Lawrence Brockway, 1907-1979

“Dr. Brockway is the most able, prolific, energetic, and promising young man with whom I have ever been associated.”

– Linus Pauling. Letter to the American Chemical Society, September 27, 1937

Lawrence Olin Brockway, an esteemed physical chemist and one of Linus Pauling’s first graduate students, died forty years ago this month. During his time with Pauling at the California Institute of Technology, and afterwards as a professor at the University of Michigan, Brockway made great scientific strides in the determination of molecular structure using a pioneering technique, gas electron diffraction (GED), which he developed while working as a graduate student and research fellow in Pauling’s laboratory.

Born in Topeka, Kansas on September 23, 1907, Brockway completed his B.S. (1929) and M.S. (1930) in chemistry at the University of Nebraska. From there, he moved on to Caltech where he received his Ph.D. in 1933 and remained as a research fellow until 1937. Brockway left Pasadena to pursue work under a Guggenheim Fellowship. A year later he joined the faculty at the University of Michigan, where he remained for the rest of his prolific career.

During his seven-year stint at Caltech, Brockway spent much of his time working to identify the structure of gas-phase molecules using GED. The ability to determine the molecular structure of gasses by electron diffraction was a brand new field when Brockway arrived in Pauling’s laboratory. Pauling himself had only recently learned of the technique when travelling through Europe and meeting with Herman Mark, an Austrian physicist who had developed an early GED apparatus. Intrigued, Pauling asked Mark’s permission to build a similar instrument at Caltech. Mark expressed no objections to Pauling’s doing so, in part because he had already moved on to new areas of study.

Once returned stateside, Pauling charged Brockway with the complicated task of constructing a local version of Mark’s creation. In later years, Pauling reflected on this piece of Brockway’s legacy, noting that “despite the difficulties involved, he succeeded while still a graduate student,” a triumph that “has been recognized by student and investigators” from all over the world.

A reading of Brockway’s correspondence with Pauling indicates the significant degree to which his years in Pasadena made an impact. While still a research fellow, and before he found out that he had received the Guggenheim – an award that undoubtedly helped raise his profile as an elite chemist – Brockway seemed unsure of his abilities, and even of his own self-worth. In his letters, Brockway expresses a fear of disappointing Pauling after leaving Caltech, and a wariness of being able to follow in Pauling’s footsteps. But Pauling clearly saw Brockway’s true potential and propped him up with multiple notes of support.

Pauling also provided assistance to Brockway in obtaining his faculty position at the University of Michigan. As his time at Caltech neared its end, Brockway was looking for jobs and felt unsure about what direction to take. In what he termed the “Ann Arbor Problem,” Brockway wrestled with the possibility of working at the University of Michigan (which is located in Ann Arbor) versus Ohio State University or the Midgley Foundation. Brockway was initially attracted to Ohio State because of its higher initial salary, but Pauling argued in favor of Michigan as a better fit and offered suggestions on how Brockway might negotiate for more generous compensation.

Pauling also provided a glowing letter of recommendation to the Michigan hiring committee, stating that he did not know “of any man of Dr. Brockway’s age who has made more significant contributions to molecular structure.” Around this same time, Pauling nominated Brockway to serve on the selection committee for the American Chemical Society’s Award in Pure Chemistry, an honor that would be bestowed upon Brockway just a few years later for “his contributions in physical chemistry, particularly in the determination of molecular structure by electron diffraction.”

As one might expect, Brockway’s appreciation for his mentor was clear. In a letter to Pauling letting him know that that he had accepted the Michigan post, Brockway thanked Pauling for giving him his “start in life.” He then continued,

it is difficult and perhaps unnecessary for me to express my feeling, but at least I intend to work good enough that you won’t be ashamed to admit that I was a former student.

To which Pauling replied,

I want to tell you how much I have enjoyed having you in the laboratory during the last seven years. I don’t need to say anything about how profitable your work has been.

As the years progressed and Brockway found his footing, the relationship between the two men changed accordingly. No longer quite so timid, Brockway began to write to Pauling as a peer and, eventually, as a co-author. In addition to collaborating on ten published papers, Pauling and Brockway took the time to verify one another’s work, recommend graduate students (among those supervised by Brockway was Jerome Karle, the 1985 Nobel Chemistry laureate) and weigh in on the value of proposed projects.

But their relationship was also, at times, light. When Ernest B. Rutherford, a prominent chemist, died in 1937, Pauling and Brockway wrote to each other opining on who would succeed Rutherford as the head of the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge (both thought E.O. Lawrence would get the position, which went to Lawrence Bragg instead). Brockway, who was then in England on his Guggenheim Fellowship, also commented to Pauling that his new space at Oxford University had so many chemistry relics that he should “take off” his shoes “before entering.” In response, Pauling suggested that he think of his situation as an “implied compliment.” In later years, the two bragged to one another about the number of grandchildren they had.

When Brockway passed away in November 1979 from pancreatic cancer, his death seemed to rattle Pauling. Upon learning the news, Pauling wrote to Brockway’s widow, Hazel, and offered a supreme compliment: “He was the most satisfying of my many graduate students – that is, the one in whose work I took the greatest satisfaction.”

Reflecting on their long relationship, Pauling continued,

I remember with much pleasure the time when he took me, as his guest, to see the [1932] Olympic Games in Los Angeles. I also, of course, remember with still greater pleasure the many years of close collaborations with him, when he came as an eager graduate student and continued as a post-doctoral fellow with me.

Remembering Ken Hedberg: Part 3, On Faculty at Oregon State


Ken Hedberg, a colleague, and the Hedberg electron diffraction apparatus, 1960.

[Kenneth W. Hedberg (1920-2019) in memorium, part 3 of 5.]

Ken and Lise Hedberg, along with their three-month old son Erik, moved back to Corvallis in January 1956 during a heavy storm. As the couple approached their final destination, Hedberg remembers water reaching almost to the hubcaps of their car. When they finally did make it to Corvallis, the city was largely flooded for the next couple of days.

In a turn of events that fit well with the dreary weather, on Ken’s first day of work at Oregon State College he learned that, in addition to his supervisory responsibilities, he would also be teaching a graduate-level physical chemistry course. The class was scheduled to meet three hours a week and he had been given no time at all to prepare lecture notes. Hedberg ultimately made it through the term, during which he tracked the time that he had spent on teaching-related activities. Including office hours and lesson planning, and found that he averaged 56 hours per week just on his instructional work.

At the same time, Ken was also tasked with getting his research program running. The first step in doing so entailed designing and building an electron diffraction apparatus for which he had received a $30,000 grant. He made an arrangement with the Physics workshop on campus to have the machine constructed, overseeing the process from start to finish. The device took several years to complete, but it worked well and has been used to significant effect for more than fifty-five years. Indeed, Linus Pauling was one of many colleagues from around the world to run samples through the instrument.


When it was built, Hedberg’s gas phase electron diffraction apparatus was state of the art, and during most of his career there were only two laboratories in the U.S. that could perform similar work. As time moved forward and other techniques were developed, gas phase electron diffraction fell out of view for many scientists, thus rendering Hedberg’s lab even more valuable for those who wished to employ the methodology in their advancement of basic science. As a result, Hedberg rarely encountered difficulty in acquiring grant support. His position as a hub for electron diffraction research also led to his making and maintaining a vast number of friendships with scientists across the globe.

The electron diffraction unit that Hedberg built utilizes a nozzle to release gas-phase samples in a stream that runs perpendicular to a vertical beam of electrons. The collision that ensues scatters the electron beam and results in a diffraction pattern that is subsequently recorded on a photographic plate fixed at the bottom of the device. These diffraction patterns are then analyzed to determine specific characteristics of the sample in question. It only takes a few minutes to run a sample, so lots of substances can be run in a day, but the analysis takes much longer — elucidating molecular structures from diffraction patterns is a complicated process.

Another hurdle that Hedberg sometimes faced was transforming particular substances into a gas phase in order to enable this type of analysis in the first place. One notable example was C60, which needs to be heated to 800°C to obtain any kind of vapor. Another instance was N2O4, which degrades to NO2 very rapidly as temperature and pressure increase. Nobody knew for sure if it was even possible to run gas phase electron diffraction analysis on these two substances but, in both instances, Hedberg and his team found a way to create the sample and collect the data.


David and Clara Shoemaker analyzing diffractometer data, 1983

A few months after he had arrived back in Corvallis, Hedberg wrote to Pauling to provide an update on how he was settling in. He reported that, as expected, he and Lise both liked Oregon a lot, and that Erik was growing very fast and had learned a few Norwegian words. He also let Pauling know that his picture was on display in the Memorial Union, one in a series featuring distinguished alumni of the college.

Ken’s correspondence with old Caltech colleagues was certainly not limited to Pauling and, in one particular instance, Hedberg’s connections played a key role in shaping the Chemistry department at Oregon State. When the chair’s position in Chemistry opened up in the late 1960s, Hedberg encouraged his former Caltech office-mate, David Shoemaker, to consider the opportunity. Shoemaker was then on faculty at MIT but he had ties to the west and was open to the idea of returning to that side of the country. He and his wife, Clara Brink Shoemaker, were both distinguished crystallographers, and one of David’s conditions for coming to OSU was that Clara be offered a research position as well.

This condition presented a bit of a problem due to a Depression-era anti-nepotism law that prevented members of the same family from being employed in the same department, except under unusual circumstances. Ken and Lise Hedberg had been able to work together because OSU’s president, Robert MacVicar, good-naturedly regarded a husband-wife scientific team to be an “unusual circumstance.” He allowed the Shoemakers to use the same loophole with one stipulation: officially, Hedberg was to serve as Clara’s supervisor and Shoemaker as Lise’s. This arrangement stood as a running joke between the two couples for several years until the rules were ultimately relaxed.

Three years after he came back to Oregon State, Hedberg was moved into the physical chemistry division of the Chemistry department. With that change, Ken still taught general chemistry and took up new courses in physical chemistry, but was no longer responsible for supervising the department’s graduate teaching assistants. His teaching load remained heavy for a while as he prepared lecture notes for his new classes, but eventually he settled into a more manageable routine. When he finally achieved that balance, Oregon State revealed itself to be a very comfortable place. The Chemistry department was cohesive and friendly, dinner parties and holiday gatherings were common within the faculty, and the competitive divisiveness that often plagues academic units was refreshingly lacking.

Meanwhile, life continued to evolve for Lise as well. During their years together in Pasadena, the Hedbergs had worked as a team on a variety of electron diffraction projects. And although Lise wanted to continue her work at Oregon State, she was unable to for the first few years because she needed to care for young Erik. Their daughter, Anne Katherine – known as Katrina – was born a couple of years after the move to Corvallis, thus further extending Lise’s stay-at-home period.

At long last, when the kids were finally old enough to go to school, Lise would drop them off in the mornings, head over to the university to work in the lab, and then pick them up at the end of the school day. Later, when they were old enough to get to school on their own, she would watch them leave the house and then be home in time to meet them in the afternoons. According to Ken, it took a while for the Hedberg children to realize that their mother worked out of the home, because she was always there when they left and waiting when they got back.


Wine tasting with Kolbjörn Hagen in 2008

In a 2011 oral history interview, Hedberg identified his proudest accomplishment as having overcome his humble beginnings to live a happy, successful life. In offering these reflections, he was quick to point out several moments where small twists of fortune made a dramatic impact on the trajectory of his life. Chief among these was his fateful late fellowship application that ultimately led to him going to Norway instead of Belgium. He mused that if he had submitted the first application on time, he would never have met Lise nor had any of the professional and personal affiliations in Norway that he enjoyed throughout his life.

Indeed, Norway was a critical component of Hedberg’s journey, both personal and scientific. Over the years, the Hedbergs returned to the country numerous times on sabbatical and research trips, and also to visit Lise’s family. The scientific work that they conducted during these visits ultimately led to numerous decorations for Ken. By the end of this life, he had received an honorary degree from the University of Trondheim – offered for “more than 40 years in collaboration with scientists from Japan, Germany, Norway, New Zealand, Great Britain, Hungary, Austria and China” – and been inducted into the Norwegian Academy of Sciences. One one occasion, Hedberg met the Norwegian king at a banquet and spent much of the evening talking with Crown Prince Harald.

Likewise, many of the students with whom he worked in the Oslo and Trondheim electron diffraction labs made their own visits to Corvallis to collaborate with Ken. One of these individuals, Kolbjörn Hagen, emerged as an especially important research colleague, as well as a dear friend.

Collaboration was a fundamental component of Hedberg’s approach to science, and throughout the years his most important scientific colleague was Lise, an expert computer programmer. While Ken took the lead in experimentation and analysis of diffraction patterns, it was Lise who wrote or tweaked many of the programs that the Hedbergs used in their work. In a letter that David Shoemaker wrote to OSU’s Dean of Science, he noted that the Hedberg lab contained a library of computer programs unmatched by any other lab of its kind, due to Lise’s expertise. Shoemaker also wrote that

…Professor Hedberg has more understanding of the nature of chemical bonding in molecules than any other person in the Chemistry Department or on the Oregon State University campus. Perhaps one can even include all of Oregon, except when Linus Pauling is visiting.

The Hedbergs’ son Erik was also handy with computers and often helped his parents manage their programs. The family published two papers together – one by Ken, Lise, and Erik, and one by Ken, Lise, and Katrina – and the authorship shorthand of “Hedberg, Hedberg and Hedberg” was a source of continuing delight for Ken.


In 1983 Ken notified Shoemaker that, after twenty-seven years on faculty, he felt ready to retire, which he did officially in 1987. Hedberg’s primary motivation for this change was to free himself from his teaching burden, but he had no intention of stopping his research.

A few years into his so-called “retirement,” Hedberg wrote to Pauling to provide an update on his life. Amidst news about family, travel and tennis, he noted with glee the enjoyment that he was experiencing in being able to work 12-hour days in his lab. This remained the pattern of Hedberg’s life for another thirty years, a run of time marked by steady grant funding, continuing research, collaboration with faculty colleagues, supervision of graduate students, and mentorship of OSU undergraduates several decades his junior.