Glenn T. Seaborg, Physical Chemist


Glenn T. Seaborg, Physical Chemist

Seaborg Lab: 307 Gilman Hall, UC Berkeley

Nobel Prize winning chemist Glenn Seaborg led a diverse, eventful, and productive life. His accomplishments fill seven pages of Whos Who in America. Although he lived in Lafayette, his life-time work was closely tied to Berkeley—two of the elements he helped discover are berkelium (element 97) and californium (element 98). Seaborg’s lab, Room 307 in Gilman Hall on the UC Berkeley campus was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, and designated a Berkeley Historical Landmark in 1991.

After graduating from UCLA in 1933 he earned his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from UC Berkeley. As a young UC chemistry faculty member he—together with future nobelists E. Segrè, E. Macmillan, and co-workers—discovered element 94 (plutonium). Seaborg’s critical discovery that plutonium was “fissile” (through nuclear fission it could be transmutated into lighter elements) paved the way for the Manhattan Project’s development of the atomic bomb, in which he also participated.

Following the end of WWII, Seaborg continued his Berkeley research in nuclear chemistry. With the development of powerful accelerators at the then-named Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, he was the lead- or co-discoverer of eight previously unknown elements. His team also identified more than 100 isotopes throughout the periodic table. In 1951, at the relatively young age of 39, he and his Berkeley colleague Edwin McMillan were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discoveries in the chemistry of transuranium elements: those which are unstable and radioactively decay into other elements.

In 1954 Seaborg was named an associate director of the Lawrence Laboratory, and President Truman appointed him to the Atomic Energy Commission’s Advisory Committee. From 1958 to 1961 he served as chancellor of the UC Berkeley campus, leaving the post when the U.S. Senate confirmed him as President John Kennedy’s Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. While serving on the Commission he participated in negotiations for a Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Soviets, an experience he recounted in Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Test Ban, one of his many books.

Seaborg was a dedicated hiker and sportsman. Hikers still enjoy the “Glenn Seaborg Trail” in the countryside around AEC headquarters in Germantown, Maryland and a trail he blazed in Lafayette, California. At Berkeley, he enthusiastically endorsed Cal sports and even co-authored a book on PAC-10 Intercollegiate Athletics.

Seaborg died at home at age 87, six months after suffering a stroke while attending a scientific meeting.

Contributed by Ed Theil, 2016

  • Seaborg and President John F. Kennedy at AEC Headquarters, Germantown MD (1961), courtesy Ernest Orlando, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

  • Gilman Hall UC Berkeley, photo source unknown

  • Seaborg adjusting a Geiger Counter (1942), courtesy Ernest Orlando, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory