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Leo Brewer

  • Born: June 13, 1919, St. Louis, Missouri
  • Died: February 22, 2005, Layfayette, California

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0106
Interview Date: April 3, 1992
Location: University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California
Interviewer: James J. Bohning
No. of pages: 61
Minutes: 149

  Abstract of Interview

Leo Brewer begins the interview with a description of his family and his early years growing up in Youngstown, Ohio. Brewer's father worked as a shoe repairman until the Depression hit in 1929. Brewer and his family then moved to Los Angeles. Brewer became interested in chemistry through the influence of a high-school chemistry teacher. After graduating from John Marshall High School, Brewer attended the California Institute of Technology. After receiving his B.S. in 1940, Brewer was advised by Linus C. Pauling to begin his graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied under Axel R. Olsen. Upon receiving his Ph.D., Brewer immediately joined the Manhattan Project as a research associate. Brewer's job was to use models in the periodic table to determine the worst properties of plutonium. Brewer tested refractory materials such as nitrites, carbides, lanthanides, actinides, sulfites, sulfides, and phosphides. He determined that cerium sulfide would serve as the best model. Later, Brewer predicted the electronic configuration of all the actinides. Brewer's research for the Manhattan Project found direct application at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and was later published as part of the Manhattan Project Technical Series. In 1946, Brewer joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley. During his career at Berkeley, Brewer worked in many fields, including organic chemistry, ceramics, astrochemistry, and even geology. Within these areas, he applied his thermodynamic research, including studying high-temperature molecules present in comets and stars, and the distribution of elements in the earth's gravitational field. He is currently a Emeritus Professor at Berkeley. As an educator, Brewer taught many courses on several levels, including freshman chemistry, inorganic chemistry, thermodynamics, and phase diagram equilibration. In more recent years, Brewer and his graduate students have branched their research into metallurgy. Brewer concludes the interview with a discussion of his published papers, the future of research support and application, and thoughts on the future of education.


1940 B.S. California Institute of Technology
1942 Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley

  Professional Experience

Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (Radiation Laboratory), University of California, Berkeley

1943 - 1946

Research Associate, Manhattan District Project

University of California, Berkeley

1946 - 1950 Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry

University of California, Berkeley

1950 - 1955 Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry

University of California, Berkeley

1955 - 1989 Professor, Department of Chemistry

University of California, Berkeley

1989 - present Emeritus Professor, Department of Chemistry


1942 Great Western Dow Fellow
1950 Guggenheim Fellow
1953 Leo Hendrick Baekeland Award, North Jersey Section, American Chemical Society
1961 E. O. Lawrence Award, Atomic Energy Commission
1971 Palladium Medalist, Electrochemical Society
1974 Distinguished Alumni Award, California Institute of Technology
1983 William Hume-Rothery Award, Metallurgical Society AIME
1988 Henry B. Linford Award for Distinguished Teaching, Electrochemical
1989 Berkeley Citation, University of California, Berkeley
1991 TMS Extractive Metallurgy Science Award
1993 Fifty-year citation, American Chemical Society
1998 Fifty-year citation, American Association of University Professors

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early Years 1

Parents' background. Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio. Parents' emphasis on education. Family relocation to Los Angeles. Influence of high-school chemistry teacher. Attending college at Caltech.

Education and Graduate Work 4

Linus C. Pauling, Ernst H. Swift, and H. L. Lucas. Selecting University of California at Berkeley for graduate studies. Kinetics work with Axel R. Olsen. Environment at Berkeley. Receiving Ph.D. in 1942. Wendell Latimer.

Early Career 9

Working with Manhattan Project. Plutonium research using models. Cerium sulfide. Sending crucibles to Los Alamos. Impervium. Analyzing oxygen content of plutonium. Using platinum. Acceptance of research.

Research Work 17

Thermodynamics. Editing the standard Thermodynamics canon. Sabbatical at Imperial College. Nitrogen work. Cuprous chloride polymers. Predicting electronic configuration of actinides. Ceramics, astronomy, and geology research. Teaching method.

Career at Berkeley 27

Joining faculty. Courses. Graphite studies. Testing students. Quality of today's students. Disseminating Neils Engel's research.

Scientific Papers 34

Metallurgic research. John Kouvetakis. Molybdenum predictions for the International Atomic Energy Agency. Thermodynamics. Need for using models in scientific research.

Conclusion 39

Support and application of research work. Cost of publishing books. Future of research. Future of chemical education. Funding cuts.

Notes 47

Index 51

  About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning is professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he was a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and has presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was the foundation’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. He is currently a visiting research scientist and CESAR Fellow at Lehigh University. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.

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