Giulio Natta was born to Ligurian parents in Porto Maurizio (now known as Imperia) in 1903.
He attended Senior School and took a two-year University preparatory course in Genoa. In 1921 he began courses in Industrial Chemical Engineering at the Regio Senior Technical Institute (today known as Milan Polytechnic) graduating in 1924 at the age of just 21.
As a young man, even before graduating, Natta had dedicated himself to research activities in the field of Chemistry and had installed a small, but sufficiently well-equipped research laboratory in his home in Milan.
In the meantime, he made visits to the laboratories of the Institute of General Chemistry. During that period, Milan Polytechnic, other than being an institute which offered solid professional expertise, had become an important centre for scientific and technological research, where Chemistry, thanks to Giuseppe Bruni (the principal of the Institute of General Chemistry), was assuming an important role in the integration process between science, technology and industry. As Bruni’s student, Giulio Natta assimilated his teacher’s philosophy and throughout his career never forgot to combine his interests as a committed researcher and scientist with the industrial aspects of Chemistry.
In 1923, the first Centre of Roentgenography Studies was founded at Milan Polytechnic, where Natta began his scientific career by dedicating himself to studying the X-ray structure determination of chemical substances with Giorgio Renato Levi and Adolfo Quilico, (all of whom were destined to provide numerous original contributions to the development of Italian chemistry and the industrial advancements which were related to it).
In order to widen his knowledge in the field of chemical structure determination, Natta accepted a scholarship in 1925 at the laboratories of Professor Seemann in Fribourg, where they developed techniques of chemical structure analysis via electron diffraction. This period in Natta’s life was crucial to the future scientific interests of the young researcher. Indeed, it was here that Natta came into contact with Hermann Staudinger’s team which was working on macromolecules. During those years the study of macromolecules was still being pioneered; Natta intuited its importance and potential and on returning to Milan, began to study the crystalline structure of polymers.
As well as being oriented towards polymers, Natta’s studies in the field of X-ray structure determination were also focused on inorganic materials. This research contributed to creating a strong and deep grounding for his future work which led to him being awarded the Nobel Prize. However, Natta’s double personality, as a scientist with a deep theoretical and technical grounding, who was aware of the practical applications of the discoveries he had made had already been highlighted in 1926 with his research into methanol synthesis. It was while conducting these studies, among others, that Natta honed his understanding of catalysis.
By now an established researcher, he began a rapid and brilliant academic career: in 1927, he gained a teaching qualification in General Chemistry; in 1933 he obtained the Professorship in General Chemistry at the University of Pavia; in 1935 he was asked to cover the Professorship of Physics Chemistry at the University of Rome; in 1937 he accepted the Professorship of Industrial Chemistry at Turin Polytechnic; in 1938 he was recalled to Milan Polytechnic to substitute Mario Giacomo Levi (who was forced to leave teaching due to the race laws) as Professor of Industrial Chemistry where he remained for thirty-five years.
On returning to Milan Polytechnic, Natta, renewed the teaching methods for Industrial Chemistry, which until then had been a subject which was prevalently of a descriptive and informative nature. He based his Industrial Chemistry course on solid thermodynamic principals, kinetics and catalysis, making it a formative subject for Chemical Engineers.
Over the coming years, Natta devoted himself to intense and valuable applied research without neglecting its theoretical aspects. The following can be mentioned from among those studies: research into methanol, formaldehyde, butadiene, catalysis and oxosynthesis.
In the years after the Second World War, Natta came into contact with the industrial world in the U.S.A. Petrochemical developments there were radically transforming Industrial Organic Chemistry, based even at that time on carbon fossils and fermentation products. Natta fully understood the new potential and possibilities offered by unsaturated hydrocarbons, which were now available in enormous quantities. He began his work on these themes with Montecatini.
From 1948 onwards he deepened his studies into the synthesis and properties of macromolecular compounds. In 1952, after having heard Karl Ziegler speak at a conference on ethylene polymerisation in the presence of alkylate aluminium compounds, Natta became convinced that it was possible to control the structure of polymeric chains during synthesis. Thus begins the collaboration between teams working with Natta, Ziegler and Montedison which lec to the creation of isotactic polypropilene in 1954.
The road to the Nobel Prize had been laid out. Giulio Natta received the Nobel Prize in Stockholm on the 10th of December, 1963.