José Mario Molina-Pasquel y Henríquez was born on March 19, 1943, in Mexico City to Roberto Molina Pasquel and Leonor Henríquez Molina. His father was a lawyer and judge who served as Mexican ambassador to Ethiopia, the Philippines and Australia. His mother was a homemaker.
He was fascinated by science from his youngest days, as he wrote in a memoir that appears on the Nobel site: “I still remember my excitement when I first glanced at paramecia and amoebae through a rather primitive toy microscope.” He converted a little-used bathroom in his home into a laboratory for his chemistry sets, guided by an aunt, Esther Molina, who was a chemist.
His family, following their tradition, sent him abroad for his education, and at 11 he was in a boarding school in Switzerland, “on the assumption that German was an important language for a prospective chemist to learn.”
He decided that of his two passions, chemistry and the violin, science was what he would devote himself to, and in 1960 he enrolled in the chemical engineering program at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. After studying in Paris and Germany, he began graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968. He received his doctorate in physical chemistry there in 1972.
The experience of studying at Berkeley was not just important to his development as a scientist, he would recall; he arrived in the wake of the free-speech movement, and political awareness was part of everyday life. He initially worked in the young field of chemical lasers, but he found himself “dismayed” to find that some researchers at other institutions were developing high-powered lasers to use as weapons.
“That was important,” Felipe José Molina, Dr. Molina’s son and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said in an interview. Thanks to Dr. Molina’s experiences at Berkeley, his son said, he felt driven to do work “that had a benefit to society, rather than just pure research, or things that could potentially be harmful.”