Scientific genius and hard-working businessman
These two gifts, which are seldom found in harmony, are combined in Karl Ziegler. He refused many millions due to him from his patents and made them available to science.
Karl Ziegler was Director of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut (later: Max-Planck-Institut) für Kohlenforschung (coal research) from 1943 to 1969. At the Institute, numerous important inventions of the modern age were made, from the famous Fischer-Tropsch synthesis to the basic method for manufacturing biologically degradable washing powder. This Max Planck Institute benefited for decades from the multi-million Ziegler Fund into which Karl Ziegler had invested the bounty from his patents. This gift made the Institute financially independent for years. The Max Planck Institute and the town of Mülheim owe the construction of the Institute building on Kahlenberg, complete with library, laboratory tower block, pilot plants and high-pressure workshops, to the existence of this fund.
Karl Ziegler was a tireless researcher and inventor. He became world-famous with his discovery of low-pressure polyethylene for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1963. This invention led to a dramatic development in the industrial production of polyethylene and polypropylene as affordable and versatile polymers. As economically attractive and environmentally friendly plastics, they are used in diverse applications and today they make up over half of all organic plastic materials of which around 200 million tons are produced every year worldwide.
This discovery from the year 1953 also acted as the initial driving force behind the development of metal organic complex catalysis, so-called homogeneous catalysis with soluble metal compounds. Today, it is one of the most significant and most innovative areas of chemistry, and of the utmost economic and technical importance in the synthesis of organic chemicals in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.
The significance of Ziegler's discoveries is proved by the material value of the patents alone which amounted to around 40 million deutschmarks. However, before Karl Ziegler was able to harvest the financial fruits of his labour, he had to defend his patent applications in a legal dispute with the Italian Montecatini Group that lasted for decades. The US Patent Office finally recognized the priority of Ziegler's claim.
On his 70th birthday, Karl Ziegler set up the Ziegler Fund. In doing so, he waived the revenues from his patents and licences, which had grown to an appreciable sum over the course of 16 years, and donated them to the Institute. Two years later, he also set up the Ziegler Foundation with a capital base of 4 million DM.
In addition, Karl Ziegler and his wife Maria bequeathed an important collection of paintings of 20th century art to the town of Mülheim. Unsurprisingly, Karl Ziegler was an honorary citizen of the town — one of many honours which ranged from honorary doctorates to the Grand Order of Merit with Star and shoulder ribbon of the Federal Republic of Germany to membership in the "Pour le Mérite" Order for science and the arts through to Honorary Chief of the Ponca Indians, one of the Sioux tribes! On his many trips around the world, he was received by many crowned heads, even by the Japanese Tenno.
The name of Karl Ziegler and his reputation live on to this day. The scientific secondary school in Mülheim bears his name, the eponymous Karl-Ziegler Foundation is sited with the German Chemical Society which awards the Karl Ziegler Prize endowed with 50,000 Euros as well as the Karl Ziegler Sponsorship Award. His bust is to be found — together with other Nobel Prize winners from the Max Planck Society — in the entrance hall of Max Planck Administrative Headquarters in Munich.