Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Donald Frederick Hornig: 17 March 1920 * 21 January 2013

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Donald Frederick Hornig: 17 March 1920 * 21 January 2013

Article excerpt

DONALD HORNIG led a multifaceted life, which included a highly productive career as a physical chemist and that of an elder statesman of science and government. In the latter role, he served as president of Brown University and science advisor to President Lyndon Johnson, and at 23 years old, he was a key scientist in the Manhattan Project during World War II. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he participated in numerous activities and studies over many years; he was a member of the American Philosophical Society, to which he was elected in 1967. Late in his career, he served for 13 years as director of Interdisciplinary Programs in Health at the Harvard School of Public Health. He was a faculty member at Brown and Princeton for almost 20 years before taking on government and academic administrative positions. These singular achievements will be described, recalling Hornig first as a brilliant research scientist.

Hornig was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and received his early education there. Demonstrating his ability at a young age, he received an undergraduate scholarship to Harvard and went on to obtain a Ph.D. there. It should be mentioned at the outset that Hornig had a rich personal life. He married Lilli Schwenk, a chemist in her own right, in 1943. It was a marriage that lasted until his death. He had four accomplished children: Joanna Hornig Fox; Ellen; Christopher; and Leslie, who died of cancer in 2012.

Hornig's roots, as with many high achievers in science statesmanship, lay in his early career in the laboratory. The work he performed for his Ph.D. at Harvard gave him his start. His thesis, performed during the height of World War II under E. Bright Wilson, was "an investigation of the shock wave produced by an explosion in air." This theme informed much of his later research activities, which also led to his recruitment to Los Alamos. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1943 and serving as a post-doc at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (also working with explosives), he was singled out by George Kistiakowsky to move to the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, where his work on shock waves and explosives both at Harvard and Woods Hole were to come in handy. At Los Alamos, his successful leadership in developing triggers for the plutonium implosion bomb earned him both high praise and visibility.

Before describing his life-altering experience of helping to develop the atomic bomb, followed eventually by his service as presidential science advisor to Lyndon Johnson, his career as a physical chemist at Brown and Princeton must be discussed. When the war ended, he joined the faculty at Brown University, where he established a research program mainly in the use of spectroscopy to study properties of molecules and molecular ions mostly in crystalline solids, although he kept his hand in shock research primarily to study chemical reactions in the shock front. During his roughly 10 years as a Brown University faculty member, Hornig published more than 40 research articles, mostly in the Journal of Chemical Physics. Among these works was an extraordinary 10-part series of articles on vibrational structure, which started with a landmark paper in 1948 presenting the general theory of vibrational spectra of complex ions in crystals, followed by nine experimental papers applying the theory to a variety of applications to important molecules. Eventually, he was recruited away from Brown by Princeton, although his scientific productivity continued unabated. His publication record just about doubled during his Princeton tenure, stretching long past his academic residences into his governmental era and ending only when he became president of Brown.1

When Don Hornig died, on 21 January 2013, newspapers from coast to coast published his obituaries, almost invariably emphasizing in headlines the role he played in assembling and arming the first atomic explosion in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on 16 July 1945. …

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