Glenn Seaborg Dies After a Life Integral to History of 20th Century

February 26, 1999

Contact:  Lynn Yarris,

BERKELEY, CA. -- Glenn Theodore Seaborg, Nobel Laureate chemist, discoverer of 10 atomic elements including plutonium and one that now bears his name, Associate Director-at-Large of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, University Professor of Chemistry for the University of California, and co-founder and chairman of the Lawrence Hall of Science, died February 25. He was 86.

Glenn Seaborg in 1941

The Seaborg Web site: His life and contributions

Photographs of Seaborg

The 1951 Nobel Prize for Chemistry

Obituary issued by UC Berkeley


Seaborg's death came while he was convalescing at home in Lafayette, near Berkeley. The internationally renowned chemist and educator had suffered a stroke on August 24, 1998, while in Boston for the national meeting of the American Chemical Society. At the meeting, Seaborg was named one of the "Top 75 Distinguished Contributors to the Chemical Enterprise."

To say that Seaborg had a high-profile career is an understatement. He is in the Guiness Book of World Records for having the longest entry in "Who's Who in America." In addition to sharing the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with the late Edwin McMillan for research into the transuranium elements (those beyond uranium on the periodic table), Seaborg received the National Medal of Science in 1991, this nation's highest award for scientific achievement. He was a member of the Manhattan Project, Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley (1958-1961), and Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (the predecessor to today's U.S. Department of Energy) under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon (1961-1971). He also served as president for both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society.

Seaborg had a life-long association with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). Commenting on Seaborg's death, Berkeley Lab Director Charles Shank said, "Dr. Seaborg was a true giant of the 20th Century, a legend in the annals of scientific discovery.  His daily commitment to matters of the laboratory, even in retirement as associate director-at-large and as an active researcher, was an inspiration to us all. Berkeley Lab is proud to have been Dr. Seaborg's home for so many of his discoveries, and we are fortunate to have benefited from his international acclaim.

"For his service to science, to education, and to our nation, we honor Dr. Seaborg's distinguished lifetime and will forever treasure his contributions to our institutions and to our lives. We who have been touched by his wisdom, his energy, and his tireless devotion to our profession will miss him."

Said University of California President Richard Atkinson, "Glenn Seaborg gave his magnificent intellect to the world and his heart and soul to the University of California. He once said that everything he had achieved in a lifetime of towering accomplishment he owed to his association with UC. Few universities have been given so much in return. As a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who revolutionized our understanding of matter, and as a superb professor, chancellor, laboratory leader, and champion of science education for generations of California's children, Dr. Seaborg has earned a proud and permanent place in the University's history. We will miss him deeply."

Said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl, "The world today has lost a great man of science. At the University of California, Berkeley, we have lost a revered member of our campus family. We cherished Glenn Seaborg, and we will miss him dearly. He embraced this place as his family, and for more than six decades he loved it as deeply as anyone could. Berkeley, in return, loved him with its whole heart."

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 president of the University of California and a long-time friend who nominated Seaborg to be UC Berkeley chancellor in 1958. "He was the best balanced, most distinguished faculty member at the most balanced distinguished university in the country."

Seaborg was born in 1912 in Ishpeming, Michigan. He received his B.A. from UCLA in 1934 and his Ph.D. in chemistry from UC Berkeley in 1937. His life-long association with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory began in 1934 when, as a graduate student, he went to work at the UC Radiation Laboratory (the forerunner to LBNL). He joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1939 and, following his time at the AEC helm, returned to Berkeley where he continued his search for new elements and isotopes.

Seaborg is perhaps best known for his role in the discovery of plutonium. This took place in February 1941, when Seaborg, McMillan, Joseph Kennedy, and Arthur Wahl, using the 60-inch cyclotron built by Ernest Lawrence, bombarded a sample of uranium with deuterons and transmuted it into plutonium. In 1944, Seaborg formulated the "actinide concept" of heavy element electronic structure which predicted that the actinides -- including the first eleven transuranium elements -- would form a transition series analogous to the rare earth series of lanthanide elements. Called one of the most significant changes in the periodic table since Mendeleev's 19th century design, the actinide concept showed how the transuranium elements fit into the periodic table. Seaborg and his colleagues used this concept as a stepping stone to the creation of a succession of transuranium elements, including americium, curium, berkelium, californium, einsteinium, fermium, mendelevium, nobelium, and seaborgium. When "seaborgium" was officially accepted as the name for element 106 in August, 1997, it marked the first time an element had ever been named for a living person. Seaborg called it his greatest honor.

Throughout his research career, Seaborg was also a champion for science education. In addition to his role in establishing the Lawrence Hall of Science, he was a member of President Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education, which produced the landmark 1983 report, "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform." He was also a primary mover behind "Great Explorations in Math and Science," a leading Internet resource for science teachers.

Seaborg was also a major advocate for nuclear arms control, international cooperation in science, and conservation of natural resources. He wrote more than 500 scientific articles and numerous books including an autobiography published September 1998 entitled: A Chemist in the White House: From the Manhattan Project to the End of the Cold War. He held more than 40 patents, including the only ones for a chemical element (americium and curium), and had been awarded more than 50 honorary doctoral degrees.

Seaborg is survived by his wife Helen Griggs Seaborg. They were married on June 6, 1942. Their first child, Peter Glenn Seaborg, died in 1997. They have five surviving children: Lynne Seaborg Cobb, David Seaborg, Steve Seaborg, Eric Seaborg, and Dianne Seaborg.

Details of a planned memorial service will be announced at a later date.