the Interviewers

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

James G. Traynham is a professor of chemistry at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. He holds a PhD in organic chemistry from Northwestern University. He joined Louisiana State University in 1953 and served as chemistry department chairperson from 1968 to 1973. He was chairman of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1988 and is currently councilor of the Baton Rouge section of the American Chemical Society. He was a member of the American Chemical Society’s Joint-Board Council on Chemistry and Public Affairs, as well as a member of the Society’s Committees on Science, Chemical Education, and Organic Chemistry Nomenclature. He has written over 90 publications, including a book on organic nomenclature and a book on the history of organic chemistry.

Physical location

Oral history number 0190

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Interviewee biographical information

  • May 22, 1927
  • Budapest, Hungary
  • March 08, 2017
  • Beverly Hills, California, United States


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1945 Budapesti Műszaki Egyetem BS Organic Chemistry
1949 Budapesti Műszaki Egyetem PhD Organic Chemistry

Professional Experience

Budapesti Műszaki Egyetem

  • 1949 to 1954 Assistant Professor to Associate Professor of Organic Chemistry

Magyar Tudományos Akadémia

  • 1954 to 1956 Head of Department of Organic Chemistry and Associate Scientific Director of Central Research Institute

Dow Chemical Company

  • 1957 to 1964 Senior Research Scientist

Case Western Reserve University

  • 1965 to 1967 Professor and Chairman, Department of Chemistry
  • 1967 to 1969 Chairman of Combined Departments of Chemistry
  • 1967 to 1977 C.F. Mabery Distinguished Professor of Research in Chemistry

University of Southern California

  • 1980 to 2001 Distinguished Professor of Chemistry
  • 1983 to 2001 Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Distinguished Professor of Organic Chemistry
  • 1991 to 2001 Director, Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute


Year(s) Award
1964 Award in Petroleum Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1967 Leo H. Baekeland Award
1970 Morley Medal
1972 Fellow, J. S. Guggenheim Foundation
1976 Member, U. S. National Academy of Sciences
1979 Award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1979 Alexander von Humbolt-Stiftung Award for Senior U. S. Scientist
1987 Michelson-Morley Award, Case Western Reserve University
1988 Fellow, J. S. Guggenheim Foundation
1989 California Scientist of the Year Award
1989 Roger Adams Award in Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1990 Honorary Member, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
1992 Richard C. Tolman Award, American Chemical Society, Southern California Section
1993 Chemical Pioneers Award, American Institute of Chemists, Inc.
1993 William Lloyd Evans Award, Ohio State University
1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1995 George Washington Award, American Hungarian Foundation
1996 Cotton Medal, American Chemical Society, Texas A&M University
1996 Kapista Medal, Russian Academy of Natural Sciences
1996 Inventor of the Year Award, New York Intellectual Property Lawyers Association
1996 Award in Petroleum Chemistry renamed George A. Olah Award in Petroleum Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1996 Golden Plate Award, American Academy of Achievement
1997 State Prize of the Republic of Hungary for Contributions to the Fame of Hungary
1999 Golden Medal of Charles University, Prague, Czechoslovakia
1999 Hanus Medal, Czechoslovak Chemical Society
2000 Cope Award, American Chemical Society

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The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

8 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads