Leo Brewer

Born: June 13, 1919 | St. Louis, MO, US
Died: Tuesday, February 22, 2005 | Layfayette, CA, US

Leo Brewer became interested in chemistry through the influence of a high-school chemistry teacher in Los Angeles. He attended Caltech and,. after receiving his BS in 1940, Linus C. Pauling advised him to begin his graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied under Axel R. Olsen. Upon receiving his PhD, 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. He tested refractory materials, such as nitrites, carbides, lanthanides, actinides, sulfites, sulfides, and phosphides, and determined that cerium sulfide would serve as the best model (later, Brewer predicted the electronic configuration of all the actinides). His 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. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0106
No. of pages: 55
Minutes: 149

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
3 April 1992
University of California, Berkeley

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 BS 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 PhD, 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. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1940 California Institute of Technology BS
1942 University of California, Berkeley PhD

Professional Experience

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

1943 to 1946
Research Associate, Manhattan District Project

University of California, Berkeley

1946 to 1950
Assistant Professor
1950 to 1955
Associate Professor
1955 to 1989
Professor
1989 to 1993
Emeritus Professor

Honors

Year(s) Award
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

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 PhD 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 was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been 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 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 CHF’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. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.  Bohning passed away in September 2011.