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William G. McMillan

William G. McMillan

Detail of Image, Courtesy of John D. Roberts, CHF Collections

  • Born: October 19, 1919, Montebello, California
  • Died: November 25, 2002

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0104
Interview Date: March 25, 1992
Location: Los Angeles, California
Interviewer: James J. Bohning
No. of pages: 95

  Abstract of Interview

William McMillan begins this interview with a discussion of his parents and youth in Montebello, California. The youngest of seven siblings, McMillan expressed an interest in science at an early age. He attended Montebello High School, where he was greatly influenced by his chemistry teacher, Leon Broock. After graduation, McMillan entered UCLA, receiving his B.A. in chemistry in 1941. Afterwards, he attended Columbia University and earned his M.S. in chemistry in 1943 and his Ph.D. in chemical physics in 1945. While working towards his Ph.D. degree, McMillan was employed in the Special Alloys and Materials Project, a forerunner to the Manhattan Project. While a post-doc at the University of Chicago, McMillan worked under Edward Teller. In 1947, McMillan joined the faculty of UCLA as an assistant professor of chemistry and remains there today as Professor Emeritus. He became chairman of UCLA's chemistry department in 1959 and worked to implement more student programs and offices at the university. During his tenure at UCLA, McMillan also worked for RAND Corporation as a consultant to the U.S. military. He helped form the Group on Weapons Effects, which later became the SAGE Advisory that reported on weapons tests. McMillan also worked with the Armed Forces in Vietnam, developing concepts for artillery and military reconnaissance. After contracting hepatitis in Vietnam, McMillan researched the disease and developed a blood chemistry analysis. Some of his personal research projects have included: global warming and ozone depletion issues; atmospheric studies of Venus; and Neutrinos work. In 1971, McMillan developed his own consulting company, McMillan Science Associates. He concludes the interview with thoughts on the future of the military and defense budget, and an expository analysis of the structure of electrons.


1941 B.A., Chemistry, University of California, Los Angeles
1943 M.S., Chemistry, Columbia University
1945 Ph.D., Chemical Physics, Columbia University

  Professional Experience

Manhattan Project

1944 - 1946 Research Assistant

Columbia University

1941 - 1944 Teaching Assistant

University of California, Los Angeles

1947 - 1951 Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry

Columbia University

1949 - 1949 Visiting Professor

Harvard University

1951 - 1952 Carothers Visiting Lecturer

University of California, Los Angeles

1951 - 1958 Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry

The RAND Corporation

1954 - 1971 Senior Physicist

University of California, Los Angeles

1959 - 1990 Professor, Department of Chemistry

University of California, Los Angeles

1959 - 1965 Chairman, Department of Chemistry

U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam

1966 - 1968 Science Advisor to Commander

McMillan Science Associates, Inc.

1971 President

University of California, Los Angeles

1990 Professor Emeritus


1938 Lena De Groff Scholarship, UCLA
1938 Pi Mu Epsilon (mathematics)
1939 Paramount Pictures Scholarship, UCLA
1940 Phi Lambda Upsilon, (chemistry), UCLA
1940 Phi Beta Kappa, UCLA
1942 Sigma Xi, Columbia University
1946 - 1947 Guggenheim Fellow, University of Chicago, Institute for Nuclear Studies
1957 - 1961 Alfred P. Sloan Fellow
1968 Distinguished Civilian Service Award, U.S. Department of the Army
1969 Distinguished Public Service Award, U.S. Department of Defense
1969 Knight of the National Order of Vietnam
1970 Exceptional Civilian Service Award, U.S. Department of the Air Force
1984 Exceptional Civilian Service Award, U.S. Department of the Air Force

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early Years 1

Parents. Growing up in Montebello, California. Siblings. Attending high school. Influence of Leon Broock. John D. Roberts. Attending UCLA. UCLA chemistry department.

Graduate School 7

Going to Columbia University. Teaching assistantship with Jacob Beaver. Joseph E. Mayer. Meeting Edward Teller. Course with Harold Urey. Special Alloys and Materials Project. UF6 process. Obtaining Ph.D.

Post Graduate School Activities 18

Manhattan Project. Army Scientific Advisory Board. Returning to UCLA as assistant professor. Working for RAND Corporation. David Griggs. Nancy McMillan.

Military Involvement 26

Ionizing radiation effect. Group on Weapons Effects. Atmospheric tests. Fragmacord Antipersonnel Mine. Military Issues in Vietnam. Conceptual development of SAM-defense suppression weapon. General Westmoreland. Creating new, unmined landing zones. Acoustic Locator System. Munitions development. Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update. Student response to Vietnam War.

Research Projects 42

Teaching the Defense Science Seminar. Chlorofluorocarbons. Atmosphere of Venus. Thunderstorms. Neutrinos. Astrophysics. Forming McMillan Associates.

Career 54

Molecular orbital theory. Teaching for a year at Harvard. Saul Winstein. Becoming chairman of chemistry department at UCLA. Growth of graduate program. Creating a better atmosphere for students. Interest in explosions. Contracting hepatitis. Coordinate treatment of electrolytes. Research on tunnel detection.

Final Thoughts 67

Ph.D. students. Future of military. Defense budget issues. Chemysteries. Electron structure. Importance of research.

Notes 83

Index 87

  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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