College of Chemistry, Berkeley

ChemiCAL Science and Engineering

Leo Brewer

In Memoriam: Leo Brewer

By Jane Scheiber

Leo Brewer, a member of the University of California, Berkeley chemistry faculty for nearly 60 years, died of natural causes on February 22 at Deer Hill Care Home in Lafayette. He was 85. A burial service was planned for February 25 at Oakmont Memorial Park in Lafayette.

Born in 1919 in St. Louis, Missouri, Brewer received his undergraduate degree from the California Institute of Technology in 1940. On the recommendation of Linus Pauling, he entered the graduate program at UC Berkeley, and only 28 months later he completed his thesis work on the effect of electrolytes upon the rates of aqueous reactions.

He was immediately asked to join the top-secret, wartime Manhattan Project. He headed a group that was charged with predicting the possible high-temperature properties of the newly discovered plutonium (then available only in trace amounts) and with providing materials for a crucible that would contain molten plutonium without contaminating it. To complete his task, he studied the behavior of all the elements at high temperature, and, unsatisfied with any existing materials for a crucible, he experimented with new sulfides of thorium and cerium, which indeed proved successful. Brewer’s new crucibles were ready when the plutonium became available.

The combination of theory with experimentation that he exhibited during his wartime work would mark his research throughout his distinguished career. Although his research covered an unusually wide range of subjects and employed many different techniques from theory to spectroscopy, his primary focus was on high-temperature thermodynamics, materials science, studies of metallic phases, and development of metallic bonding theory. He was also involved at different points in his career with astrophysics and ceramics.

In 1946, following his service with the Manhattan Project, Brewer was appointed an assistant professor of chemistry. He rose through the ranks, becoming a professor in 1955.

According to his colleague and former Berkeley Vice Chancellor Robert E. Connick, “It is probably fair to say that he has contributed significantly to our understanding of the chemistry of almost every element of the periodic table….He created the field of modern high temperature chemistry.”

His work—published in nearly 200 articles and in his revision of the well-known book by G. N. Lewis and Merle Randall on Thermodynamics—was recognized with many awards, including election to the National Academy of Sciences, the E. O. Lawrence Award of the Atomic Energy Commission, the Palladium Medal of the Electrochemical Society, the Baekeland and Coover Awards of the American Chemical Society, the Hume Rothery Award of the American Metallurgical Society, and fellowship in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Society for Metals. Upon his official retirement in 1989, he was presented with the Berkeley Citation and a symposium was held in his honor.

Though fundamental in nature, his research had its practical applications as well, from nuclear reactors to space sciences, including the development of a corrosion-resistant stainless steel based on chemical reactions he described. He was much sought after as a consultant.

Brewer was a caring and gifted teacher who taught freshman chemistry as well as more advanced courses, and he received the Linford Award for Distinguished Teaching from The Electrochemistry Society in 1988. He also directed 40 doctoral students and nearly two dozen postdoctoral fellows over the course of his career.

In addition to his academic appointment, Brewer was an investigator at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (formerly the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory), where he headed the Inorganic Materials Research Division from its inception in 1961 until 1975. He was also active in many professional societies and on the editorial boards of several journals.

Beyond the physical sciences, Brewer was passionately interested in native California plants and even had a manzanita named after him.

Brewer is survived by his three children, Roger Brewer of Portland, Oregon, Gail Brewer of La Cañada, California, and Beth Gaydos of Cupertino, California, and six grandchildren.

His wife, Rose, predeceased him in 1989.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Department of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley (420 Latimer Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-1460) or to the California Native Plant Society (2707 K Street, Suite 1, Sacramento, CA 95816-5113).