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Science Giant Glenn Seaborg, 1912-1999

Posted March 3, 1999

Photo: Glenn Seaborg and his wife, Helen

In April 1992, Glenn Seaborg and his wife, Helen, celebrated his 80th birthday at Lawrence Hall of Science. The Time magazine cover behind them depicts Seaborg as chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, a position he held for a decade beginning in 1961. Peg Skorpinski photo.

Nobel Laureate Glenn Theodore Seaborg, one of the great chemists of the 20th century and an influential voice on national science policy as adviser to 10 U.S. presidents, died Feb. 25 at his home in Lafayette. Seaborg died of complications from a stroke he suffered in August. He was 86.

A beloved professor of chemistry at Berkeley for nearly 60 years, he also served as chancellor of the Berkeley campus and since 1971 was associate director-at-large of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

In 1961, President Kennedy appointed Seaborg chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, where he served for 10 years under both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. He was one of the last survivors of the Manhattan Project and the namesake of element 106 of the periodic table -- seaborgium (Sg).

Seaborg's major contributions to the field of chemistry included co-discovery of plutonium-238 and -239 plus nine other transuranium elements. He also led the Manhattan Project group that devised the chemical extraction processes used in plutonium production during World War II. His work with transuranium elements, and a revision of the periodic table that he proposed in order to account for them, won him the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which he shared with Berkeley colleague Edward M. McMillan.

"The world today has lost a great man of science...," said Chancellor Berdahl. "He came here in 1934 as a graduate student enchanted by the possibilities of science, and he leaves us today a legend in his own right. He advanced the frontiers of scientific discovery in a way that few have, but this son of a machinist never forgot the opportunities the University of California and the citizens of this state provided him, and he never stopped returning the favor. His service to this campus is equaled only by his service to this country."

Seaborg had a long and distinguished career not only in science but in education and public service.

"I consider Glenn Seaborg, among all the faculty of the University of California, to be the most distinguished in all the four areas of excellence in which we judge faculty -- research, teaching, university service and service to the country," said Clark Kerr, former UC president and a long-time friend.

Although Seaborg was the first to discover and isolate appreciable amounts of plutonium for use in atomic weapons, he became an ardent proponent of nuclear disarmament. As a member of the Franck Committee, Seaborg wrote to President Harry Truman to deter him from dropping the bomb on Japan, suggesting he first demonstrate the weapon to the world on a barren island. After World War II, he championed efforts to regulate the uses of atomic energy and helped set the stage for the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which he witnessed in 1963.

Several of the elements he discovered or co-discovered after his return to academia following the war were named in tribute to Berkeley. Element 97, discovered in 1949, was named berkelium, while element 98, discovered in 1950, was named californium.

In 1974, he was part of the team that discovered element 106. After much wrangling, the element was named seaborgium, in his honor, in 1997. He was the only scientist to have an element named after him while still alive.

"That's a great honor because that lasts forever," he once told a reporter. "One hundred years from now, or a thousand years from now, it'll still be seaborgium when you'd probably have to look in obscure books to find any references to what I had done."

Born in 1912, Seaborg grew up in Ishpeming, Mich., and moved to Los Angeles when he was ten. He received his bachelor's degree in chemistry from UCLA in 1934 and his PhD in chemistry from Berkeley in 1937. He stayed on as a researcher, joining the faculty full time in 1939.

His work in radiochemistry tackled the scientific challenge of isolating new chemical isotopes. In 1941, he and Berkeley colleagues isolated an unstable element he later proposed to name "plutonium," after the planet Pluto. The site of the discovery of plutonium-238, 307 Gilman Hall, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966.

One isotope of plutonium, plutonium-239, which Seaborg and colleague Emilio Segre discovered a month later, turned out to split or fission when hit with slow neutrons; this characteristic attracted the attention of scientists developing an atomic bomb from fissionable uranium. In 1942, at age 30, Seaborg was appointed head of the plutonium chemistry group of the Manhattan Project, where he helped develop techniques for chemically separating plutonium from the other nuclear debris.

In less than half a year, the government had accumulated enough plutonium-239 for a bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, Aug. 9, 1945, three days after a uranium bomb destroyed Hiroshima. World War II ended with Japan's surrender Aug. 14.

During his four years in Chicago, Seaborg continued to collaborate with campus colleagues, adding curium and americium to his list of discoveries.

In 1951 he shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry with the late Berkeley physicist Edwin McMillan for "their discoveries in the chemistry of the transuranium elements."

Also in 1942, during a brief stop in Nevada on his way to Chicago, he married Helen Lucille Griggs, who was secretary to Ernest O. Lawrence.

Back at Berkeley in 1946, Professor Seaborg returned to pure research. Over the years, he was involved in the discovery of all but one of the man-made elements up to element 102.

Since retiring from teaching in 1979, Seaborg continued to search for the "superheavy" elements and, in 1994, was involved in the discovery of the currently unnamed element 110. Seaborg held over 40 patents, including those on americium and curium, making him the only person ever to hold a patent on a chemical element.

"As an educator he inspired thousands of students to become interested in chemistry and its applications, and as a public speaker he helped develop an awareness of the impact of science on daily life and the importance of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons," said Alexis Bell, dean of the College of Chemistry. "He will be remembered as a brilliant scientist, an inspiring teacher, a devoted public servant, and lastly, as a kind, gentle and unassuming person."

Seaborg is survived by his wife Helen of Lafayette, Calif., and five of his six children: Lynne Annette Seaborg Cobb of Grand Junction, Colo.; David Seaborg of Walnut Creek, Calif.; Stephen Seaborg of La Mesa, Calif.; John Eric Seaborg of Free Union, Virg.; and Dianne Karole Seaborg of Lafayette. A son, Peter Glenn Seaborg, died in 1997 at age 50.

Services are pending. Memorial contributions may be sent to the College of Chemistry or to the Lawrence Hall of Science (checks made payable to the UC Regents): College of Chemistry, Office of the Dean, MC 1460, Attn: Jane Scheiber; or Glenn T. Seaborg Endowment, Development Office, Lawrence Hall of Science, MC 5200, attn: Kim Robinson.


March 3 - 9, 1999 (Volume 27, Number 25)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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