Chemistry Foundation Here Finds Element Of Surprise A Professor Left It Millions.

Posted: July 14, 1998

In 1982, when the Chemical Heritage Foundation was a fledgling research organization starting out with only $50,000, it asked chemical engineers and experts around the country to serve as advisers on its ``council of friends.''

One of those who accepted the invitation was Donald F. Othmer, a chemical engineering professor at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, an unassuming scholar who originally hailed from Omaha, Neb.

When Othmer died in 1995, he left the foundation - then in West Philadelphia - half of his estate. When his wife, Mildred Topp Othmer, died in April, she left the foundation 4 percent of her estate. They had no children.

All told, it adds up to more than $100 million.

The Chemical Heritage Foundation is fledgling no more.

``We approached him without the slightest idea of his extraordinary resources. He lived very modestly all his life. He took the subway,'' said Arnold Thackray, foundation president.

``But we knew he had a real sense of chemical achievement and the importance of preserving the heritage of chemistry. He appreciated what we were doing.''

Most people in Philadelphia have never heard of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, which is dedicated to documenting, preserving and promoting the history of chemical sciences and chemical processing industries.

It is actually a combination museum and research library for the chemical engineering community. A place where you can find original nylon artifacts made by Wallace Hume Carothers for DuPont in the 1930s or a rare book on water distillation written in the 1830s.

The foundation, with a staff of 32, has 50,000 books, provides fellowships, sponsors workshops and hosts lectures. On Friday , Jari Kirsila, a Finnish science journalist working on a doctorate on the history of applied chemistry in Finland, will speak at a brown bag luncheon at the foundation at 315 Chestnut St. ``Making a Wartime Nobel Laureate: The Case of the 1945 Chemistry Prize'' will be the topic.

``It's not the place to go to find out the structure of DNA,'' said Sharon Dobson, executive president of the American Institute of Chemists. ``But if you want to find information about the scientists who discovered DNA, their background and their prior research studies, then the Chemical Heritage Foundation would be the place to go.''

An inventor and founding editor of the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, Othmer had worked for Eastman Kodak for four years before going to Brooklyn Polytechnic in 1932. In 1950, he wed Mildred Topp - his second marriage and her first. ``Mid,'' as his wife was called, was a former high school teacher and a buyer for her mother's fashion shops in Omaha. After her marriage, she started doing volunteer work for Planned Parenthood and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The Othmers settled down in a three-story townhouse in Brooklyn Heights.

In 1958, Mattie Topp - Othmer's mother-in-law - approached Warren E. Buffett, a friend, about investing the family's money. Buffett is now considered a stock market wizard, but at the time he was just another struggling stockbroker trying to build a clientele. Under his Midas touch, the $50,000 the couple had invested in the early 1960s grew to more than $1.5 million by 1969. In 1988, the Othmers' investments were valued at about $68 million.

That year, Othmer - a collector of chemical history books - sat down and talked to the foundation staff about its future. At that point, four employees worked in a cramped space donated by the University of Pennsylvania.

Othmer told Thackray that he was in the mood, and in the position, to make the foundation a challenge grant. He would donate $6 million to build up its library, provided it came up with matching funds. It did.

Othmer let it be known that the foundation would be taken care of in his will.

It was. When Othmer died in 1995, his estate was worth about $210 million, according to his lawyer, Theodore R. Wagner of New York City, and ``he left the foundation $10 million, a lot of rare books and 50 percent of whatever property he had left over after his estate was settled.''

That added up to about $75 million, which the foundation has already received in the form of an endowment, Thackray said. Some is being used to renovate the foundation's building; the rest will go toward new books, artifacts and programs.

Once Mildred Othmer's estate is settled, the organization expects to receive at least another $25 million.

It is largely because of the Othmers' generosity that the foundation was able in 1996 to move out of its West Philadelphia space and into 315 Chestnut, a five-story historically certified building dating to the Civil War. The building originally housed the First National Bank.

Altogether, the Othmers' estates total almost $800 million. Besides the foundation, other beneficiaries include Polytechnic University, Long Island College Hospital, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

News of the Chemical Heritage Foundation's windfall amused David Othmer, vice president and station manager at WHYY (90.9) and Donald Othmer's first cousin once removed.

``My father [Murray Othmer] and Donald were first cousins, and both were chemical engineers. My father worked in private enterprise because he wanted to make money and Donald went to work for an academic institution because he didn't care about money,'' he said. ``So guess which one winds up rich?''

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