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Michael Szwarc

Michael Szwarc, F.R.S (1909-2000)

Szwarc, 91, was born in Poland in 1909. After initial studies at the Warsaw Polytechnic Institute, he emigrated to what is now Israel in 1935. He earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1945 from Hebrew University in Israel, and where he had been an assistant since 1935. He was a lecturer at the University of Manchester, England from 1947 to 1952 and earned a D.Sc. in physical chemistry there in 1949.

He joined the faculty of the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, as Professor of Physical and Polymer Chemistry in 1952.  In 1964 he was awarded a Distingished Professorship by the State University of New York and in 1967 he founded and became the first director of the SUNY Polymer Research Center. In 1970 Michael received the American Chemical Society Award in Polymer Chemistry. He became Professor, Emeritus in 1980.

Szwarc discovered living polymerization, a reaction that allows the resultant polymers to maintain chain-end reactivity even after completion of the reaction (Nature, 178:1168-69, 1956). This advance allows the synthesis of polymers with controlled molecular weights, and with functional groups placed at particular positions in the polymer chain. An example of an "end-functionalized polymer"--created by a living polymerization reaction--is the liquid rubbers used in some industrial applications. Before Szwarc's discovery, this precise control of polymer synthesis was impossible, creating a serious obstacle to the development of advanced polymeric materials.

After his retirement in 1979, he joined the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute at USC. In 1990, Michael received the American Chemical Society Herman F. Mark Division of Polymer Chemistry Award.

Michael received  the Kyoto Prize for advanced technology in 1991 in recognition of his  fundamental contributions to polymer science. This award is often described as the Japanese Nobel Prize.  The citation credited Szwarc with "paving the way for new functional materials with indispensable applications in advanced technology, and providing many scientists and engineers . . . with significant and unprecedented methodologies for the design and synthesis of new polymeric materials." Although no longer actively involved in research at the time of receiving the award, he continued writing articles and books on ionic polymerization until shortly before his death.

Professor Szwarc also made fundamental contributions to the development of "block polymers," in which two or more different polymer chains are connected to each other through chemical bonds by the sequential addition of monomers to living polymers. This has led to the manufacture of a variety of unique polymeric materials, such as thermoplastic elastomers.

Michael is survived by his wife, 2 daughters, and a son.  Said Prof. Richard Stein, U. Massachusetts, "Michael was indeed a pioneer in polymer chemistry, who shall be remembered for promoting the concept of "living polymers" and elucidating the mechanism of anionic polymerization.  Those of you who knew him will remember his wit, strong personality, and intellectual strength."

He will be missed.

From the Abstract of Michael's Kyoto Award Lecture

My introduction to polymer chemistry and the discovery of living polymers were the results of unexpected events. Undoubtedly, I was lucky. However, here is a point deserving stressing. The harder one works the more luck one gets. This should be remembered, especially by young people. Another point is worthy of emphasis. Unexpected events happen quite often. It is important to note them and to realize their significance. Then there is another problem. Should we investigate the unexpected phenomenon or should we leave it, perhaps keep it in mind, and continue with our previously planned work. This decision is crucial. To follow every unexpected event may lead to a chase of wild geese. One may spend time and effort on insignificant problems. On the other hand, a gold mine may be missed by not pursuing the new opening. There are no rules that guide one's decision. It helps to understand the phenomenon and to use one's intelligence and intuition. These problems are general. They are encountered in ordinary life as well as in research and their proper judgment is often vital.

Some Books By Michael Szwarc

  • Carbanions, Living Polymers, and Electron Transfer Processes 
  • Ions and Ion Pairs in ChemistryVols I and II , 1972, 1974 Wiley Interscience, NY ISBN 0-471-84307-5
  • Symposium on Ions and Ion Pairs and Their Role in Chemical Reactions, 1979, Pergamon Press, 
  • Ionic Polymerization and Living Polymers 1993 (co-auther M. v. Beylen) Chapman & Hall; ISBN: 0412036614 
  • Ionic Polymerization Fundamentals (With Foreword by Nobel Laureate Goerge A. Olah)  1996, Hanser Gardner Pubns; ISBN: 1569902070 

Page created  8/4/2000; last modified 2/23/2011
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W.T. Winter  <wtwinter@syr.edu>