Glenn T. Seaborg, Citizen-Scholar

By Peggy House

Reprinted from The Seaborg Center Bulletin, April 1999

It is impossible to overstate the accomplishments of a person who is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest biography in Who's Who in America. Yet for all the accolades lavished upon Dr.Glenn Seaborg both during his life and since his death on February 25,1999, the legacy for which he will be most remembered at Northern Michigan University is his towering stature as citizen-scholar.

Born just a few miles up the road from campus in Ishpeming on April 19, 1912, young Glenn Theodore Seaborg was every bit the normal "Yooper." At home he learned Swedish from his immigrant mother and his father, the son of immigrants, before he learned English. His memories of those early years in the Upper Peninsula were happy ones, full of tales about athletics and the outdoors. He reminisced about watching the Ishpeming football team and about taking his skis up to his bedroom so he could put them on and ski right out through the bedroom window. He recalled streetcar rides from Ishpeming to Negaunee, train trips to Marquette and Sunday outings to visit a family friend who was warden of the Marquette prison. He looked back on elementary school in Ishpeming where, by his own account, he was a good student, although not a particularly outstanding one, but where, as his third-grade class picture will attest, he did physically stand head and shoulders above his classmates, making him a popular caddie at the Ishpeming golf course because he was the only one tall enough to carry the clubs without dragging the bag.

Although the family sold their belongings and bought one-way train tickets to California when young Glenn was only 10 years old, he never forgot his roots nor lessened his love for the U.P. Throughout his career as a scientist of the first magnitude and a popular speaker at the most prestigious scientific gatherings, he delighted in having his introduction include the fact that he was born in Ishpeming so that he could begin his talk by telling the audience,"I can see by the looks on some of your faces that there are a few people here who don't know where Ishpeming is. Well, let me put your minds at ease: it's right next to Negaunee." Two years ago, I had the privilege of accompanying Dr. Seaborg on a visit to Washington, D.C. As we met with congressmen, senators and other government officials, he proudly announced to each, "We're Yoopers, you know"--then paused to see their responses. Glenn Seaborg never lost sight of who he was or where he came from, and he was fiercely proud of both his Swedish heritage and his U.P. homeland.

In California, the Seaborg family -- father, mother, Glenn, and younger sister Jeanette -- found, not gold and glamour, but extreme poverty. Dr.Seaborg recalled those days as he and I walked through the newly opened Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1997. It was a moment of deep reverence that I can only liken to entering a great cathedral as Dr. Seaborg recalled the Depression days and his mother's struggle to put a pot of soup on the family's dinner table, as well as the gratitude they felt when, through FDR's social programs, his father, formerly a machinist at the Ishpeming mines, once again found employment of any kind. To a high school student growing up in such poverty, the dream of a college education seemed remote, indeed.

Although his mother hoped he would become a bookkeeper, by the time he reached high school Glenn Seaborg had his sights set on the university to study literature and writing. Calvin Coolidge was in the White House when, at the age of 14, Seaborg began to keep a daily journal, a practice he continued faithfully until his final illness stilled his pen. When asked why he began his diaries in the first place, especially at so young an age, he would look startled and reply, "Doesn't everyone?" He was a keen observer of events with a scientist's eye for precise detail. Where another might write "flew to Washington today," he carefully noted the type of aircraft, flight number, departure gate, arrival time, and the model of car that took him to his hotel. He inquired about the spelling of the name of every new person he met so that it would be correctly recorded in the day's log. Today, the shelves and shelves of Seaborg Journals chronicle the history of the twentieth century through the eyes of one of its central figures.

One thing, however, stood in the way of Seaborg's desire for higher education: finances. In high school he understood that his only hope for college was to gain acceptance to a state university where he would not have the burden of tuition. For that to happen, he would have to pass a high school science course. So, in the eleventh grade, he reluctantly signed up for his first science class: chemistry. Then providence intervened.

Glenn Seaborg was blessed with one of those truly charismatic teachers who, if we are fortunate, sometimes touch our lives and whom we never forget. His high school chemistry teacher made science come alive. He transmitted not only his knowledge of the facts but, far more important, his joy and wonder and enthusiasm and love for the subject. Young Seaborg was instantly smitten. He recalled that he knew after only a short time in chemistry class that he would most certainly continue his education, but it would not be in literature. For the rest of the school year, Seaborg's world blossomed and expanded as chemistry came alive for him. At the end of the term, he eagerly signed up for another year of science with the same teacher only to discover that there was one subject even more fascinating than chemistry and it was physics.

Although drawn strongly to further study of physics, yet keenly aware of the economic hardships of his youth, Seaborg entered UCLA as a freshman and declared chemistry his major because, he reported later, a physicist in those days found employment primarily in academic teaching and research, while a chemist could more easily fall back on industrial opportunities should the financial need arise. But the distinction would be of little consequence. Seaborg saw science as integrated and unified and later in his career found it amusing as well as gratifying that the chemists and physicists of today both vigorously claim him as their own.

To make ends meet while in school, Seaborg worked as a stevedore and as a linotype assistant, packed fruit, distributed handbills, held down the graveyard shift as a lab assistant in a tire company, graded papers, and did odd jobs whenever possible. While earning his bachelor's degree in chemistry from UCLA, Seaborg had taken all of the physics courses he could find, including one in modern physics where he was introduced to the exciting work taking place on the frontiers of nuclear physics. Energized anew, he set his sights on that emerging field and on another seemingly unattainable goal: graduate school. In 1934, upon graduation from UCLA, Seaborg moved north to the University of California, Berkeley, where he was accepted into the doctoral program and granted a teaching assistantship. His Ph.D. was awarded in 1937, and Berkeley remained his home base for the rest of his life.

When Glenn Seaborg arrived at Berkeley, the heaviest known chemical element was uranium (atomic number 92), but in the late 1930s and early 1940s, vigorous searches were under way to discover heavier elements. Using the cyclotron invented by Ernest O. Lawrence, Edwin McMillan and Philip Abelson succeeded Seaborg in the spring of 1940 in producing the first of these "transuranium" elements, number 93, which they named neptunium. When McMillan was called away by the War Department to begin development of radar, the 28-year-old Glenn Seaborg took over McMillan's research; and, late on the night of February 23,1941, Seaborg's team made the discovery for which most people remember him: element 94. Following the sequence of "uranium" and "neptunium," Seaborg dubbed the new element "plutonium," after the planet Pluto. Years later he still smiled when he let the name roll off his tongue as "ploooo-tonium" and his eyes still twinkled mischievously when he told students why he chose the symbol "Pu" instead of the conventional "Pl" because it pleased him to have plutonium called "pee-yoo," the sound a child might make, pinching her nose at a bad odor.

Seaborg's research attracted the attention of scientists trying to develop an atomic bomb when the Berkeley team determined that one isotope, Pu-239, had fissionable properties that would make it usable in atomic weapons. Seaborg was recruited to join the Manhattan Project under the direction of Enrico Fermi. He arrived at the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory on his thirtieth birthday to assume leadership for developing the chemical process used to extract Pu-239 after its production in nuclear reactors. It was the beginning of a life of scientific research in service to his country.

History records that the Manhattan Project scientists were successful in their quest, and Seaborg recalled that every team member was driven by an intense fear that Hitler's forces might achieve atomic-weapon capabilities first. Nevertheless, Seaborg was one of seven signatories to a letter to President Truman urging that the bomb be demonstrated on a barren island rather than dropped on Japan. After the plutonium bomb "Fat Man" detonated over Hiroshima and brought World War II to an end, Seaborg dedicated the rest of his career to promoting peaceful uses of nuclear power.

Even while still in Chicago, Seaborg was credited with discovering two additional elements, americium (number 95) and curium (96), on which he obtained patents, making him the only person ever to patent a chemical element. Returning to Berkeley after the war, he continued his tireless research and discovery, eventually gaining credit for discovering or co-discovering more than 100 isotopes and ten elements (atomic numbers 94 through 102 and 106); an eleventh element, number 110, was also created by Seaborg and associates, but formal attribution and naming rights for that element have not yet been determined by the chemistry community. Among those many discoveries,he took great pride in those that have important industrial applications (such as americium, which is used in smoke detectors) and those that have become the mainstays of nuclear medicine, including technetium-99, widely used in bone scans, and iodine-131, which was used to treat his own mother's thyroid condition and prolong her life by many years.

Photographs of Dr.Seaborg often show him standing in front of the Periodic Table of the Elements; recent photos show him pointing to element 106, for which his colleagues proposed the name "seaborgium" in recognition of a lifetime of scientific contributions and discoveries. (Until 2003, Seaborg was the only person to have an element named for him during his lifetime, Seaborg can truly be called a man in his element at the Periodic Table.) But few people today realize that Dr.Seaborg himself considered his most significant scientific accomplishment to be his reorganization of the Periodic Table in 1944, the only such restructuring since it was first proposed by the Russian Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869. His formulation of the "actinide concept" for placing the heavy elements (numbers 90 through 103) in a special row on the table was roundly criticized by chemists of the time, and his colleagues warned that such tampering with the table would surely ruin his scientific reputation. But Seaborg persisted, and his insights led to correct predictions of the chemical properties of the transuranium elements that, in turn, enabled the discovery and separation of new elements.

For all his discoveries in the laboratory, however, Glenn Seaborg resolutely insisted that his greatest discovery of all was made in 1941 in the office of Ernest Lawrence where Seaborg first met Lawrence's secretary, Helen Griggs. Unsuccessful in winning her immediate attention, Seaborg enlisted the help of a friend to break the ice and initiate a courtship with her. Just before his departure for Chicago in 1942, the two became engaged. In June of that year, Seaborg made a whirlwind trip back to California to pick up Helen, introduce her to his family ,and elope to Nevada where Helen Griggs became Helen Seaborg. From a marriage that would span more than 56 years, four sons and two daughters were born to enliven the Seaborg household. Their eldest son, Peter, died in 1997; Helen and the other Seaborg children survive.

In addition to his research, Dr. Seaborg was an active teacher, taking as much delight in teaching freshman chemistry as in mentoring graduate students. He served as chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, from 1958-1961, until President John F. Kennedy invited him to Washington to become chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (forerunner of the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission), a post he held for more than ten years, until 1971. During his tenure as AEC chair, he helped negotiate the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and joined the delegation to Moscow for its signing in 1963, and he helped lay the groundwork for the later Non-Proliferation Treaty. During the decade at AEC, he traveled to more than 60 countries to promote international cooperation in science and the peaceful uses of atomic and nuclear energy.

Kennedy was not the first president to call upon Glenn Seaborg, however. He served in an advisory capacity to all the presidents from Harry Truman through George Bush. Photographs of Seaborg with every president from Truman through Clinton graced his office wall, as well as one of him with Abraham Lincoln, thanks to a bit of photographic trickery from his office staff. He had also met Herbert Hoover, after his presidency, as well as twelve vice-presidents and all of the first ladies from Eleanor Roosevelt to the present [Hillary Clinton]. Anyone who ever shook hands with Glenn Seaborg is only one handshake away from most of the world leaders of the 20th Century.

In addition to his role as scientist extraordinaire, Dr. Seaborg had at least two other areas of compelling interest and involvement. One was athletics; the other, education.

As UC Berkeley's faculty representative to the old Pacific Coast Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, he labored to correct widespread recruiting violations and helped to disband that conference and replace it with the Athletic Association of Western Universities, forerunner of today's PAC-10. He also liked to remind everyone that his years as chancellor coincided with a golden age of Berkeley athletics, a coincidence for which he jokingly took credit. He took special pleasure in presenting the "Seaborg Football Award" to a former Berkeley player who had excelled in his later career. Always avid hikers, Glenn and Helen Seaborg trekked across most of northern California and laid out a network of hiking trails that extend from the Bay area to the Nevada border, part of a cross-country course sponsored by the American Hiking Society.

When it came to education, Dr.Seaborg was as passionate about it as he was about his research. He believed that scientists must take account of the social implications of their work and explain the importance of their research to the public, and he insisted that scientists have a moral obligation to put their knowledge at the service of children, arguing that the education of young students of science is at least as important as scientific research itself, and maybe more so. In his 1992 commencement address at Northern Michigan University, he told the graduates:

There can be no doubt that scientific literacy, a solid understanding of science and mathematics, is now more important than ever before.... We must improve general science education for all our young (and not only for those who plan to continue their education and become professional scientists, mathematicians or engineers).... The effectiveness of our democratic system fundamentally depends on our citizens being able to make informed judgments on the more and more complex issues of scientific and technological public policy.

Glenn Seaborg lived what he believed. Throughout his career, he was active in educational circles, including curriculum development in the "new science" era of the 1960s, establishment of the Lawrence Hall of Science, and service on numerous educational commissions and boards. He was a co-author of the report "A Nation at Risk" that electrified education in 1983, and he was involved for many years with the national science talent search, at which he made it his mission to meet personally with each of the high-school entrants. Letters from school children were answered with as much respect as letters from dignitaries, and he never passed up an opportunity to motivate and encourage students.

Descriptions of Dr. Seaborg's achievements always demand superlatives: author of more than 25 books and more than 500 scientific papers, adviser to more than 65 doctoral students, holder of more than 40 patents, recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees. Among his too-numerous-to-list awards were, of course, the 1951 Nobel Prize in chemistry that he shared with McMillan for their discoveries in the chemistry of the transuranium elements and the 1991 National Medal of Science, the United State's highest award for scientific achievement. At the time of his death, Seaborg had the distinction of holding the Nobel Prize longer during his lifetime than any other recipient in any field. He was truly the dean of Nobel laureates.

Some time ago, Dr.Seaborg reflected on his first meeting with Albert Einstein, while Seaborg was a student at UCLA. He recalled, "I was very impressed and awed that such a great man was so approachable, considerate, easy to talk to and not condescending." There are no truer words that could be spoken of Glenn Seaborg, as well. He was the very embodiment of those same qualities: approachable, considerate, easy to talk to and never condescending.

Today, Dr. Seaborg's legacy lives on at Northern Michigan University in the Glenn T. Seaborg Center for Teaching and Learning Science and Mathematics and the new Seaborg Science Complex. We were both humbled and elated when he stated, during the 1998 ground-breaking for the Seaborg Science Complex, that he considered the naming of the Seaborg Center and the Seaborg Complex to be among the highest honors that he had received, equating them with the naming of element 106, seaborgium, which he regarded as his highest accolade. During this, NMU's centennial year, we are on the brink of a new millenium as well as a new era for science and mathematics education. It is a fitting time to renew our commitment to the ideals for which Glenn Seaborg stood and which we strive to uphold.

Two elements of the Seaborg story drive our resolve. One is the warm memory of a great man who became one of the foremost scientists of all time, a citizen of the world who never for a moment saw himself as anything other than a child of Ishpeming and the Upper Peninsula. Can we ever again look into the eyes of another Yooper child and not ask what other Glenns and Glendas sit in our classrooms and play in our great wilderness, diamonds in the rough waiting to be awakened and challenged by the wonder of learning about the world? The mission of the Seaborg Center is to reach out to "children" young and old and invite them to share the excitement of learning that Dr. Seaborg held so dear.

The other motivating image is of the charismatic high school teacher in a far-away classroom who, without knowing it, changed the course of history by igniting one reluctant eleventh grader. All the power unleashed by the plutonium-fed nuclear reactions pales by comparison to the power unleashed by that teacher who started a much more significant chain reaction in the mind of his young student. So the other mission of the Seaborg Center is to partner with teachers at all levels in an effort to help those teachers develop the knowledge and pedagogy and enthusiasm to infect their own classrooms with the same zeal for teaching and learning so that they will carry a similar message of inspiration and excitement and love of learning to the students in their classrooms.

We, who were privileged to know Glenn Seaborg, to work with him and call him our friend, are changed by our association with him. He is our role model and our inspiration for his intellectual honesty and endless curiosity; for his insistence on good science and deep understanding of its principles; for his love of learning and dedication to sharing his knowledge with all people, especially children; for his selfless service to his country and to the world; for his pride in his heritage and his beloved U.P.; and for his warmth and humanity, his droll sense of humor, and the twinkle in his eye. He was a citizen and a scholar.

We pledge our efforts to make him proud of the work we strive to carry on in his name.