We're now in Switzerland, and the year is 1917. Hermann Staudinger is safe as long as he stays here. He is from Germany originally, but was living and working in Zürich, Switzerland when World War I broke out in 1914. Staudinger has never been the type of person who could be told how to think. Early in the war, many German scientists, including Albert Einstein, signed a document supporting Germany's aggressive actions. Staudinger, on the other hand, wrote articles denouncing Germany's use of poison gas as a battlefield weapon. This has earned him lots of enemies back home in Germany. While on the job as an organic chemist, he is just as independent in his thought, and this will soon earn him even more enemies.
In Germany, the colloid theory is popular for explaining the structure and properties of natural rubber, as well as cellulose, proteins, and starch. These natural materials are called polymers. This is an ancient Greek word that means "many parts." While many German chemists thought polymers were colloids, Staudinger has other ideas.
Staudinger is more in tune with the thinking of Samuel Pickles. But while Pickles has proposed that natural rubber was made from moderately large cyclic molecules, Staudinger took his ideas a step further. So now in 1917, while World War I is still raging and Staudinger is still living in Switzerland, he is starting to promote a different theory. He claims that polymers, including rubber, were made from very long chain-like molecules. He called them macromolecules.
For Staudinger the colloid theory is too complicated. Why can't rubber really be made of giant molecules containing thousands of atoms joined by simple covalent bonds? There is no reason to believe that there was an upper limit to how large a molecule could be. So there is no need for a theory which would still let natural rubber be made of small molecules. Giant molecules don't violate any known laws of nature. Sure, the idea of macromolecules makes some scientists uncomfortable, but that discomfort is based on speculation, not on observed facts.
Staudinger will return to Germany in the years after the war, and will become a professor at the University of Freiburg. He will vehemently hold to his theory despite being written off as a raving idiot by most chemists in Germany. Many already hate him for his wartime views, and will welcomed yet another reason to hate him. (We humans can be twisted sometimes.) He will become an outcast in the German scientific community, even though his theory is the more logically sound. But it is important to note what he won't do. He will never prove his theory, no matter how strongly he might champion it. That will be left to other scientists. But his contributions were important enough that he won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1953.
When Staudinger first begins promoting macromolecular theory, this is going on in the rest of the world:
1915: German scientist Alfred Wegener proposes the theory of continental drift.
1917: The United States enters World War I.
1918: A worldwide influenza epidemic claims roughly 20 million lives.
Molecular Giants - part of Polymers and People: An Informal History from the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
2. Morris, Peter J. T. Polymer Pioneers. Philadelphia: The Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry, 1986. Press, 1998.
3. A Century of Physics - from the American Physical Society.