Chemist and Administrator at Uc Berkeley, Rice University, Stanford University, and the Atomic Energy Commission, 1935-1997

Invitation Back to Berkeley


He is one of the only presidents who went through that period who went back into academic life. Isn't that right?

J. Pitzer

That's right productive academic life. There's only one other president that I can recall, the one at the University of Virginia--he was a professor of English or history who was productive after retirement. Most presidents retire and take on a job at a foundation or retire. They don't keep abreast of their own field or aren't able to. That was one reason why Ken decided to retire, because at Rice he was able to have some postdocs, and he did do quite a bit of productive work in chemistry at Rice. Of course, that all stopped with all this difficulty at Stanford.


Although his plan was to--

J. Pitzer

He had hoped to have some postdocs and do some research, as he had done at Rice. He was a professor of chemistry as well as president. When he resigned--well, he was offered some presidency of more than one foundation, but he didn't want to do that; he wanted to get back into chemistry. He was offered professorships at several universities. He could have stayed

on at Stanford as a professor of chemistry. We talked it over and seriously considered it. Several days after he resigned at Stanford, the dean of the College of Chemistry here at Berkeley and the chairman of the department came down to see him. The dean was [David] Templeton, and the chairman was Bruce Mahan. They said they wanted him back, that they hoped we would come back to our friends here. They had already had a meeting of the faculty of the college. Ken told them that he was going to take a year's sabbatical before he decided, and we did. We traveled around the world to Samoa, New Zealand, Australia, and Greece, and ended up in Cambridge, England, for several months, associated with Cambridge University. He did some chemistry there and did a lot of reading in the library and so on [chuckles]. He also gave several lectures.

During our stay at Cambridge we lived in the Master's Lodge of Sidney Sussex College. This was arranged by Jack Linnett, professor of chemistry at Cambridge and head of chemistry at Cambridge, who had just been elected master, but had not yet moved in. Jack later served a term as vice chancellor of Cambridge University. Jack and Rae Linnett had spent a semester at Berkeley, during which Jack had taught Ken's classes in thermodynamics during a semester sabbatical which we spent in Europe and England--mostly at Leiden and Oxford. That was in 1955 or 1956 during Ken's Guggenheim Fellowship. During Jack's term in the 1970s as vice chancellor of Cambridge University, Jack had to deal with student protests and violence. He died of a heart attack due to the stress. If he had lived, Jack would probably have been knighted. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister when he was vice chancellor. Jack had been her tutor in chemistry at Oxford when he was a professor there.

Berkeley had said that there would be some--well, not difficulty but delay and red tape--to bring someone in at that level would be rather unprecedented [laughter]. But they would set it in motion and have it ready when he was ready to decide. They had to go to the Regents to get the approval to bring back a full professor [laughs], which they did. The Regents approved the appointment.

After we returned to Berkeley, the successive deans of the College of Chemistry have told me that they found Ken to be a wise counselor and source of valuable advice in their successful efforts to maintain the premier eminence of the college, frequently rated as the best department in the country. At one time Ken was asked to be the acting dean

during a time when the current dean was on sabbatical leave. He thanked them but declined.

We were very happy to come back to Berkeley. We had kept our home here in Berkeley on Eagle Hill. It was wonderful to come back to our view of the bay from our windows. Ken was very productive in chemistry in those years; he taught until 1984 when he became emeritus. His graduate students and postdocs--he had postdocs up until the time of his death. I think he published over 200 papers in that period--about 400 papers in his lifetime, and several books, including the third revision of Thermodynamics.

[tape interruption]


You were just saying that he had done 400 papers, several books, the third revision of Thermodynamics.

J. Pitzer

Yes. And he was asked to get together a collection of his most important papers in a series of books on 20th century chemistry. His book Molecular Structure and Statistical Thermodynamics was volume I of that series.

He was asked to write an introduction to his most important papers, and they were published in 1993. He also edited a book titled Activity Coefficients in Electrolyte Solutions, second edition, published in 1991.

[Throughout his career my husband had opportunities offered to him to accept executive positions in foundations or industry. But he was devoted to the academic life. I think he imparted that devotion--his philosophy and idealism--to many of his graduate students, over half of whom accepted positions in universities instead of industry. Two of his graduate students, Professor William Gwinn and Professor George Pimentel, became valued members of the chemistry department in Berkeley.

There is a tradition in the Pitzer family to support education, starting with Ken's great-grandfather, Claiborne Pitzer, who donated part of his land on which to build a schoolhouse in pioneer Iowa in the 1830s. Ken's father helped to establish three of the Associated Colleges in Claremont, California, including Pitzer College. His total fortune, which was substantial, was given to these colleges. Ken was a trustee of three colleges during his career--Harvey Mudd College, Mills College, and Pitzer College.


Ken established the Flora Sanborn Pitzer Professorship in mathematics to honor his mother's memory at Pitzer College. Since Ken's death the Pitzer Family Foundation, which consists of myself and our three children as trustees, has funded the Kenneth S. Pitzer Distinguished Professorship in the Department of Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, as well as the Kenneth S. Pitzer Professorship in Science and the Jean M. Pitzer Professorship in Anthropology at Pitzer College. My three children also funded the Jean M. Pitzer Archaeological Laboratory at Pitzer College.

As far as I was concerned, personally, it was heaven to be back in our own home, with nobody intruding on our private life. In both the President's House at Rice and the Hoover House at Stanford there were always unannounced workmen wandering around--furnace repair men, electricians, et cetera, who might come to do some repair work. It was also delightful to be leisurely at breakfast with the morning newspaper after so many years of necessary orders to be given in the morning.

I also now had time to pursue my interest in archaeology. Professor Robert Heizer of the Department of Anthropology here at Berkeley had encouraged my interest in lithic technology. He had sent me a collection of lithic artifacts collected from the Santa Barbara Channel Islands to analyze while we were at Rice.

I hadn't had time to do this. But after our return to Berkeley, I worked as a volunteer on that collection in the anthropology department with Heizer and Tom Hester, one of his graduate students, currently professor of anthropology at the University of Texas-Austin and director of the Museum of Anthropology. There were several other graduate students working in the same laboratory room. I was delighted and pleased with their attitude toward me. They were respectful and helpful and treated me like just another student.

I gave a paper on that research at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology when it met in San Francisco in 1974. The paper was later published and was the first paper on the Channel Islands' technology. I have also had two monographs and another paper on lithic technology which were published. I think I gave you copies of them.

131. See Pitzer papers in The Bancroft Library.


I am currently working on a collection of artifacts I collected from the beach at our place at Clear Lake, which I think is quite important.]

132. Bracketed material was added by Mrs. Pitzer during the editing process.

About this text
Courtesy of University Archives, The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000;
Title: Chemist and Administrator at UC Berkeley, Rice University, Stanford University, and the Atomic Energy Commission, 1935-1997
By:  Kenneth Sanborn Pitzer, Creator, Sally Smith Hughes, Interviewer, Germaine LaBerge, Interviewer
Date: 1996-1998
Contributing Institution:  University Archives, The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000;
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