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The College of Chemistry: A Brief History

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A view of Gilman and Hildebrand Halls in the Chemistry Complex. UC Berkeley photo.

Chemistry has been offered by the University of California since its founding in 1868. The College of Chemistry itself was created as a unit within the University in 1872. It was housed—along with the other sciences—in South Hall, the first building to be completed on the Berkeley campus. In 1890 a handsome brick building was constructed for the college on what is now the site of Hildebrand Hall. In time it came to be known as “The Old Chemistry Building,” and when it finally fell to the wrecker’s ball to make room for more modern facilities in 1966, its cupola was preserved. Now restored, the cupola sits on Chemistry Plaza above Giauque Laboratory, a reminder of the days when the college rose from a small institution to an internationally acclaimed center for teaching and research in the chemical sciences.

The individual who was largely responsible for the rise to fame was Gilbert Newton Lewis, who became dean in 1912 and served until 1941. During those years the number of undergraduate degrees awarded annually grew from an average of seven to more than sixty, and the number of Ph.D.s from one per year to more than a dozen. The faculty also grew—both in numbers and distinction. Lewis’s recruits included Wendell M. Latimer, Joel H. Hildebrand, and Kenneth Pitzer, as well as future Nobel Prize winners William F. Giauque, Willard F. Libby, Melvin Calvin, and Glenn T. Seaborg. Known particularly for its work in physical chemistry, the college also developed a reputation in nuclear chemistry, especially after the development of the cyclotron and the Radiation Laboratory under the leadership of physicist Ernest Lawrence.

In order to accommodate the growth in faculty and students, the college acquired several other buildings in the Lewis years: the Chemistry Auditorium (built in 1913 and razed in 1959 to make way for Latimer Hall); the Freshman Chemistry Laboratory (built in 1915 and razed in 1962 to clear the site for the Physical Sciences Lecture Hall, now known as George C. Pimentel Hall); the Chemistry Annex, more popularly known as the “Rat House” (also built in 1915 and razed to clear the site for Hildebrand Hall in 1966); and the still-standing Gilman Hall (built in 1917). It was in Room 307 Gilman Hall, in 1941, that Seaborg and colleagues identified the first known isotope of plutonium; Gilman Hall has been identified as a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society.

The post-World War II years were a period of expansion and rebuilding: organic chemistry was strengthened, and chemical engineering became a bona fide program in 1945. By 1947 Professors Hanson, Tobias, Vermeulen, and Wilke had joined the faculty, and the Ph.D. program in chemical engineering was inaugurated. In 1957, chemical engineering was established as a separate department within the College of Chemistry.

As postwar enrollments soared, Lewis Hall was built in 1948, and enrollments largely continued to rise throughout the second half of the 20th century. Much of the increase was the result of growth in chemical engineering that included such new technologies as the processing of electronic devices and biochemical engineering. Several fields were also added in chemistry—notably structural biology, synthetic chemistry, and chemical physics. In addition, the organic and inorganic groups and the theoretical groups were further strengthened. During the 20th century, College of Chemistry faculty and researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory were responsible for discovering nine elements that were added to the Periodic Table: Neptunium (1940), Plutonium (1941), Curium (1944), Berkelium (1949), Californium (1950), Mendelevium (1955), Nobelium (1958), Lawrencium (1961), and Seaborgium (1974), the only element to be named for a living person.

In response to the higher enrollments and the need for increasingly modern laboratory space, facilities for research and teaching were successively constructed: Giauque Hall (the Low Temperature Laboratory) in 1954 (renovated in the 1980s for Nobel laureate Yuan T. Lee), Latimer Hall in 1962, Hildebrand Hall in 1966, and the much-needed Tan Kah Kee Hall in 1997. The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 prompted a campus-wide reassessment of seismic safety, and comprehensive retrofits of Hildebrand and Latimer Halls were completed in 2002.

The 21st century has seen an increased emphasis on interdisciplinary research and scholarship, correlated with tremendous advances in technology. This development is visible throughout the college. In the Department of Chemistry, the field of chemical biology has been added, including both a graduate and a B.S. degree program, leading to a surge in enrollments. Stanley Hall was completed in 2007. It is the home of the Berkeley campus of QB3 (the California Institute for Quantitative Sciences)—an innovative consortium of UC San Francisco, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Berkeley—in which nearly 30 College of Chemistry faculty participate as Faculty Affiliates. Stanley provides dynamic research space for about 40 research groups from departments campus-wide, including researchers in bioengineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, chemistry, molecular and cell biology, and physics; it also houses several important shared core facilities, including nuclear magnetic resonance and mass spectrometry.

In a further evolution, the chemical engineering department was renamed the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in 2010 to recognize the department’s substantial research and teaching activities in the areas of biochemical and biomedical engineering, biotechnology, and synthetic biology. Most recently, the College of Chemistry has introduced several initiatives increasing interdisciplinary collaboration and enhancing the 21st century undergraduate experience: the groundbreaking Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry, the Synthetic Biology Institute (co-founded with the College of Engineering), the eChem project in online introductory chemistry, and the campaign to modernize the college’s undergraduate instructional labs.

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