Arnošt Reiser: Survivor, Émigré, Author, Groundbreaking Chemist

As a teenager growing up in Prague in the 1930s, Arnošt Reiser was interested in literature and music, not science. But when a middle-school teacher talked about some exciting developments in physics, he became fascinated with science. He heard about a university-level chemistry course for laboratory technicians and enrolled eagerly. He knew then and there he wanted to become a chemist. 

Reiser went on to survive a Nazi concentration camp, earn a chemistry degree, teach a generation of Czech chemists at his alma mater in Prague and flee the communists in 1960 to become an industrial chemist in England. In 1982, then- Polytechnic University invited Reiser to join the faculty and to create the Institute of Imaging Sciences. In 1989, he published Photoreactive Polymers: The Science and Technology of Resists.

 Reiser, 91, the Distinguished Research Professor of Chemical and Biological Sciences, no longer teaches. But he still goes to the campus every weekday and sometimes stops by the cafeteria for an early breakfast. When he’s not having lunch with friends and colleagues, he’s chatting with students. Particularly satisfying is the contact he has with students from decades past. “My former Poly students all have good positions in industry and when they are in town they come and see me,” he said. 

He began teaching science to a group of children ages 8-16 in 1940. The Germans excluded them from the public schools in Prague because they were Jewish. To begin teaching science to such a wide range of ages, Reiser made a theodolite, a surveyor’s instrument that measures angles. “We were able to determine the height of the local church steeple and the width of the Vltava River, and to map parts of the village of Roztoky, near Prague. Surveying,” he said, “led naturally to teaching basic geometry and trigonometry.” 

At the same time, Hitler had begun his conquest of Europe and, as Jews, the Reisers were in danger. “In May of 1942,” he said, “all of us were shipped to the camp at Theresienstadt. I survived the war and returned to Prague. When I got there, I found my sister and my girlfriend had survived, too. We, along with a cousin who had survived in France, moved into a small apartment in our family’s old house.” 

“I met quite a few eminent scientists in Theresienstadt,” he said. “They were clearly inspired people and even in the camp, they were curious about the world and about life. Their attitudes made a huge difference, and they became role models for all of us young ones.” 

After the war, Reiser earned a degree at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague and joined the chemistry faculty there in 1947. With his classmate Eduard Hála, he co-wrote an essential Czech textbook, Physical Chemistry. In 1960 Reiser and his wife, Ruth, decided to see the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Holding their two young sons, they jumped off an East German passenger ship anchored off the Danish coast, swam toward shore and were rescued.

Reiser was jailed for a month in Denmark “while the authorities tried to find out about us.” Meanwhile, his friend Jan Rocek, jailed with him, wrote to a Cambridge professor he knew, Sir Christopher Ingold, a leading pioneer of physical organic chemistry. Ingold phoned Niels Bohr, a Nobel laureate in Physics, in Copenhagen. “A few hours later,” Reiser said, “we were free.” He and his family moved into a small hotel and he began to look for work. 

That same year, the publishing house of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences published the first volume of the Hála-Reiser chemistry text. The academy published a revised volume in 1966. “The fact that the second volume appeared with my name on the cover was a feat of courage and friendship on Eduard’s part,” Reiser said. “I had escaped to the West. Eduard risked his position as professor and possibly even his freedom by insisting that my name be on the book at a time when I was a fugitive in England and a traitor.” The textbook was never issued again.

 While living in Denmark, Reiser received an offer from Kodak to work as an industrial chemist in England. The company put him in charge of its photochemistry laboratory, where he and his team performed tests on a light-sensitive varnish, called a “photoresist.” The company produced Kodak Thin Film Resists (KTFR) at the request of Nobel laureate Dr. William Shockley of Bell Labs. Shockley invented the transistor, an electronic amplifier that became the basis for today’s computer chips of which photoresist is an essential component. 

A front-page picture from a major Danish newspaper shows the Reister family arriving safely at the dock - free at last.

A front-page picture from a major Danish newspaper shows the Reister family arriving safely at the dock - free at last.

“What none of us knew at the time,” Reiser said, “was that we had stumbled onto the very beginnings of the semiconductor revolution.” Reiser said KTFR was “not really a photographic product” and Kodak thought it would not make any money. “But, as more firms began manufacturing semiconductors, all of them used KTFR as the imaging material,” he said, “and our line actually became profitable.”

 Reiser worked for Kodak from 1960 until 1982, when Poly recruited him for its faculty. The following year, England honored him for the critical advances he had achieved at Kodak in stopping the fading of photochemical dyes. At a ceremony at Edinburgh University, Prince Charles granted him a national degree of Doctor of Science. 

Reiser went on to survive a Nazi concentration camp, earn a chemistry degree, teach a generation of Czech chemists at his alma mater in Prague and fled the communists in 1960 to become an industrial chemist in England.

According to Reiser, he has “only a single patent,” which his friends at DuPont insisted he receive. “While my research sometimes looks theoretical,” he said, “it has several times had an impact on technology.” He and his Poly colleagues made a major contribution to industry when “we discovered the action mechanism of Novolak-diazoquinone resists” that coats the silicon wafer of the computer chip. That critical breakthrough, Reiser said, “led to the establishment of thermal printing plates as the principal medium of today’s printing industry.” Thermal plates are a $10 billion global business. 

In his 30 years at Poly, Reiser has taught and worked with many fellow immigrants: “What is special about Poly is our students as well as our faculty, who come from all corners of the earth. They often have to overcome substantial obstacles and they come with glorious
expectations. They have to start living in a new language and learning new ways to solve problems. Many of us realize that teaching our students is not a one-way street. Out of the classroom, we often become their pupils.”

 These days on campus, Reiser is writing as well as preparing a seminar on his specialty, dye fading. His visits to the Poly cafeteria delight him: “The place is packed and intense conversations are going on everywhere,” he said. “Looking around, I realize that this is a new human landscape. We shall have to talk to each other, that is for sure. And, at breakfast, our students demonstrate that this is not only possible, but actually fun.”