Glenn T. Seaborg Biography

Glenn Theodore Seaborg (1912 - 1999)

Glenn Seaborg won the Nobel Prize for his research on transuranium elements.
Glenn Seaborg won the Nobel Prize for his research on transuranium elements. Department of Energy

Glenn Seaborg was a scientist who discovered several elements and won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Seaborg was one of the great pioneers of nuclear chemistry in the United States. He was responsible for the actinide concept of heavy element electronic structure. He is credited as co-discoverer of plutonium and other elements up to element 102. One interesting bit of trivia about Glenn Seaborg is that he may have achieved what the alchemists could not: turn lead into gold! Some reports indicate the scientist transmuted lead into gold (by way of bismuth) in 1980. 

Seaborg was born on April 19, 1912 in Ishpeming, Michigan, and died on February 25, 1999 in Layfayette, California at age 86. 

Seaborg's Notable Awards

  • 1951 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with Edwin McMillan for research with transuranic elements.
  • Between 1946 and 1958, his team added ten new elements to the periodic table.
  • Appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (1961-1971). President of American Chemical Society in 1976.
  • Element 106 was renamed seaborgium in his honor. There was controversy over the element name, as it was issued while Seaborg was still alive.
  • Co-author of approximately 500 scientific articles and many books.
  • Seaborg held over 40 patents, including the only patents ever granted for making chemical elements (curium and americium).

Early Nuclear Chemistry and New Element Group - Actinides

In February 1941, Seaborg with Edwin McMillan produced and chemically identified the existence of plutonium. He joined the Manhattan Project later that year and started work on the investigation of transuranium elements and better ways to extract plutonium from uranium.

After the end of the war, Seaborg moved back to Berkeley where he came up with the idea of the actinide group, to position higher numbered elements in the periodic table of the elements. Over the next twelve years, his group discovered elements 97-102. The actinide group is a set of transition metals with properties similar to each other. The modern periodic table places the lanthanides (another subset of transition metals) and actinides below the body of the periodic table, yet in line with the transition metals.

Cold War Applications of Nuclear Materials

Seaborg was appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1961 and held the position for the next ten years, serving three presidents. He used this position to champion the peaceful use of atomic materials such as for medical diagnosis and treatments, carbon dating, and nuclear power. He was also involved in the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Glenn Seaborg Quotes

The Lawrence Berkeley Lab recorded several of Seaborg's most famous quotes. Here are some favorites:

In a quote regarding education, which was printed in the New York Times:

"The education of young people in science is at least as important, maybe more so, than the research itself."

In a comment about the discovery of the element plutonium (1941):

"I was a 28-year-old kid and I didn't stop to ruminate about it," he told the Associated Press in a 1947 interview. "I didn't think, 'My God, we've changed the history of the world!'"

On being a graduate student at Berkeley (1934) and competing with other students:

"Surrounded by dazzlingly bright students, I was uncertain I could make the grade. But taking heart in Edison's dictum that genius is 99 per cent perspiration, I discovered a pedestrian secret of success. I could work harder than most of them.''

Additional Biographical Data

Full Name: Glenn Theodore Seaborg

Field of Expertise: Nuclear Chemistry

Nationality: United States

High School: Jordan High School in Los Angeles

Alma Mater: UCLA and University of California, Berkeley