Otto Liebknecht, Chemist

The Inventor of White Laundry

Head chemist at the research laboratory of the Deutsche Gold- und Silber-Scheideanstalt vormals Roessler, the later Degussa AG (predecessor of the Chemicals Business Area of Evonik).


* 1876, Leipzig

† 1949, Potsdam

After leaving high school, Otto Liebknecht, son of the co-founder of social democracy Wilhelm Liebknecht and brother of Karl Liebknecht, studied chemistry. In 1899 he graduated as a Dr. Phil. at Berlin University under Arthur Rosenheim, who later became a close friend, with his dissertation entitled "On iodine oxo-acids". Owing to his SPD membership, but principally because he came from a prominent political family, Liebknecht's career initially made slow progress. After applying unsuccessfully to several companies for employment as a chemist, he took up a post in the research laboratory of the Deutsche Gold- und Silber-Scheideanstalt (Degussa AG since 1980) in Frankfurt on July 1, 1900. There he initially worked on a process to prepare and purify indigo.

Otto Liebknecht's greatest breakthrough however was in the field of sodium perborate production. Initially he appeared to be lagging behind George François Jaubert in the race for a production process, the Frenchman having already applied for a patent nine months before him, on October 14, 1903. However, Liebknecht soon developed a process that outstripped Jaubert and secured long-term profits for the Deutsche Gold- und Silber-Scheideanstalt. Perborate became an important component of the first automatic detergent manufactured by Henkel – “Persil”.

Thanks to his outstanding research achievements, Otto Liebknecht was appointed head chemist at the research laboratory in Frankfurt after just five years with the company. Outside the laboratory he joined the administrative committee of the Deutsche Gold- und Silber-Scheideanstalt promoting the interests of employees and took on the post of chairman of the first works committee in 1920.

This tirelessly energetic chemist, with his extensive knowledge, amazing powers of deduction and great experimental skills, appeared to have a great career ahead of him. In 1925 however came a surprising break with the company management. The dispute, superficially concerning the amount of the profit-sharing bonus, culminated in a lawsuit with regard to the quality of his work. Following a settlement, Otto Liebknecht left the Deutsche Gold- und Silber-Scheideanstalt on June 1, 1925. His career then took him from 1925 to 1939 to Permutit AG in Berlin, where he was employed as head chemist. In addition he held a lectureship at the university there between 1931 and 1935. In 1943 he finally moved to Th. Goldschmidt AG in Essen, where during the turmoil after the war he had the role of contact person to the authorities in the Soviet occupied zone from 1945 onwards.

Particularly after 1933, Otto Liebknecht suffered many disadvantages owing to his prominent socialist connections. He was treated with hostility and prohibited from lecturing at the university in 1935. He also suffered through repeated interrogation by the criminal investigation department and the Gestapo. After the end of the war his origins stood him in good stead in the eastern sector of Berlin and he was soon allowed to resume his lectureship at the university. Shortly before he died of cancer in 1949, he was appointed Professor of Inorganic and Organic Chemistry at Berlin University at the suggestion of Wilhelm Pieck, future President of the GDR.