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The Nobel Tradition at Berkeley

Glenn T. Seaborg
Chemistry, 1951

By Russell Schoch


Glenn Theodore Seaborg was born April 19, 1912, in the small mining town of Ishpeming, Michigan. His parents, Swedish immigrants, moved the family to Los Angeles when Glenn was 10. Seaborg attended high school in Watts with ideas of studying literature in college. But he discovered, in his junior year, that in order to qualify for the tuition-free University of California, he needed a lab course. He took a chemistry class taught by an inspiring teacher who kindles Seaborg's life-long dedication to the field.

Seaborg entered UCLA in the Depression year 1929 and worked his way through school by serving as a stevedore, apricot picker, and apprentice linotype machinist. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, in his third year. In a modern physics course, he received a second infusion of inspiration when the professor spoke of the new cyclotron at Berkeley and of the results being obtained there. The excitement of these ideas sparked the young scientist to pursue graduate work at Berkeley.

"When I came to Berkeley," he later recalled, "it was indescribably exciting. It had an air of magic about it, and seeing top-notch chemists every day on campus . . . made me feel as if I were walking among giants. I was at the center of the universe, and big things were happening her."

It wasn't long before Seaborg himself began to make things happen. After earning his Ph.D. in 1937, he turned down overtures from industry in favor of a moderately paying job as a research assistant to Gilbert N. Lewis of Berkeley's chemistry department. Within two years, he was making his mark in the bright new field of nuclear chemistry: working with physicist Jack Livingood, he discovered the radioactive isotopes iodine-131 and iron-59. Many of the isotopes discovered in that period and since had medical applications, but the identification of iodine-131 meant the most to Seaborg because treatment with that isotope helped to extend his mother's life far beyond what it would have been without it.

In 1942, Seaborg was called to the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, where he and a large group of researchers developed chemical methods necessary for producing the plutonium bomb that shortened the war with Japan. Seaborg has said that the development of the bomb was necessary under the circumstances, but he was among the first to argue against its use on civilians.

After the war, he returned to Berkeley as a full professor and was placed in charge of nuclear chemical research at the Radiation Laboratory. He became associate director of the lab in 1945 and was named chancellor of the Berkeley campus in 1958. Three years later he was nominated by President Kennedy to head the Atomic Energy Commission, a sensitive and powerful position he filled with distinction for 10 years.

Seaborg and his colleagues have identified more than 100 isotopes, many of which are essential today in medicine and research. He is co-discoverer of plutonium and eight other transuranium elements. For their discoveries in the chemistry of transuranium elements, Seaborg and Edwin McMillian shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1951.

Voted Alumnus of the Year at both his undergraduate (UCLA) and graduate (UC Berkeley) schools, Seaborg continues to be active in scientific research and education. He has been a leading spokesman for scientific literacy and for improvement in secondary school science teaching, pointing out that "the intelligent citizen can no more ignore science in the world of today than the inhabitant of the medieval world could ignore Christianity and the feudal system."


Schoch, Russell. :Glenn T. Seaborg: Chemistry, 1951." The Nobel Tradition in Berkeley:
     University of California, Berkeley. UC BErkeley Development Office: UC PRess,
     1984. p. 14.



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