Respected physical and theoretical chemist and educational leader Kenneth Sanborn Pitzer is remembered for his research into hydrocarbons and thermodynamics, for which he received the National Medal of Science, and his success improving the quality of undergraduate education at three institutions. Appointed Stanford University president in December 1968, he worked to expand faculty and student participation in university governance, and sought to mediate political turmoil on campus until he resigned in 1970.
Professor Pitzer was born in Pomona, California in 1914. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the California Institute of Technology (BS 1935) and conducted doctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley (PhD 1937) as a student of G. N. Lewis. He served on the faculty at Berkeley for 24 years, and became dean of their College of Chemistry. He took leave to serve in Washington, D.C., during World War II and again from 1949 to 1951, when he was Director of Research for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Next, during seven years as president of Rice University, he helped that school to navigate racial integration and worked to strengthen the humanities and social science departments. Due to his earlier work with the AEC, he faced student protests immediately on his arrival as Stanford University president in 1969. Described as soft-spoken and moderate, he worked to balance students’ freedom to protest the Vietnam War and war-related research with the necessities of keeping the university safe and operational. Faced with increasing student violence, he resigned after only 19 months at Stanford, taking a yearlong sabbatical before returning to Berkeley to teach until his retirement in 1984.