Good Chemistry

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Fall 2017


By the time Izaak Maurits Kolthoff passed from life in his 100th year in 1993, he had built a career as distinguished as any professor who donned a cap and gown at the University of Minnesota. Beginning in 1927, when he first arrived in Minneapolis to assume a research post in the chemistry department, Kolthoff published almost a thousand scientific papers, textbooks that became standards in analytic chemistry, and wrote and edited a monumental treatise—30 volumes—on the same subject. He was the taproot of a magnificent family tree of chemists that branched out across the country. He advised 50 Ph.D.s-in-training in his years at Minnesota, who in turned spawned some 1,100 other chemistry teachers.

In addition, Kolthoff received honors and accolades by the fistfuls. He was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, one of just two U of M professors so honored at the time. He was dubbed a knight by his home country of the Netherlands. He received the prestigious William H. Nichols Medal of the American Chemical Society and the Robert Boyle Medal from the Royal Society of Chemistry in Great Britain. He was the first recipient of the American Chemical Society’s excellence in teaching award, an honor that thrilled him as much or more than any of his awards for scientific research. He held honorary doctorates from a half-dozen different universities around the world. In 1972, the University of Minnesota named a brand new chemistry building for him across from Coffman Memorial Union. Just about the only honor that eluded him was a Nobel Prize—and many griped that he should have received one. Instead, he would have to settle for an unofficial title: the Father of Modern Analytical Chemistry.

For all his acclaim, Kolthoff was by all accounts a remarkably humble and gracious man, a fixture and an institution on campus. He kept an office adjacent to the Campus Club in Coffman and an apartment on the upper floors of the Union. There he entertained and instructed former students, fellow professors, and other visitors over long lunches that would drift deep into the afternoon and were only terminated, according to U of M chemistry professor Peter Carr, so Kolthoff could catch 4:30 reruns of Hogan’s Heroes on the television in his apartment.

Born in Holland in 1894, Kolthoff showed an early proclivity for chemistry. When he was a teenage boy, his mother mistakenly added sodium carbonate to the chicken soup she was cooking. Izaak neutralized the soda by adding hydrochloric acid until, after testing with a strip of handy litmus paper, the soup read pink, whereupon dinner was served.

At Utrecht University, Kolthoff initially studied pharmacy to avoid strict classical language requirements demanded of doctoral students in chemistry. His teacher was Nicholas Schoorl, a skilled professor who emphasized both the fundamental principles of chemistry and the need to confirm them by experiment. From these years, Kolthoff developed a maxim that became his oft-repeated motto and would guide his research and teaching throughout his long life: Theory guides, experiment decides.

He began his professional career teaching and researching at Utrecht University, publishing his first paper in 1915. Over the next dozen years, Kolthoff published more than 200 more research articles with an emphasis on various forms of titration—a technique where a solution of known concentration is used to determine the concentration of an unknown solution.

In 1924, with his career already well established in Holland, he was asked to go on a lecture tour in the United States. While on that trip, he made the acquaintance of a number of American chemists at universities in Michigan, Ohio, and New York, and three years later, when the University of Minnesota chemistry department sent out feelers in search of a researcher to strengthen its graduate program, Kolthoff’s name came up. Chemistry department head S.C. Lind sent Kolthoff a cable asking if he might be interested in a yearlong appointment. Kolthoff agreed, and in the fall of 1927 began his long career at the U.

The subsequent 35-year span of his teaching was far from preordained. Though the University was trying to build its graduate programs and had immense respect for European doctoral education—most of the department had Ph.D.s from European universities, including Lind, who earned his doctorate in Paris— the number of actual Europeans teaching at the U of M was minimal. “They had had bad experiences with a Scandinavian professor in the medical school, who couldn’t get used, I suppose, to the fact that the people who did the common work [at the University] would be treated politely, as human beings and not in a haughty way,” Kolthoff explained in a 1983 interview. “Anyhow the President [Lotus Coffman] didn’t want another European coming.”

Kolthoff hedged his bet by maintaining ties with the University of Utrecht after accepting the post in Minneapolis. He quickly came to the conclusion, however, that as far as his research was concerned, “Minnesota was an El Dorado.” Teaching loads were relatively light and the school seemed to be teeming with able and eager grad students.

During the tumultuous 1930s, when European scientists were fleeing the oppressions of Nazi Germany, Kolthoff worked with the Rockefeller Foundation and Ross Gortner, a U of M professor in agricultural biochemistry, to assist and help relocate a number of European scientists who were being persecuted for their faith or work. During World War II, Kolthoff was recruited for the war effort to help with a vexing problem. The United States was cut off from its greatest source of natural rubber, which primarily came from Southeast Asia and was a much-needed tool of industrial and military production and transport. Scientists were given the urgent task of either finding new sources of rubber in the Western Hemisphere or creating synthetic rubber. Kolthoff, working in collaboration with researchers at Minnesota and across the country, is credited with helping develop one of the crucial chemical processes, known as “cold process,” that made large-scale production of synthetic rubber possible.

“During the war it was quite evident (especially in the latter stages) that we were engaged in a very scientific war,” Kolthoff would later tell an interviewer. “The country that lagged behind in research would certainly come out second best. This point of view was equally true after the war, and various branches of the armed forces started to make funds available for what we might call ‘pure research.’”

Kolthoff applauded the funding that came from this governmental interest in science and research and made concerted postwar efforts to boost science education in the U.S. He also encouraged educational exchange programs between Moscow State University and the University of Minnesota and made a couple of trips to the Soviet Union at the height of Cold War to promote such endeavors, which he felt could not help but foster the sort of scientific collaborations that would ultimately cool tensions in this new and highly volatile nuclear age.

A lifelong pacifist who joined in several highprofile protests against right-wing causes, Kolthoff ran afoul of Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 1950s. Though never called to Washington or brought before HUAC to testify, he was one of a group of humanists and scientists whose activities fighting the McCarran Internal Security Act put them under scrutiny. Also known as the Subversive Activities Control Act, it strengthened laws against espionage, allowed investigation and deportation of immigrants who were suspected of subversive activities or of promoting communism or fascism, and allowed the limitation of free speech for national security reasons. (In 1993, the United States Supreme Court ruled sections of the act unconstitutional.)

Kolthoff and others especially objected to provisions in the law that would allow the government to establish concentration camps, severely restrict immigration to this country, and deport foreign-born citizens who had dabbled in communist activities. In 1951, HUAC listed him as being a member of one of 31 subversive organizations in an article in American Mercury magazine entitled “Reds in American Universities.” His sole companion on the list from the state of Minnesota was the president of the American Presbyterian Church. Kolthoff also supported efforts to pardon Morton Sobell, the only scientist from the Manhattan Project convicted of espionage in the famed Ethel and Julius Rosenberg case of 1951.

A University-mandated age requirement forced Kolthoff’s retirement in 1962, but he continued to do research, write articles, work on that ever-expanding Treatise on Analytical Chemistry, and entertain with grace and charisma a stream of former students and their students who would come to glean the pearls of his still cogent thinking. A lifelong bachelor, slight and bald, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and speaking with lingering evidence of his Dutch upbringing, Kolthoff remained a fixture on campus for 30 years after his retirement.

In 2014, just over 20 years after his death, the American Chemical Society dedicated a plaque in his honor at Smith Hall on the campus of the University of Minnesota. It reads in part: “Izaak Maurits Kolthoff (1894-1993) is widely regarded as the father of modern analytical chemistry. His research transformed the ways by which scientists separate, identify, and quantify chemical substances and built the field upon solid theoretical principles and experimental techniques. Today, analytical chemistry is an essential branch of chemistry used in disciplines ranging from clinical medicine to environmental studies, forensics, food and drug safety, and other fields.”

Not a bad legacy for the unassuming man who can still be imagined holding court in the Campus Club dining room before rushing off to watch Hogan’s Heroes.


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