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

1979: Glenn T. Seaborg (1912–1999)

Literally and figuratively, Glenn T. Seaborg was a gentle giant. The modest and gentlemanly 6-foot, 3-inch chemist, who was both esteemed and warmly regarded by friends and colleagues, reshaped society with his discovery of 10 elements.

When Seaborg passed away in 1999 at the age of 86, he was University Professor Emeritus of the University of California, Berkeley. At the time, American Chemical Society President Ed Wasserman said, “There is no doubt Seaborg was one of the dominant figures of 20th-century chemistry, and probably the single most influential individual in the discovery of new elements. There is a whole corner of the periodic table that was initiated by his efforts.” The fact that an element—seaborgium—was the first named in honor of a living individual was “a tribute to the high regard in which he was held by the science community,” Wasserman added.

In fact, Seaborg was delighted to have element 106 named for him in 1997. Seaborg “felt that was a greater honor than the Nobel Prize,” according to UC Berkeley chemistry professor Darleane C. Hoffman (2000 Priestley Medalist), who took over Seaborg’s heavy-element chemistry group in 1984. Seaborg himself reportedly said, “A thousand years from now, it will still be seaborgium, when you would probably have to look in obscure books to find any references to what I had done.”

Seaborg was born in 1912 in the isolated iron town of Ishpeming, Mich., then moved to the Los Angeles suburbs with his family when he was 10. He first encountered science when he took a chemistry course in his junior year in high school. It was love at first sight. He majored in chemistry as an undergraduate at UC Los Angeles and then earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at UC Berkeley in 1937.

In the following years, Seaborg taught at UC Berkeley, where he and physicist John J. (Jack) Livingood identified a number of radioisotopes. In 1940, their colleagues Edwin M. McMillan and Philip H. Abelson offered the first proof of the existence of a transuranium element, which was dubbed neptunium. McMillan and Abelson then sought the next element in the series, which would come to be called plutonium.

When McMillan was called away to assist the World War II effort, Seaborg gained his permission to pursue the research, and he and his colleagues succeeded in isolating and identifying plutonium. Seaborg then took a leave of absence to lead a program at the Manhattan Project’s wartime Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago to produce plutonium for use in an atomic weapon.

In 1944, he devised the actinide concept. “I conceived the idea that perhaps all the known elements heavier than actinium were misplaced on the periodic table,” Seaborg recalled during his Priestley Medal address (C&EN, April 16, 1979, page 46). He proposed that these elements—including as-yet-undiscovered transuranium elements—“might constitute a second series similar to the series of rare earth or lanthanide elements. … This would mean that all these heavier elements really belong with actinium, directly after radium in the periodic table.” The concept turned out to be correct, and it recast the periodic table.

After the war, Seaborg returned to UC Berkeley’s chemistry department to continue his research, which resulted in the discovery of several more transuranium elements. The work culminated in Seaborg and McMillan winning the 1951 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Seaborg’s transuranium work led to another distinction. He was the only person to have held patents for chemical elements: americium and curium, both of which he created while at Chicago.

Seaborg was equally industrious outside the lab. He was a strong advocate for science education, as well as the development of nuclear power and the curtailment of nuclear weapons. Reflecting these interests, he served as chancellor of UC Berkeley (1958–61), chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (1961–71), and president of ACS (1976).

In 1991, Seaborg received the National Medal of Science, the U.S.’s most prestigious award for scientific achievement.—Sophie Rovner

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