Skip to Main Content

ACS News

C&EN Special Issue: 85th Anniversary Of The Priestley Medal - Volume 86, Number 14, April 7, 2008

1962: Joel H. Hildebrand (1881–1983)

Many scientists leave important legacies, but few have careers lasting more than 75 years like Joel H. Hildebrand’s. During that time he not only made key contributions in many different areas—such as to our understanding of molecular interactions in liquids and electrolyte solutions—but he also touched the lives of tens of thousands of students. His professional life spanned most of the 20th century.

Born in Camden, N.J., he attended, and seemingly exhausted, the educational resources available to him at the local schools. His intellectual curiosity was fueled by his grandfather, who had limited schooling himself but had accumulated a library of books. Much of the mathematics and science Hildebrand learned came from these books and his own independent study.

In 1903, Hildebrand graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a double major in chemistry and physics. He received his doctorate from Penn in 1906 and then spent time as a postdoctoral student in Berlin, where he delved into the emerging field of physical chemistry. After serving on the Penn faculty until 1913, he moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where he stayed until his death in 1983 at age 102.

While at Berkeley, Hildebrand was known as an astute scientist, a superb lecturer and teacher, and an active sportsman and outdoorsman. In addition to his research, teaching, and administrative roles, he was president of the Sierra Club from 1937 to 1940 and managed the U.S. Olympic Ski Team in 1936. In the 1920s, his understanding of solubility and diffusion rates led to the use of helium in diving tanks, thereby solving the problem of the “bends”—when gas bubbles form in the bloodstream of divers.

Hildebrand served during both World Wars, directing the chemical warfare laboratory of the U.S. forces in France in 1918–19 during the first and acting as a liaison officer in London for the Office of Scientific Research & Development in 1943–44 during the second. For his military service, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1922.

Hildebrand retired officially in 1952, but remained active as a University Professor of Chemistry beyond his 100th birthday. He was renowned at UC Berkeley for teaching the freshman chemistry course that had been developed with his departmental colleagues. Typical enrollment often exceeded 1,000 students, split into two large groups to whom Hildebrand gave the lectures. It’s estimated that he instructed at least 40,000 students during his career.

Those who saw his lectures have described Hildebrand as an entertaining lecturer who thoroughly enjoyed the pursuit. His humor and enthusiasm, and most importantly his school spirit, were famously displayed year after year in the “Big Game Lecture.” Coinciding with the annual football game between UC Berkeley and arch rival Stanford University, the introductory chemistry lecture involved titrating Stanford red and white solutions into the celebratory blue and gold of UC Berkeley. Many introductory chemistry instructors at UC Berkeley have paid tribute to Hildebrand’s legacy by conducting the annual demonstration.—Ann Thayer

More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

Tools

Save/Share »

Login

Note

Our log-in process has changed. You need an ACS ID to access member-only content.


Username:

Password:

Questions or Problems?

Adjust text size:

A- A+

Articles By Topic

More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award