Black and white photo of George Olah

Former faculty member, Nobel Laureate George Olah passes away

Nobel Laureate George Olah, a professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry here during the 1960s and ‘70s, died last week at his home in California. He was 89.

Originally from Budapest, Hungary, Olah fled the country with his family during a Soviet military crackdown in 1956. Olah and his family moved to Canada, where he worked at Dow Chemical. After a brief time at Dow’s Eastern Research Laboratories in Massachusetts, he accepted a faculty position at what was then Western Reserve University.

Olah was on campus from 1965-77, and guided the merger of the chemistry departments of the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University after the two institutions agreed to federation in 1967.

“He helped build one of the best departments in the country, recognized by the international community,” said Gheorghe Mateescu, professor emeritus of chemistry and a former colleague of Olah’s. “It was a wonderful atmosphere, created around his personality: severe and demanding, but extremely honest and friendly.”

Olah later moved on to the University of Southern California, where, at the time of his death, he was the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Distinguished Professor of Organic Chemistry.

In 1994, Olah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work with superacids and carbocations, a class of carbon-containing molecules that were believed to be too short-lived to study. Olah developed a way to increase their lifespan, allowing him to make observations of their structure and behavior. From there, he discovered that carbon atoms can act in unexpected ways.

His work led to more effective oil refining and better ways to produce less-polluting gas.

“George Olah’s contributions to chemistry were both unique and essential,” Mateescu said.