On April 19, 1912 the Seaborgs, a hard working Swedish family in the mining town of Ispeming, Michigan, welcomed a son they named Glenn Theodore. They taught him their family traditions and language from the old country. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather shared another tradition: they were machinists and that is what Glenn might have been, but his parents decided to move to Southern California when he was ten years old.
Seaborg attended high school in the Watts district of Los Angeles where his heritage was one of many ethnic backgrounds. His parents encouraged him to take business courses because the work was cleaner and more reliable than the machinist trade. He chose, however, the college prep courses.
In his freshman year, Seaborg decided the textbook was too boring and refused to take a science course. He made the same decision in his sophomore year. In his junior year, he was reminded that if he wanted to go to UCLA he would have to take two years of laboratory science, so he signed up for chemistry. Mr. Reed, his teacher, had a tremendous love for science and built up a great deal of human interest with stories about chemists and chemical discoveries. Seaborg loved chemistry. The next year he took physics and he loved that, too. He thought of majoring in physics in college, but decided on chemistry.
When Seaborg started college at UCLA in 1929, the school consisted of only four permanent buildings. To pay his tuition, he worked as a dock laborer, an apricot picker, a lab assistant at a rubber company, and a printer's apprentice. Seaborg's enthusiasm for science grew as he learned of new discoveries in nuclear chemistry and physics which were taking place in Europe and at the nearby Berkeley campus of the University of California. He soon decided to become involved in this emerging science.
He earned his degree in chemistry in 1934 and immedaitely went to the University of California at Berkeley, the school of his dreams, to earn his PhD. His background of hard work was an asset as he stayed up all night working the "graveyard shift" in the lead-shielded caveroom using the cyclotron. Here he was involved in the discovery of the elements 93 through 102, a task that required decades of hard work. These elements are today known as neptunium, plutonium, americium, curium, berkelium, californium, einsteinium, fermium, mendelevium, and nobelium. His extensive knowledge of radioactive materials led to his inclusion on the team of scientists who paricipated in the Manhattan Project, the race to produce the atomic bomb.
Seaborg worked extensively on the reorganization of the periodic table to show the relationship of the new elements to those already known. His discoveries made the greatest changes in the periodic table since the time of Mendeleev. Because of his extensive knowledge of radioactive elements, in 1961 he was chosen to head the Atomic Energy Commission, a position he held for ten years.
Seaborg's achievements led to appearances on radio, television, and in films that were made for teaching. The CHEM Study film, "The Transuranium Elements", shows the chemistry of radioactive elements - the Lanthanides and the Actinides. He wrote several books explaining his work to adults and children. He shared his enthusiasm for discovery with the world and frequently gave credit to the teachers who had helped and inspired him. Even after winning the Nobel Prize in 1951, he was always anxious to retain the connections with his former teachers.
Two teachers were especially important to Seaborg. Gilbert N. Lewis introduced him to the idea of valence and bonding and encouraged Seaborg to work hard on his endeavors. Earnest O. Lawrence taught him to use the cyclotron and introduced him to his secretary, Helen Griggs, whom Seaborg later married.
Seaborg has been an enthusiastic supporter of education during his entire career. He has helped improve higher education and science and mathematics education at all levels, doing everything from directing research to teaching freshman chemistry. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnick in 1957, Seaborg served as chairman of the steering committee for the CHEM Study curriculum and was on a number of government advisory committees for science and science education. From 1958 to 1961 he was the second Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley. He has also worked to promote peace between the super powers of the world.
On a radio game show, The Quiz Kids, Seaborg was a guest questioner when the host turned the tables and allowed the children to question him. One student asked Seaborg if he had discovered any new elements. Though the announcement was scheduled for the next day, Seaborg answered, " Yes. Recently there have been two new elements discovered, elements with atomic numbers 95 and 96." The program ended with a commercial, making this the first and only time that the announcement of the discovery of new elements was sponsored by Alka-Seltzer.
Because of his great concern for education, Seaborg was asked what advice he would give the students. He responded, "If I could tell students anything, it would be two words, 'Work hard'."
2. G.B. Kauffman, "Transuranium Power: Glenn T. Seaborg", Today's Chemist, 1991, 4, 18-24, 32.
3. D.W. Ridgway, "Interview with Glenn T. Seaborg", Journal of Chemical Education, 1975, 52, 70-75.
4. G.T. Seaborg, Elements of the Universe, E.P. Dutton, New York, N.Y., 1958.
5. G.T. Seaborg, "Modern Alchemy", The Science Teacher,1983, 50, 29-34.
6. G.T. Seaborg, "The Transuranium Elements", Journal of Chemical Education, 1985, 62, 463-467.
7. G.T. Seaborg, Principal Consultant, Transuranium Elements, CHEM Study Video Series, 1963, updated 1981.
8. G.T. Seaborg, Updating the Periodic Table, Discovery Corner, The Lawrence Hall of Science, Audio Graphic Films and Video, Hollywood, CA, 1986.