Jan Czochralski is the most frequently cited Polish scientist. The People’s Republic of Poland condemned him to oblivion

Jan Czochralski is the most frequently cited Polish scientist.  The People's Republic of Poland condemned him to oblivion

Professor Jan Czochralski is one of the most important scientists in the history of Poland, but his name is not widely known. This is the result of the communist propaganda machine, which for several decades removed from the books the name of the creator of the method of obtaining single crystals of silicon, without which no microprocessor would be created.

The generation born after the war prepared biographies of Maria Skłodowska-Curie or Nicolaus Copernicus for lessons devoted to Polish scientists, but probably no student was asked to write a paper on Jan Czochralski. And if any teacher took up such a task, the child could report unpreparedness due to the lack of materials to write such a paper. And there would be no deception or laziness in that. Post-war encyclopedias were silent about Jan Czochralski, regardless of the fact that he was one of the most outstanding scientists of the interwar period, widely known and quoted by scientists from all over the world.

The machine of history caused him to fall into disgrace for several dozen years and only 66 years after his death he was rehabilitated.

From Kcynia to the largest German chemical concerns

Jan Czochralski was born on October 23, 1885 in Kcynia, a town in the Prussian partition, near Bydgoszcz. He was the eighth of ten children of a local carpenter. The boy liked to read about experiments – and even more to conduct them on his own, which did not meet with his father’s approval. In order to “push this nonsense out of his head”, he helped Jan find a job in a pharmacy in Krotoszyn, Greater Poland.

In 1904, Czochralski left for Berlin, where he took up employment in the Allgemeine Elektrizitaets Gesellschaft (AEG) concern. He combined work with science and in 1910 he received the title of chemical engineer at the Technical University of Berlin.

Shortly after that, in 1916, Czochralski made the most important discovery in his life: he developed a method for measuring the crystallization rate of metals. To this day, the method described by him is used in the production of crystals, especially semiconductor crystals, which are used to build transistors used in electronics. It is used in the production of mobile phones, tablets, digital cameras and other electronic devices. Czochralski’s article in “Zeitschrift für physikalische Chemie” made the scientist one of the most frequently cited Polish scientists in the world.

The chemist made another important discovery in 1924: it was metal B, also known as bahnmetal. The alloy was used in the production of sliding railway bearings and was used by railways in Germany, Poland, the United States, Great Britain and the USSR.

Czochralski’s fame reached overseas. Henry Ford, the founder of the car concern, invited him to his place and offered him a managerial position, but the chemist refused. He preferred to continue working in Germany, but in 1928 he made a revolution in his life and returned to Poland. He took the position of contract professor at the Warsaw University of Technology. In 1930, he received the title of full professor from the President of Poland. Shortly after, he renounced his German citizenship, but the procedure was not completed, which in the post-war years turned out to be fateful.

Czochralski’s estate: a villa in Warsaw and scholarships for young scientists

Years of work in Germany – and a high professional position at the Warsaw University of Technology – were combined with a high salary and savings, which enabled the purchase of a neoclassical palace in Warsaw. The palace at Nabielaka Street was a meeting place for artists in the 1930s. Czochralski was visited, among others, by Ludwik Solski, one of the greatest actors of that time, and the writer Kornel Makuszyński.

The palace was destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising. After the war, he did not return to the owner. Today it houses the residence of the Slovak ambassador.

Professor Czochralski was also involved in various social activities. He funded scholarships for students, financially supported the reconstruction of Chopin’s manor house in Żelazowa Wola, and co-financed excavations in the village of Biskupin, where archaeologists found traces of a Bronze Age settlement in the 1930s.

The decision made during the war influenced the rest of the professor’s life

After the outbreak of the war, Czochralski continued his work at the Warsaw University of Technology. The Germans agreed to the continued existence of several scientific units, provided that they provided services to the Wehrmacht. The Polish underground authorities agreed to such cooperation.

It was precisely the cooperation with the Germans during the war – and the already mentioned unclear issue of citizenship – that was the reason for the harassment that affected the professor after 1945. He was accused of collaborating with the Germans and for this reason he was struck off the list of PW employees, although the investigation in this case was discontinued in 1945.

Deprived of the opportunity to continue his work, surrounded by the ostracism of the scientific community, he left Warsaw and returned to Kcynia, from which he left as a young boy. He made a living from the production of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals in the private company BION he founded. However, the services did not let him rest: the UB was harassing him after foreign currency, the possession of which was against the law, was found in his possession. In an atmosphere of constant fear and recrimination, he died of a heart attack in 1953 at the age of 68. He was buried in the cemetery in Kcynia for 40 years in a nameless grave.

Scientists knew the “Czochralski method”, so the name could not be erased from history

The name of the eminent scientist was not included in encyclopedias and textbooks published after the war. The author of the method of obtaining single crystals of silicon was supposed to disappear completely from history, but this did not happen.

The more years passed since the end of the conflict, the more questions arose about the author of the widely used “Czochralski method” it was impossible to ignore. In the 1980s, Dr. Paweł Tomaszewski from the Institute of Low Temperature and Structural Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Wrocław became interested in the scientist erased from memory. He carried out a truly detective work to describe the merits of the professor who died almost 30 years earlier and fought to clear his name.

In an interview with a journalist from the Forum Akademickie website, Dr. Tomaszewski mentioned that he was one of the initiators of commemorating Prof. Czochralski at the scientific congress in 1984.

30 years after the death of the professor, another scientist began to be interested in him

– It was then the only opportunity to say out loud to the whole world (not only Europe) that Czochralski was a Pole and a Polish scientist. Czochralski’s name was well known to all crystallographers (because it was included in the name of the method of obtaining single crystals – “Czochralski’s method”), but hardly anyone knew who he was (…) This decision was strongly opposed by people associated with the Warsaw University of Technology; there were even threats of an international scandal. Fortunately, the congress took place, although without official exposure of Czochralski (his biography was presented, but it was not allowed to be published in congress materials), he said.

An attempt to tell the scientist’s biography could result in serious charges, because the prosecutor’s office reported to the director of the institute where Dr. Tomaszewski worked that he was collecting suspicious biographical materials.

Rehabilitation already in free Poland

The biographer believed that the decision of the Senate of the Warsaw University of Technology in 1945 could not actually be a punishment for managing the Department during the war, which was a kind of cooperation with the Germans, but “a form of its defense in the new political reality, defense against an inevitable tragedy.”

– However, for various reasons, it was not properly received by the next generations. The lack of documents, memories and the lowered veil of silence meant that Czochralski’s pre-war enemies and their successors continued to come to the fore. Unfortunately, although they were few, their voice was considered important, although not supported by any evidence. On the other hand, Czochralski’s defenders were afraid, for reasons known only to them (opportunism?), to act against these recognized enemies. Fortunately, in Kraków, Wrocław or even in the Military University of Technology in Warsaw, there were people who thought independently and were brave enough to stand on the side of Jan Czochralski even before we regained freedom of thought and expression – he said.

In 2011, the Senate of the Warsaw University of Technology issued a resolution on the full rehabilitation of Professor Czochralski. By a resolution of the Sejm of the Republic of Poland, 2013 was declared the Year of Jan Czochralski.

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