March 5, 1999



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"There is a beauty in discovery."

--Glenn Theodore Seaborg (1912-1999)

What is there to say about a career in which you win all the major awards in your field and the accolades you garner come from highly esteemed peers, presidents and other world leaders, celebrities from the sports and entertainment industries, and students of all ages? What is there to say about a life that was shared with a beloved wife of more than 56 years, much of it in a redwood house they designed themselves in which they raised six children? What is there to say about a man whose discoveries altered the course of history, immortalized his name on the periodic table of chemical elements and in the archives of the Nobel Prize Awards, and extended the life of his own mother?


Glenn Theodore Seaborg passed away in his home early in the evening on February 25, 1999, following a stroke he suffered last August. The news was carried by every major newspaper in the country. That is what happens when giants shed their mortal coils, but the sadness conveyed in many of those stories comes only when the deceased personally touched the lives of the writers. For those of us at this laboratory, whether you knew him as Glenn, or as Dr. Seaborg, it is no surprise that so many writers were moved to eloquence. To know him at all, or to know about his life is to recognize that Glenn Theodore Seaborg was truly a man in full.

Seaborg was born on April 19, 1912 in Ishpeming, Michigan, a small iron-mining town on the Upper Peninsula. His mother, Selma Erickson, came to Ishpeming from Sweden through Ellis Island, his father, Herman Theodore Seaborg, was a second-generation Swede and a machinist by trade. Swedish was Seaborg's first language and at the Nobel Prize awards ceremony in Stockholm, he endeared himself in his ancestral homeland by responding to the King's toast in the regional dialect of his mother.

When he was 10, Seaborg's parents moved the family to southern California in the hopes of better opportunity for him and his sister Jeanette. Seaborg would attend high school in the Los Angeles suburb of Watts which even then was racially and ethnically diverse. Years later, Seaborg would attribute his ability to interact so well with so many different people to his experiences in high school. It was in his junior year that science teacher Dwight Logan Reid introduced Seaborg to chemistry and a lifelong love affair was born. "My God, why didn't anyone tell me about this?" Seaborg once wrote. He would be graduated first in his class and valedictorian.

Like many of his generation, Seaborg worked his way through college. He paid his undergraduate tuition at UCLA by taking on such jobs as stevedore, farm laborer, and apprentice Linotype operator for the Los Angeles Herald. He was elected Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year and was graduated in 1934. He then transferred to UC Berkeley for his graduate studies and began a relationship that would span six decades.

Finding Valhalla in Berkeley

Led by physicist Ernest O. Lawrence and chemist Gilbert N. Lewis, UC Berkeley was a scientific Mecca in those days. Weekly meetings of the Physics Journal Club, presided over by Lawrence, of which Seaborg was an avid attendee, boasted some of the brightest stars in the constellation of science including Robert Oppenheimer, Edwin McMillan, Luis Alvarez, Phillip Abelson, Martin Kamen, and John Livingood.

"The whole Berkeley atmosphere was just like magic to me," Seaborg once said. "I just felt like I was in a new world, transported to a kind of Valhalla."

Seaborg received his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1937 but his career as a nuclear chemist actually began a year earlier when Livingood literally handed him a "hot" target just bombarded at the 27-inch cyclotron and asked him to identify the radioisotopes that had been produced.

Working in a custodian's closet equipped with "tap water, a sink, and a small workbench," and using equipment "bootlegged" from the chemistry department, Seaborg was able to isolate Livingood's radioisotopes. This began a five-year collaboration between the two men that yielded a number of new radioisotopes including iron-59, cobalt-60 and iodine-131. The later, which would become valuable for the diagnosis and treatment of thyroid (among other) diseases, was the most important to Seaborg for it was successfully used to prolong the life of his mother. By 1938, Seaborg also had a collaboration with Emelio Segrč that led to discovery of technetium-99 which is still one of the most widely used diagnostic radioisotopes in nuclear medicine.

Seaborg would go on to participate in the discovery of more than 100 isotopes of existing elements but it was in the discovery of brand new elements where he would make his indelible mark upon science. In 1940, McMillan and Abelson, using the new 60-inch cyclotron, bombarded uranium with neutrons and created element 93, the first synthetic element which they named "neptunium" after the eighth planet from the sun. When McMillan was called away by the war to work on radar, Seaborg took over the experiment. In February, 1941, again on the 60-inch cyclotron, Seaborg, working with grad student Arthur Wahl and chemistry instructor Joseph Kennedy, bombarded uranium with deuterons, the nuclei of the hydrogen isotope deuterium. The result was element 94, which Seaborg named "plutonium" after the ninth planet.

For those who've wondered why plutonium was not given the chemical symbol "Pl," as convention dictates, Seaborg chose to give his discovery the symbol "Pu," in mind of a child's description of a bad odor. He said at the time he was just having fun but the symbolism proved prophetic. Shortly thereafter, Seaborg and Segrč discovered that one isotope of the new element, plutonium-239, underwent fission when struck by neutrons, releasing an enormous amount of energy. If sufficient quantities of plutonium-239 could be produced, it could serve as a source of unprecedented explosive power in a new device that was being called an atomic bomb.

The Manhattan Project

Seaborg was drafted into the Manhattan Project in 1942 at the age of 30. On his way to the University of Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory, he stopped off in Nevada to marry Helen Lucille Griggs, who had been Lawrence's secretary at the Radiation Laboratory. At Chicago, despite enormous skepticism amongst the Manhattan Project leaders, Seaborg led a team of more than 100 scientists into developing a successful means of chemically separating fissionable plutonium. A large separation plant, based on the Seaborg group's work, was thrown up in Hanford, Washington, and, within six months, a sufficient quantity of Pu-239 had been produced to make a bomb dubbed "Fat Man." On August 9, 1945, three days after "Little Boy," a uranium bomb, devastated the Japanese city of Hiroshima, Fat Man leveled the city of Nagasaki. Five days later World War II was over.

Seaborg believed the creation of the atomic bomb was a necessity; at the time the Manhattan Project was launched, the unthinkable was that Nazi Germany would get there first. Once built, however, Seaborg opposed using the bomb on civilian targets. Along with the six other members of the Franck committee, he wrote to President Truman urging the president to demonstrate the bomb's power on a barren island rather than drop it on Japan. Although his name is forever linked to plutonium's use in atomic weapons, Seaborg was for the rest of his life an ardent advocate of nuclear disarmament.


Appointed by President Kennedy in 1961 to head the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), an agency that eventually was split into the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Seaborg led the negotiation and witnessed the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban treaty which prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and under the sea. This he did in the face of strong and often rancorous opposition in political and military circles.

Later, Seaborg was a key player in bringing about the Non-Proliferation Treaty to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. Throughout his ten years at the AEC helm, having been reappointed by Presidents Johnson and Nixon, he was a roving ambassador for the peaceful use of atomic energy, travelling to 63 countries, including several trips to what was then the Soviet Union. In all, Seaborg advised ten presidents, from Roosevelt through Bush, and met with Presidents Hoover and Clinton. But his research and his teaching (see education story) remained his truest calling and as soon as his work for the Manhattan Project and the AEC permitted he returned home to Berkeley.

Proposing Radical Changes to the Periodic Table

While at Chicago, Seaborg and his team discovered two more elements, americium (95) and curium (96). It was also in Chicago, in 1944, that Seaborg developed the "actinide concept" of heavy element electronic structure, probably his single greatest contribution to science. This concept predicted that the heaviest naturally occurring elements (thorium, protactinium and uranium), together with the synthetic transuranium elements would form a transition series of "actinides" analogous to the rare-earth series of "lanthanides." It showed how the transuraniums fit into the periodic table with the other elements and became the foundation for many significant discoveries in heavy element research. It also showed that uranium and the other natural heavies had been misplaced on the periodic table devised in 1869 by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev.

"I was warned at the time that it was professional suicide to promote this idea, which has since been called one of the most significant changes in the periodic table since Mendeleev’s 19th century design," Seaborg wrote, but he held to his convictions and became the only person to ever restructure the periodic table.

"For their discoveries in the chemistry of the transuranium elements," Glenn Seaborg and Edwin McMillan shared the 1951 Nobel Prize in chemistry. In his presentation speech, A. F. Westgren of the Royal Swedish Academy said that Seaborg had "written one of the most brilliant pages in the history of discovery of chemical elements."

Seaborg, who had returned to Berkeley from Chicago as a full professor, brought with him some of the best and the brightest of his Chicago team, including physicist Albert Ghiorso. Working with Ghiorso and others, Seaborg went on to discover transuranium elements 97 through 102. In 1974, Ghiorso and chemist Ken Hulet of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, discovered element 106 which they named "seaborgium." After a shameful international dispute that served to show the tremendous support Seaborg had earned within the chemistry community, the name became official in 1997, making Seaborg the first living person to be honored with an elemental namesake.

In 1954 Seaborg became Associate Director of the Radiation Laboratory (it would eventually become Lawrence Berkeley National Lab). In 1958 he was appointed to be UC Berkeley's Chancellor, a position he relinquished after three years when President Kennedy prevailed upon him to chair the AEC. In 1971 he returned to Berkeley and resumed his teaching duties which he continued until 1979. He directed this Laboratory's Nuclear Chemistry Division and was later appointed as the Lab's Associate Director-at-Large, a position he held the rest of his life. In 1982 he became the first director of the Lawrence Hall of Science which he co-founded and two years later became its chairman, another position he held until his death. He would also be named a University Professor of Chemistry for the University of California. In 1995, Comet-hunting spouses Caroline and Eugene Shoemaker named an asteroid they discovered in honor of Seaborg.

Prolific Writer and Devoted Father

Somehow, Seaborg found time to author more than 500 scientific articles and numerous books including an autobiography published last September entitled:  A Chemist in the White House: From the Manhattan Project to the End of the Cold War. He also obtained more than 40 patents, including the only ones for a chemical element (americium and curium), and was awarded more than 50 honorary doctoral degrees. In addition to the Nobel Prize, he received the National Medal of Science in 1991, this nation's highest award for scientific achievement, and served as president for both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society. Not too surprisingly, Seaborg is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest entry in "Who's Who in America."

What is surprising is that a man whose career was so packed -- it would seem he must have been working 20-hour shifts for seven days a week -- would still have found time to be a devoted father. Seaborg and Helen had six children, Peter, Lynne, David, Steve, Eric, and Dianne. All but Peter, who died in 1997 at the age of 50, survived Seaborg. Enthusiastic games of baseball, volleyball, and basketball were weekend staples at the Seaborg home in Lafayette. The Seaborgs and their neighbor, Isadore Perlman, built a swimming pool in their two yards which they opened to all the neighborhood kids. Seaborg loved children and he loved sports (see sidebar), and he loved to hike.

There is a reason those steep series of stairs climbing the hill from the Berkeley campus to Seaborg's office at the Lab in Bldg. 70A are known as the "Seaborg steps." For a great many years, the tall (six-foot-three) lanky figure hiking up those stair in that distinctive gait was a visage reassuringly familiar to all of us who work at this Laboratory. Its sad absence leaves a void that will never be filled.

Further Information about Glenn Seaborg: