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 Helen and Glenn Seaborg in 1992, at his 80th birthday celebration at LHS. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Helen Seaborg, 1917-2006

13 September 2006

Helen Griggs was working as a secretary to renowned Berkeley physicist Ernest O. Lawrence on the day in 1939 that she met Glenn Seaborg, an assistant professor of chemistry, to whom she would be married for 56 years. During those years she stood by his side as he worked in a key role on the Manhattan Project in Chicago; continued his investigations, as professor of chemistry, into the structure of the atom at the Berkeley campus "Rad Lab" named for Lawrence; served in administrative roles with the University of California (including three years as Berkeley chancellor, 1958-61); headed both the Atomic Energy Commission and the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and, finally, returned to Berkeley, serving as University Professor, "at large" associate director of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, and director and chair of the Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS).

It's difficult, looking back nearly half a century to the Seaborg chancellorship, to perceive the "real" Helen behind the ready smile seen in vintage photos and still in evidence in this image, taken in 1992 at an 80th-birthday celebration for Glenn Seaborg at LHS. (He died in 1999.) It was not then essential for chancellors' wives to be viewed as individuals with interests and personalities distinct from their husbands'. Consider this passage, from a profile of Glenn Seaborg in the San Francisco Examiner published shortly after his first day as chancellor: "Doctor Seaborg's handsome wife, Helen, has a schedule as busy as her husband's, and prefers it that way. She does all the cooking, all the laundry, and takes care of the five children herself. 'She ironed all my shirts until just recently,' the new Chancellor said proudly."

If Helen Seaborg felt demeaned by her relegation to the role of executive housewife and bearer of heirs, the record does not show it. "Her generous nature was reflected in many volunteer jobs," her now-grown children observed in a recent family-compiled obituary, and indeed, she occupied herself with a variety of non-UC causes, including integration (through her involvement with the YWCA) and outdoor recreation (the couple helped scout what is now the coast-to-coast American Discovery Trail). Described elsewhere in that notice as "buoyant and unflappable," she appears to have been possessed of the character traits that, in an earlier era, were viewed as ideally suited to a great man's helpmeet.

Helen Griggs Seaborg died Aug. 29, of pneumonia. A memorial celebration has already been held. Contributions in her memory may be made to the YWCA at UC Berkeley, 2600 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94704.

- Jonathan King