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Clarkson University Professor Emeritus Petr Zuman Recalls Nobel Prize Winner

Petr Zuman, a distinguished emeritus research professor of chemistry at Clarkson University, has devoted more than 60 years of his life to chemistry and is among just a few scientists who can offer personal memories of giants in the field.

Petr ZumanThe professor has written an article for the Chemical Record, a Journal of the Chemical Society of Japan. The special issue commemorates the 90th anniversary of the invention of the technique of polarography, which is an electrochemical technique used to determine the composition of solutions.

Zuman’s article describes his mentor, Jaroslav Heyrovsky, who was renowned for his pioneering work in polarography.

“I’m 86 years young,” says Zuman. "So you see, I’m one of the last surviving direct collaborators of Dr. Heyrovsky, who won the 1959 Nobel Prize for inventing polarography. I was privileged to work with him for 16 years.”

Before World War II, Czechoslovakia and Japan were the main centers of polarographic research, which is why the Chemical Record prepared the special issue.

“In 1947 I took the course Introduction to Practical Polarography, taught by Prof. J. Heyrovsky, who immediately enchanted me,” Zuman wrote in the article. “His personal approach caused that I immediately fell in love with the dropping mercury electrode, the use of which Prof. Heyrovsky invented in 1922. To this love, I remain true to this day.”

In the late 1940s, Zuman was one of six graduate students selected by Heyrovsky to work at the then-new Polarographic Institute of the Academy of Science in Prague. Zuman advanced to become head of the Organic Division.

In 1968, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, so Zuman traveled the world, exploring various opportunities in Ireland, the United States and Australia, before accepting a position on the faculty at Clarkson University in 1970.

“I decided on Clarkson and never regretted it,” he says.

Zuman has an abiding love for chemistry, which he finds exciting to this day. Though he was named emeritus professor in 1996 and is officially retired, he still works most afternoons in his lab at Clarkson. He brings a bit of European elegance to the lab, breaking for tea at 5 o’clock each day with his assistants and students, as was the routine so many years ago in Prague, when he was invited to tea with Heyrovsky.

“This is a friendly lab where we have tea and talk about everything but chemistry,” he says.

Zuman the chemist also retains his deep respect for polarography, which he points out “for years was the fifth most-frequently used method of analyzing chemical solutions." It was replaced by a newer process, chromatography.

“There were relatively few places, where you could learn how to use polarography. One of them was for years in my lab,” he notes.

Zuman just returned from Prague in the Czech Republic, where he participated at the 98th International Meeting of the Society for Electrochemistry and delivered an invited presentation that was met with a standing ovation.

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