Paul J. Flory, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and a lifelong human rights activist, has died of a massive heart attack at age 75.
Flory, a pioneer in polymer chemistry who won the Nobel Prize in 1974, was found dead Monday in his car in Big Sur, his wife, Emily, said.
Flory, a chemistry professor at Stanford University until his retirement in 1975, had left his Portola Valley home to spend the weekend in Big Sur, where he was to prepare a speech for the American Chemical Society meeting in Chicago Tuesday.
At the time of his death, Flory was dividing his time between activities as a professor emeritus at Stanford and working to improve the rights of dissident Soviet scientists.
A colleague, Stanford physicist Sidney Drell, who teamed with Flory in his political struggles, called the chemist a “towering giant in the field of science and a human being with deep compassion.”
Several years ago, Flory and Drell marched outside the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco during a hunger strike by Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, who later was exiled to Gorky.
In 1984 Flory offered himself as a hostage to guarantee the return of Sakharov’s ailing wife, Yelena Bonner, if she were allowed to receive medical treatment outside the Soviet Union. The offer was rejected.
Flory won the Nobel Prize in chemistry after discovering a way to compare polymers, long chains of atoms or small molecules linked together in repeating sequences. These polymers, also called macromolecules,, can be strung together in an almost infinite number of ways to form compounds such as synthetic fabrics, rubber and plastics.
Flory’s research has been credited with making possible the development of the plastics industry and the synthetic tires that kept the United States mobile during World War II, when sources of natural rubber were in enemy hands.
He once said he was annoyed by the “constant distractions” of being a scientific celebrity--until he realized it was an excellent way to tap publicity for his human rights campaign.
“We are all scientists who have been working to realize the unity of science around the world,” he said. “Surely this is in the interest of all concerned. We must keep trying. The worst thing we can do is forget.”
A native of Sterling, Ill., Flory was educated at Manchester College in Indiana and at Ohio State University, where he received his doctorate in 1934. He became interested in studying polymers while working at E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.
Flory came to Stanford in 1961, after working at the University of Cincinnati, the Standard Oil Development Co., the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Cornell University. A minister’s son, he won many major awards in science and chemistry, including the American Chemical Society’s highest honor, the Priestley Medal, named for Joseph Priestley, an 18th Century English chemist.
In addition to his wife, Flory is survived by two daughters, Susan Springer and Melinda Groom, and a son, Paul Jr.