Glenn T. Seaborg, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry – 1951

(The Epitome of the Phrase: “A Gentleman and a Scholar”)

I am sure Glenn Seaborg made an excellent first impression on most everyone he met, whether or not knowledge of his amazing achievements had preceded him. He had a gentle demeanor which evidenced no trace of superiority feeling. He focused on you intensely while you were speaking and responded to questions with a graciousness that never hinted that you perhaps should have already known the answer.

I met him only one time and that was during a visit he made to Richland, WA in 1994 to participate in the 50th Anniversary of the first production of plutonium, the element co-discovered by him and Edwin McMillan, and for which they received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry when Seaborg was 39 years old. In addition to plutonium, he is credited as a lead discoverer of americium, curium, and berkelium, and as a co-discoverer of californium, einsteinium, fermium, mendelevium, nobelium and seaborgium.

I have read that one could have mailed Seaborg a letter in those days from anywhere in the world, addressed only in element names and he would get it, especially if the postmen knew their physics. It would read:

Seaborgium – his name

Lawrencium – his lab

Berkelium – city

Californium- state

Americium – country

Only Lawrencium was not discovered by him and his team, but by his boss of many years, E.O. Lawrence (Nobel Prize, 1939). Lawrence was also Oppenheimer’s boss before WWII. Seaborg married Lawrence’s secretary, Helen Griggs, in 1942. They had six children, four boys and two girls.

He certainly was not one to rest on his Nobel Prize laurels. After WWII was over he returned to Berkeley, soon became a professor and headed many research groups and projects. He later served as Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.

After appointment by President Kennedy and confirmation by the Senate, Seaborg served as chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission from 1961 to 1971.

My partner in the small instrument company we had started in 1991 in Richland had long been a member of the American Chemical Society which was to host a small dinner for Seaborg one evening. We learned that, after he finished speaking he would autograph copies of his latest book, “The Plutonium Story: The Journals of Professor Glenn T. Seaborg, 1939-1946 “. We both bought a copy of the book and my friend found two good copies of the Periodic Table of Elements that were encased in plastic. We were aware of a movement in the scientific community to honor Seaborg by naming the latest element that had been found by his team, #106, Seaborgium, symbol Sg. We brought along a Sharpie pen that could write on plastic and we intended to get him to write in the symbol for element 106 and autograph our tables in addition to the book, which he very graciously did. The book and table are now my grandson’s possessions.

Of the fifty or so attendees, many were close to Seaborg’s age, and included some of the Hanford site scientists, then retired, who had been much involved in developing the plutonium production process. The after dinner talk followed by a Q&A lasted late into the evening and was very interesting with much reminiscing by Seaborg and some of the retirees about the old Hanford days and the problems they had met and solved. The evening was a truly interesting and memorable one for my partner and me.

Professor Seaborg was born on April 19, 1912, in the iron-mining town of Ishpeming in the upper peninsula of Michigan, to Swedish immigrants Herman Theodore Seaborg, a machinist, and Selma O. (Erickson). The family name had been Sjöberg, which, after immigrating to America, was anglicized to Seaborg. Ishpeming had typical sections that were nearly all Swedish and the Swedish language was spoken in their home as it was throughout that section. Seaborg learned to speak and understand Swedish before English.

At his mother’s urging, the family moved to the Los Angeles, California, area when he was ten, in an effort to locate better educational opportunities for him and his sister Jeannette. However Seaborg’s father never found a permanent employment in his trade in California and the family found itself in continuing poor circumstances.

In 1929 he entered the University of California at Los Angeles, majored in chemistry, and then went on as a graduate student at University of California at Berkeley (1934-1937).

He was (still is?) in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest entry in “Who’s Who in America.”

Professor Seaborg died February 28, 1999.

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