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Guide to the Papers of Clair C. Patterson, 1937-1995
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Biography
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Organization of Collection
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Clair C. Patterson papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1937-1995
    Collection number: Consult repository
    Creator: Patterson, Clair C., 1922-1995
    Extent: 63 linear feet
    Repository: California Institute of Technology. Archives.
    Pasadena, California 91125
    Abstract: This collection documents Clair Patterson (1922-1995), a geochemist at the University of Chicago and California Institute of Technology. Patterson was best known for determining the age of the earth and the solar system, and for his pioneering work on global lead contamination.
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information


    The collection is open for research. Researchers must apply in writing for access.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright may not have been assigned to the California Institute of Technology Archives. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Head of the Archives. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item, box and file number], Papers of Clair C. Patterson. Archives, California Institute of Technology.

    Acquisition Information

    The papers were donated to the Caltech Archives by Lorna Patterson in several installments, during 1996. Two small accessions were given to the Archives in September 1997 and April 1998.

    Processing History

    This collection was processed by Nurit Lifshitz in December 1998.


    Geochemist Clair Patterson is best known for his determination of the age of the Earth and the solar system, and for his pioneering work on global lead contamination. His research affected the work of many other scientists involved in environmental chemistry and geochemistry. His findings brought about a substantial improvement in the quality of human life by initiating government policies to control the amount of lead in the environment and reduce human exposure to lead.
    Patterson was born in Mitchellville, Iowa, near Des Moines, on June 2, 1922. He attended a small local high school and in 1943 graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa with an AB degree in Chemistry. He received his MS degree in 1944 from the University of Iowa and his PhD in chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1951.
    While at the University of Chicago, Patterson worked under the supervision of Professor Harrison Brown, developing theories on the origin of meteorites, pioneering some of the early developments of mass-spectrometric methods for uranium-lead dating of common rock minerals, and using lead isotope tracers to study geological events.
    In 1952, he followed Prof. Harrison Brown to the California Institute of Technology and continued his work on lead isotope chemistry. His research culminated in 1953 when he was first to establish the age of the earth to be 4.6 billion years - a result which is accepted to this day.
    Patterson's continued examination of the Earth's geological evolution led to his discovery of the high concentration of lead in the atmosphere. He focused his attention on the problem of lead in the natural environment and its consequences for life on Earth. He sought to document the extent to which industrialization and modern society have increased the amount of lead in the environment. He conducted studies on ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, tested for lead in the easterly trade winds in American Samoa, and directed research projects in the Sierra Nevada, California. His studies of bones and teeth of prehistoric humans established that modern humans contain hundreds of times more lead than their ancient ancestors did.
    His research was cited by environmentalists and scientists, who successfully lobbied for the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the phasing out of lead in gasoline. His work also contributed to the elimination of lead from drinking-water pipes and lead soldered food cans.
    In the early 1980's Patterson began to focus his interests on evaluating the role of man in society, and the implications of the relationship between scientists and society.
    Patterson's many accomplishments won him the 1973 J. Lawrence Smith Medal from the National Academy of Science; the 1980 Goldschmidt Medal of the American Geochemical Society; the 1983 Professional Achievement Award from the University of Chicago; and the 1995 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1987, and received honorary doctorates from Grinnell College in 1973 and the University of Paris in 1975. An Asteroid (2511) and a peak in the Queen Maude Mountains of Antarctica were dedicated to him.
    Patterson died suddenly at his home in Sea Ranch, California, early in the morning of December 5, 1995.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The working papers, manuscripts, reprints, correspondence, and biographical materials of Clair Cameron Patterson (1922-1995) form the collection known as the Papers of Clair C. Patterson in the Archives of the California Institute of Technology.
    The collection is composed of eleven sections, organized in 147 archival boxes. The correspondence section (Section I) was processed by Jennifer K. Stine and contains a majority of Patterson's correspondence. An attempt was made to gather the general as well as the scientific correspondence into one main section, Section I. However, some correspondence has been left in other sections in order to preserve its original context. Thus, publication correspondence can be found both in Section I and Section III. Letters of recommendation have been placed in Section V, as has correspondence with his Caltech colleagues.
    Section II contains Patterson's unpublished manuscripts in chronological order. Folders in this section contain a variety of material such as manuscript drafts, notes, figures, tables, and related correspondence. Patterson's published manuscripts have been gathered in Section III by title in chronological order. The formal and final reprints have been grouped in Section IV.
    Patterson's research on the age of the Earth, as well as his several research projects on lead, may be found in Section VI. However, some related materials, such as lab notebooks and mass spectrometer charts, are located in the technical files section, Section VII.
    Patterson's talks and lectures are arranged under Section IX in chronological order. Folders in this section contain a wide variety of talk-related documents, from talk outlines and notes to transparencies and correspondence.

    Organization of Collection

    Organized into the following series: I. Correspondence; II. Manuscripts; III. Publications; IV. Reprints; V. California Institute of Technology, subseries A-F as follows: A. Course and lecture notes; B. Student grades, registration information, etc.; C. Committees; D. Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Environmental Engineering Sciences; E. Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences; F. Letters of Recommendation; VI. Research projects and reports, subseries A-B as follows: A. Research projects; B. Reports; VII. Technical files, subseries A-D as follows: A. Mass spectrometric charts; B. Lab notebooks; C. Slides; D. Photographs; VIII. Work of others, subseries A-C as follows: A. Individuals, general; B. Subjects, general; C. Reviews of papers and proposals of others

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection.


    California Institute of Technology


    Environmental geochemistry
    Geochemistry--Study and teaching
    Lead--Environmental aspects

    Genres and Forms of Materials

    Laboratory notebooks