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

1972: George B. Kistiakowsky (1900–1982)

George B. Kistiakowsky was born in the waning days of Tsarist rule in Kiev, Ukraine. His early studies were interrupted by service in the infantry of the White Russian Army and imprisonment by Bolsheviks before eventually fleeing to Germany. He received a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Berlin in 1925 before emigrating to the U.S. to teach first at Princeton University and then at Harvard University, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Kistiakowsky, who loved skiing and sailing, joined the Manhattan Project in 1944. He “knew all of the people directing that program,” and was one of the top-ranked scientists himself, says Harvard chemistry professor E. J. Corey, who was a longtime colleague and close friend. “He developed the trigger for the first hydrogen bomb.”

After the war Kistiakowsky resumed his teaching career at Harvard. Corey says he was also sought out as a consultant by the Pentagon and by corporations such as United Technologies and Itek. His areas of expertise included thermodynamics, spectroscopy, photochemistry, and chemical kinetics. His research on divalent carbon (CH2) and the stabilization energy of benzene had a large impact on organic and theoretical chemistry.

During the Eisenhower Administration, Kistiakowsky served on the President’s Science Advisory Committee for several years, becoming the science adviser to the President in 1959. He wrote a book about his experience, “A Scientist at the White House: The Private Diary of President Eisenhower’s Special Assistant for Science and Technology.” The book is an unvarnished account of his time in Washington, D.C. He wrote, for example, “I left the office liking and respecting Dwight Eisenhower greatly. These feelings, however, do not extend to all senior members of his administration with whom I had to deal.”

Corey fondly recalls meeting Kistiakowsky for the first time in 1959 when he was a new faculty member. “He came in and welcomed me and was awfully helpful and friendly. He was a wonderful guy—a personable and likeable man. He was an extraordinarily wise and principled colleague here.”

Kistiakowsky loved politics and world affairs, and he was a valued policy adviser, Corey continues. “He knew all the presidents personally up until the time he died.” He had one daughter, Vera Kistiakowsky, who is a professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His brother was a distinguished professor of history at Kiev University.

In the 1960s, Corey says, Kistiakowsky tried unsuccessfully to persuade his high-level contacts in government against involvement in the Vietnam War. “He resigned from government advisory work at that point,” Corey says. “He was a man of great honesty and great conviction.”

In addition to his teaching and advisory roles, Kistiakowsky dedicated time to organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences—he served both as vice president and chair of the Committee on Science, Energy & Public Policy—and the Council for a Livable World, which is concerned with nuclear disarmament.—William Schulz

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

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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