Glenn Seaborg (1912-1999)

Glenn Theodore Seaborg was an American chemist famous for his work on nuclear chemistry and his discovery of ten transuranic elements including plutonium. He was born in Ishpeming, Michigan to parents of Swedish ancestry. From 1929 he studied chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he was introduced to Albert Einstein, and received a PhD in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1937.

Seaborg then worked for two years as laboratory assistant to the discoverer of the covalent bond, G N Lewis, before joining the University of California, Berkeley as a member of staff in 1939. He was promoted to Professor of Chemistry at Berkeley in 1945 and later served as Chancellor from 1958 to 1961. Seaborg also took charge of nuclear chemical research at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in 1946 and was Associate Director there from 1954 to 1961. At the same time he was appointed by President Truman to the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), on which he served until 1960. In 1961 he returned to the AEC as Chairman, appointed by President Kennedy, a position he held until his resignation in 1971. After this he returned to Berkeley as a University Professor at the same time as serving as Chairman of the Lawrence Hall of Science, President of the American Association for the Advancement for Science (1972) and President of the American Chemical Society (1976). In 1983, President Reagan appointed him to the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

From 1942 to 1946, Seaborg had been in charge of the plutonium work of the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago and was responsible for separating plutonium from uranium. In 1945 he was part of the secret Franck Report, signed by many nuclear physicists, calling on Truman either to perform a public demonstration of the atomic bomb or to keep the technology secret for as long as possible, rather than launch the outright attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In 1980 at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Seaborg converted a few thousand atoms of bismuth into gold by nuclear transmutation, the nearest an experiment has come to replicating the mythic philosopher’s stone.

Over his career Seaborg discovered the elements plutonium, americium, curium and berkelium, as well as co-discovering californium, einsteinium, fermium, mendelevium, nobelium and seaborgium, which was, unusually, named after him during his lifetime. He also developed more than 100 isotopes, including an isotope of iodine used to treat thyroid disease; as a result he is considered a pioneer in nuclear medicine.

In 1951, Seaborg shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Edwin McMillan for their discoveries of the first transuranic elements. Among a great number of the other awards he received were the Perkin Medal in 1957, the Franklin Medal in 1963 and the Priestley Medal in 1979. He died in 1999 in Lafayette, California, after suffering a stroke six months previously while in Boston to attend a meeting of the American Chemical Society.