Mario Molina

When it comes to discovering the Antarctic ozone hole, Mario Molina was one of the most notable proponents along with F. Sherwood Rowland and Paul J. Crutzen who received the Novel Prize in Chemistry in 1995. He noted how chlorofluorocarbon gases or the ones called CFCs cause threats to the ozone layer and he is also the first ever Mexican-born individual to receive a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.


Early Life and Education

On the 19th of March in 1943, Mario Molina was born to parents Leonor Henríquez de Molina and Roberto Molina Pasquel who was a lawyer as well as a diplomat who served in countries such as Ethiopia, Australia, and also the Philippines. Mario had shown interest in science at a very early age and he made his own chemistry lab in their home by turning the bathroom into his laboratory and experiment area. He had been fascinated by his toy microscope and this was where he first viewed amoeba and paramecia. For hours on a daily basis, he would play with his chemistry set in the seldom‑used bathroom in their house. Esther Molina, one of his aunts, helped foster his interest by helping him out with more challenging chemical experiments.

It had been a tradition in their family to study abroad for a time, and for Mario Molina and his awareness for his love for chemistry, he went to study at the Institut auf dem Rosenberg which is in Switzerland when he was only eleven years old after having completed his basic education in Mexico.

During his years in Europe however, he was disappointed that his classmates had little interest in chemistry. Because he had already made up his mind to be a chemist, he took his bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México or the National Autonomous University of Mexico in the year 1965.

When he finished his undergraduate studies at UNAM, Mario Molina went on to pursue his Ph.D. in physical chemistry. He had a challenging time because although his degree had given him training, subjects like quantum mechanics was something completely Greek to him those days. He attended the University of Freiburg in Germany and had a postgraduate degree there in 1967, and he got his doctoral degree from the University of California in 1972 when he decided that he needed to study more and not just the kinetics of polymerizations to broaden his knowledge.

He was part of the research group led by Professor George C. Pimentel who was a pioneer in developing matrix isolation techniques. Their goal had been to study the molecular dynamics with the use of chemical lasers. For his graduate work, he had investigated on internal energy distribution in photochemical and chemical reaction products where he had the chance to work using infrared optics, vacuum lines, and other advanced equipment he had not been able to use before.


After he completed his Ph.D., he had stayed for another year in Berkeley where he continued his research concerning chemical dynamics. He then joined Professor F. Sherwood’s group as one of the postdoctoral fellows and moved to Irvine, California. It was Professor Sherwood who had inspired Molina to find out about the fate of the environment considering the presence of CFCs which have been accumulating in the earth’s atmosphere. With that project, Molina learned about a new field in chemistry which was atmospheric chemistry.

Since Molina and Sherwood had already studied similar compounds before, they were able to come up with the CFC ozone depletion theory together. Initially, the research was not as interesting as it should have been since Molina knew that as the CFCs drift up to higher altitudes, they will be destroyed. What held his interest was what the consequences of these accumulated compounds would be. They realized how the chlorine atoms which are produced as CFCs decompose and damage the ozone layer. Because of their findings, they were alarmed at how CFCs in the atmosphere would continue to deplete the ozone layer.

Their findings concerning their ozone depletion theory were published on June 1974 in Nature, and they had made efforts to inform the scientific community of work as well as policy makers so that laws to protect the earth’s ozone layer through regulation of CFC use.

A year later, Molina was appointed as one of the faculty members of the University of California, Irvine. While he still had collaborations with Sherwood, he also began working on his own research. He setup his own program for the investigation of spectroscopic and chemical properties of different compounds which have an important role in the atmosphere. Some of the compounds he had focused on included hypochlorous acid, chlorine nitrate, and chlorine nitrite among others.

While Molina had enjoyed his years in Irvine, it limited his time for doing experiments and after 7 years with an academic position, he decided to join the Molecular Physics and Chemistry Section which was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory back in 1982. He was part of a small group but had the time and resources to conduct experiments of his own especially those concerning new atmospheric problems.

Awards and Recognitions

Other than the esteemed Nobel Prize award, he also won the Esselen Award of the Northeast section of the American Chemical Society in 1987, the Newcomb-Cleveland awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the United Nations Environmental Programme Global 500 Award in 1989. The Pew Charitable Trusts Scholars Program in Conservation and the Environment gave Molina a $150,000 grant in 1990. In 1998, Molina received the Willard Gibbs Medal given by the Chicago Section of the American Chemical Society as well as the American Chemical Society Prize for Creative Advances in Environment Technology and Science in the same year.

He has several honorary degrees from esteemed bodies of education such as Yale, Duke, and Harvard Universities among others. Molina is also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on the 8th of August in 2013 from President Barack Obama.