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Oral history interview with Leo Brewer

  • 1992-Apr-03

Oral history interview with Leo Brewer

  • 1992-Apr-03

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 B.S. 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 Ph.D., 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 an 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.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 55 pages
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewer

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.

Institutional location

Oral history number 0106

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • June 13, 1919
  • St. Louis, Missouri, United States
  • February 22, 2005
  • Layfayette, California, United States


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


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

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PDF — 330 KB

The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

5 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads