Glen Seaborg

Glen Seaborg

Glenn Seaborg, the son of Herman Seaborg and Selma Erickson, was born in Ishpeming, Michigan on 19th April, 1912. His family were poor and he had to work his way through college as a stevedore, fruit-packer and laboratory assistant.

After graduating from the University of California in 1934, Seaborg completed his Ph.D. at Berkeley. During the Second World War Seaborg worked at the University of Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory, where he helped to develop plutonium in uranium reactors.

In 1946 Seaborg was appointed as professor of chemistry at the University of California and five years later was awarded the Nobel prize for his discovery of plutonium. He continued his research into transuranic elements and helped identify berkelium (1949), californium (1950), einsteinium (1952), fermium (1953), mendelevium (1955) and nobelium (1957).

In 1961 President John Kennedy appointed Seaborg as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. He also held the post under Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. Seaborg returned to the University of California in 1971.

Primary Sources

(1) Glenn Seaborg, wrote about his Swedish background in his autobiography, Life of Glen Seaborg (1982).

Both of my parents were Swedish. My mother, Selma Olivia Erickson, was born in Grängesberg, in the southern Dalarna region of Sweden and came to the United States (Ishpeming) in 1904, when she was seventeen years old. My father, Herman Theodore Seaborg, was also born in Ishpeming. His parents came to Ishpeming in their youth and met and were married there.

Ishpeming had typical sections that were nearly all Swedish and it was in one of these that we lived. Since my father was fluent in Swedish and this was my mother's native tongue, the Swedish language was spoken in my home as it was throughout this community. I learned to speak and understand Swedish before I did English, but I am afraid that in the intervening years my facility with the language has declined.

Swedish customs of all kinds prevailed in our home. I remember particularly well the Swedish food that we enjoyed at our dinner on Julaften, or Christmas Eve. The fare usually included smörgåsbord, which featured sil, or pickled herring. One of the mainstays was lutfisk, which was always served with boiled potatoes and a white sauce. Another feature always was saffron buns and bread, usually served hot and made with glacéd fruits. This was part of a large spread of buns and cakes including gingersnaps made in the form of goblins, piglets, stars and other patterns. Another component which was almost always present was the Swedish lingonberries, which I still like so much. The meal was usually topped off with risgryn, or rice pudding, which was topped with cinnamon and cream and sugar.

(2) Glenn Seaborg, Life of Glen Seaborg (1982).

I attended the Ishpeming public schools until I was ten years old and starting the fifth grade. Then my family, which included my younger sister Jeanette, moved to Home Gardens, now a part of South Gate, California (near Los Angeles). This move was made largely at the urging of my mother, who wanted to extend the horizon for her children beyond the limit of opportunities available in Ishpeming. However, unlike in Ishpeming, where he would have had guaranteed employment for life, my father never found a permanent employment in his trade in California, and our family found itself in continuing poor circumstances. Since the new subdivision of Home Gardens had no schools, my sister and I during the first year traveled by bus to attend the Wilmington Avenue Grammar School in the Watts district of Los Angeles. I completed my grammar school education through the eighth grade in the newly constructed Victoria Avenue Grammar School in House Gardens, skipping a couple of semesters on the way to my eighth grade diploma.

My father was a machinist. He had worked for an iron-mining company, as had his father and grandfather, but it didn't take me long to realize that I had no aptitude for my father's craft. I think I was a good student in grammar school, but I had no special scholastic interests. When I entered David Atarr Jordan High School in the Watts district, I had to choose between a commercial and a college preparatory curriculum. My mother urged the commercial course; to her this was the road to a respectable white-collar job. But I started down a different road and chose the college preparatory program, with literature as my major subject.

In my junior year I was required to take a laboratory science. Because my high school was small, chemistry and physics were offered in alternate years and chemistry was the offering in my junior year. It was fortunate for me that my first science course was taught by Dwight Logan Reid, and outstanding teacher who exerted a strong formative influence on me. Mr. Reid not only taught chemistry, he preached it. He related some fascinating experiences he had as a chemistry student in college, and , when he lectured, his eyes would light up. His irrepressible enthusiasm, obvious love for the subject and ability to inspire interest captured my imagination almost immediately.

(3) Glenn Seaborg, Life of Glen Seaborg (1982).

I entered almost by accident the mainstream of my career as a nuclear scientist. One day in 1936 I was suddenly confronted by Jack Livingood, a physicist who was favored by ready access to the twenty-seven-inch cyclotron. He literally handed me a "hot" target, just bombarded by the machine, and asked me to process it chemically to identify the radioisotopes that had been produced. Naturally I jumped at the chance. The facility he offered in Le Conte Hall was hardly luxurious. The resources consisted of tap water, a sink, a fume hood and a small workbench. With some essential materials bootlegged from the Department of Chemistry, I performed the chemical separation to Jack's satisfaction. In the course of my collaboration with Livingood, covering a period of five years, we discovered a number of radioisotopes which proved useful for biological explorations and medical applications. Among the isotopes that we discovered were iodine-131 and iron-59 and among the useful isotopes that we characterized was cobalt-60. In addition, during this period, Emilio Segre and I discovered technetium-99m, which eventually became the most used isotope for diagnosis in medical applications.

(4) Glenn Seaborg, Life of Glen Seaborg (1982).

I am particularly proud of the role that I was privileged to play under President Kennedy in connection with the attainment of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits signatory countries from testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, in outer space or underwater. I was a member of Secretary of State Rusk's delegation to Moscow in August 1963, for the signing of this treaty. Just last year (December, 1981) my book Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Test Ban was published. This was based on the journal that I kept while I was Chairman of the AEC. It is my hope that this book will help toward the attainment of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that will ban all nuclear weapons tests. And I was privileged to collaborate with President Johnson in reducing the level of production of fissionable material for our nuclear weapons production program as part of a concentrated move toward arms limitation in this important field. Under the leadership of President Johnson and President Nixon, the Atomic Energy Commission played a significant role in the attainment of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). We took a stronger and more aggressive stand in the need for peaceful uses are subject to appropriate inspections and controls to insure that they are not diverted to weapons purposes.

(5) Glenn Seaborg, Kennedy, Krushchev and the Test Ban (1981)

The telephone call that changed my life came on the afternoon of January 9, 1961. The call was from President elect John F Kennedy. He asked me to accept the job of chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission within a few days I was plunged into a new kind of chemistry, that of national and international events.

Now five American presidents and one Soviet Party Chairman later, there is again an opportunity in the sense that the negotiating positions of the two sides on a comprehensive test ban treaty seem quite close together. What stands in the way as a huge obstacle is a mountain of mistrust and political ill will. The fund of confidence has been sorely depleted. If this should change- and the world has seen many starting political reversals in recent years- and agreement banning all nuclear tests can follow.

Such an agreement today might well not have the saving power- in ensuring stability in the arms race, in moderating its costs, and in preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons - which a similar agreement would have had in the 1960s. As Averell Harriman pointed out, we are negotiating at a higher and more dangerous level. If we allow the present opportunity to slip away, however, the next one, if there is a next one, will be at a level still higher and still more dangerous. The hour is late. Let us hope not too late.