Photo of Kenneth Sanborn Pitzer

Kenneth Sanborn Pitzer

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences

For his pioneering application of statistical thermodynamics and spectroscopy to our understanding of the properties of organic and inorganic materials.

Throughout the 1940s, Kenneth Sanborn Pitzer wrote a series of papers that helped the world better understand properties of hydrocarbons. While in grad school, he authored a paper on the molecular properties of ethane that has played significant roles in today’s engineering of high-octane fuels.

Monumental for a man his age, Pitzer’s early scientific accomplishments – found in nearly every organic chemistry textbook – seem effortless compared to the challenges he’d face decades later in the world of academia. After teaching at U.C. Berkeley for 24 years, Pitzer spent seven years as president at Rice University, helping to integrate an all-white school.

In 1968, he became president of Stanford amid the turmoil of the Vietnam War marked by sit-ins, protests and violent confrontations with police. He resigned 19 months later, returning to Berkeley to resume his true love – educating students. “After a certain length of time,” he said, “you suffer some wounds and get a bit tired.”