Stan Thompson

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Stan Thompson

Stanley G. Thompson:

The man who delivered berkelium and californium (and won the Nobel Prize for Glenn Seaborg).

By all accounts, Stanley Gerald Thompson was a modest, generous man. He was an inveterate team player. He viewed himself less as a brilliant theoretical and laboratory scientist as he did a man who was lucky to be a member of an extraordinary team. For his work with plutonium during the Second World War, he allowed Glenn Seaborg to bask in the limelight while he shortened his life by moving to Hanford to bring to fruition the process he designed to purify plutonium on an industrial scale. After the war, in leading the Berkeley team's "discovery" of seven new actinide elements, he spread the recognition around by only taking first authorship on the berkelium and californium papers while allowing the team members to take authorship on the others. In the case of his legitimate "discovery" of americium and curium made during his doctoral dissertation research, he allowed Seaborg, James and Morgan to keep all the credit for their claimed discovery even though their process had been sloppy and their data not replicable. Nothing on this website is intended to undo the generosity that Stan Thompson showed his professional colleagues throughout his career. 


Unfortunately, in life, and after his death, his friends and professional colleagues did not always reciprocate the loyalty that he showed them. In the case of Glenn T. Seaborg, the disloyalty was of Shakespearian proportions (although, perhaps not uncharacteristic of many winners of the Nobel Prize). As the years passed, Albert Ghiorso joined Seaborg in minimizing Thompson's role in the discovery of the transuranium elements. Most recently, the book, The Transuranium People by Seaborg, Ghiorso and Hoffman (2000) gave a prime example of Seaborg's revision of history which minimized or excluded Thompson's contributions to the projects with which they were involved. It was nothing personal since Seaborg was guilty of doing the same with many colleagues but it was particularly odious to do it to his best friend. Also, Seaborg was not a plagiarist but a brilliant wordsmith who knew the politics of science well enough to launch a public relations campaign in his own behalf that was extraordinary, even if it lacked integrity.


Having said as much, much of the content of this website is taken from Seaborg. How can that be. First, Seaborg did give Thompson credit for many of his accomplishments, although sparing, in speeches. His life was so entwined with Thompson's during the Second World War that the volumes relating to that time contain a great deal of material about Thompson's activities. Perhaps most importantly, Seaborg had a temporary lapse in his non-stop, self-promoting public relations campaign just after Thompson's death.  Seaborg collected Thompson's professional journal articles ("reprints" in those days). He compiled a table-of-contents and wrote a foreword. An ordinarily stingy man, Seaborg personally paid for at least two sets of these papers to be bound and then donated them to the University of California Bancroft Library[15].  Seaborg must have suffered from considerable guilt at Thompson's pre-mature death. It was Thompson who had taken the risk to go to Hanford to supervise the purification of the first plutonium, it wasn't Seaborg. It was Thompson's science that had won Seaborg the Noble Prize with McMillan. Without Thompson accomplishments during and after the War, Seaborg would have never been Chancellor at Berkeley or appointed to head the Atomic Energy Commission. In fact, Seaborg might never have graduated from UCLA without Thompson's generosity. Whether it was from guilt or nostalgia, no one will ever know but after Thompson's death in 1976, Seaborg wrote a eulogy,  A Chemist's Chemist which was uncharacteristically revealing about Thompson's and Seaborg's relative roles in their scientific partnership.  After he wrote A Chemist's Chemist, Seaborg seemed ambivalent about what to do with it.  He didn't seem to be able to restrain himself from adding the entire article to his list of publications but he published it an obscure journal (a minor journal in which he had never published before and would never publish again). Despite the fact Seaborg tried to bury the eulogy in obscurity, he couldn't get the words back. That didn't stop Seaborg from trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube. He published a highly redacted version of A Chemist's Chemist in the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory Journal in the Fall of 1976 which gutted the original eulogy. Seaborg returned to  minimizing Thompson's significance to the transuranium team in his writings. This fact is illustrated by Hoffman, Ghiorso and Seaborg including the gutted LBL version of A Chemist's Chemist instead of the original, full length tribute to Thompson. If more evidence if necessary of Thompson being shortchanged credit by his colleagues at Berkeley, consider that even the watered down LBL version doesn't appear until Page 203 in The Transuranium People.


Below is the Webmaster's paraphrased, interpreted, and expanded version of A Chemist's Chemist for those curious enough to read this page but not curious enough to read any other pages on the site. It is written with the Webmaster's prejudice that Thompson's memory and professional accomplishments merit a defense that he cannot give from the grave. Thus, the purpose of this website and all that follows is an attempt to counter the self serving spin that Seaborg and/or Ghiorso have put on the period of 1940 to 1955 in the history of the "transuranium" elements, including work on plutonium for the atomic bomb.  The Webmaster is not at all certain that Thompson would be comfortable with the assertions of his talents and abilities or the characterization of the motives of Seaborg and Ghiorso that are made on this website.   For that reason, visitors are encouraged to draw their own inferences from the data presented on this site rather than rely on the conclusions of the Webmaster. 


Stanley G. Thompson: A son of California worth remembering. There are few names on the periodic table of the elements as close to the hearts of loyal sons and daughters of California as the names for the elements berkelium and californium. The scientist who led the teams that discovered and named berkelium[1] and californium[2] was Stanley G. Thompson. To become a true legend in one's time, it helps to walk the halls longer than anyone else. Thompson had the misfortune only to live sixty-four years and by doing so, predeceased his "transuranium" colleagues by decades. Having recently passed the golden anniversary celebration of berkelium and californium's synthesis and identification, it seems a good time to remember Stan Thompson. There are many reasons why he should be difficult to forget: Thompson was an alumnus (Ph.D., 1948) and career nuclear chemist at the “Rad Lab” (later LBNL) from 1946 until his death in 1976. Thompson mentored 12 graduate students and produced 125 journal articles during his career. He won two Guggenheim Fellowships; one in 1955 to the Nobel Institute for Physics in Stockholm; the other in 1966 to the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. In life, the American Chemical Society honored him with prestigious ACS Award in Nuclear Chemistry in 1965. After his death, The Stanley G. Thompson Memorial Symposium on Chemistry of the Actinides was held at the 173rd Meeting of the American Chemical Society. More to the point of this paper, Stanley G. Thompson was the UC scientist chiefly responsible for the process of purifying the fissile grade plutonium for the first atomic bomb exploded over Alamogordo, New Mexico (the "Trinity test") in July 16, 1945. The knowledge he acquired separating plutonium from the other newly synthesized isotopes and elements which accompanied its production led him to play the primary role in the identification of seven of the "transuranium" elements which have been added to the periodic table of the elements as the actinide series. Thompson considered Glenn Seaborg a friend and never a rival. In fact, Thompson befriended Seaborg in high school, let Seaborg live with his grandmother and let Seaborg commute with him to UCLA where they both studied Chemistry and Physics. At the beginning of the Second World War, when Seaborg got stuck fulfilling his promises to the Manhattan Project, Thompson gave up his job at Standard Oil in California to move to the Met Lab in Chicago where he single handedly rescued Seaborg's reputation. Over time, Seaborg appears to have come to regard Thompson as his rival. He as much as excluded him from the 1949 publication, The Plutonium Papers of which Seaborg was the editor. He also failed to mention Thompson in his Nobel Price acceptance speech in 1951.  After Thompson's death, Seaborg even "made entries" in his retrospective autobiographical journals in a way that minimized Thompson's scientific contributions. Despite Seaborg's attempts to accept acclaim for accomplishments that were Thompson's, Thompson's contributions to science proved impossible to hide. Thus, Seaborg's voluminous collection of papers were the source for much of the information that follows.  

Figure 1 Thompson (on right) before he was misplaced by time. 

    If ever there were a man who should have been able to comment on the meaning of the scientific career of Stan Thompson, it was Nobel Laureate and former Cal Chancellor Glenn T. Seaborg at his prime. Seaborg and Thompson were close friends from their 13th year of life. They might as well have been brothers. Thompson and Seaborg were both members of the Class of 1929 at David Starr Jordon High School in Southern California. Thompson resigned himself to be a truck driver; Seaborg dreamed of a literary career. When they took the same chemistry class together in their junior year of high school, Thompson was the superior student (although Seaborg went on to become class Valedictorian). The chemistry teacher encouraged Thompson to consider a career in chemistry and the support was welcome. Thompson's and Seaborg's friendship continued into college where they lived together with Thompson's grandmother and commuted together to UCLA as undergraduates. They had plenty of time to get to know one another as they matured. Both Thompson and Seaborg studied chemistry at UCLA, both had jobs in the Chemistry Department (Thompson helped Seaborg get the job), and both graduated in 1934.   

  Thompson and Seaborg moved to Northern California after graduation. Thompson went to work for Standard Oil in the Richmond refinery laboratory while Seaborg began his graduate work at Cal. Both embraced hard work. They also seem to have enjoyed the same kind of play: they explored California together on their breaks from work and school. During the Second World War, they worked together in Chicago at the Manhattan Project Met Lab C-1 to develop the chemical process to purify fissile grade plutonium on an industrial scale. After the war, both returned to the Berkeley “Rad Lab” to continue their work on the synthesis and identification of the new elements in the actinide (or transuranium) series. 

  With the exception of two brief periods of less than six months each[3], from the age of thirteen to thirty-nine years old, Seaborg never resided farther from Thompson than a fifteen minute drive or a local telephone call. Glenn Seaborg know Stan Thompson’s life and his work intimately.  It is a shame that Seaborg lacked the personal integrity to give Thompson full credit for Thompson's scientific accomplishments and Thompson's significant role in contributing to Seaborg's education and career.  Despite himself, Glenn Seaborg left some impressions of the significance of Thompson’s scientific accomplishments. 

The scientific stature and accomplishments of Stanley G. Thompson. In 1978, Seaborg wrote of Thompson's work on the separation of plutonium for the Manhattan Project:

“His radiochemical research during World War II rivals in importance the isolation of radium by Pierre and Marie Curie . . .[4]." 

Glenn T. Seaborg knew well the careers of Pierre and Marie Curie: The husband and wife team shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 for isolating radium. Seaborg named element 96 after the Curies although it was Thompson who really "discovered" it after the War. Despite Seaborg's oversight in giving Thompson credit for that, at least Seaborg recognized that  

1 Thompson = 2 Curies. 

Seaborg’s powerful and unequivocal comparison of Thompson’s work with that of the Curies' was a literary ratification of Thompson's peership in the very highest circle of scientists--Nobel Prize caliber scientists.   

Who better to make that judgment than the man who had accepted the Nobel Prize for the scientific accomplishments of Stan Thompson? The path to grabbing Thompson's prize began in Berkeley but changed within a matter of months to Chicago where Seaborg arrived at the Manhattan Project’s Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago in April of 1942. Owing to the work of Burris Cunningham and L. B. Werner[5], by August, Seaborg’s lab had isolated only one microgram of Pu239 (a million more samples that size and Seaborg and his colleagues  would have about 1/30th of an ounce of plutonium). At least he finally had a visible quantity of Pu239 to show the Army Generals. Still, it was not a very large quantity to use to design a chemical process that had to work on an industrial scale to safely produce Pu239 in "lots" of pounds per day (day after day). By then, Seaborg was on notice that within ten months, the DuPont Corporation needed a final decision from him on a scalable chemical separation process. The creation of this process was the reason for the existence of Seaborg’s lab. Once a chemical separation process was chosen, it would fix the design of both the pilot plant (at the Clinton Semi-Works in Oak Ridge Tennessee) and the huge facility for the first industrial manufacturing and purification of a man made element, fissile grade plutonium, in Hanford, Washington. Seaborg was an academic chemist, not an industrial chemist. He knew he needed a chemist with industrial experience who understood McMillan's work with plutonium and was bright enough and flexible enough to work with academic scientists. Seaborg knew exactly the man for the job: He called for his confidant and scientific colleague over the previous seventeen years, Stan Thompson. Thompson was exactly the “wet fingered” chemical genius who had the intellectual and laboratory abilities to refine plutonium on an industrial scale. By forming this formal professional partnership with Thompson, Glenn T. Seaborg took the wisest and biggest step on his “administrative route to fame[6].” The route ultimately led him to being awarded the Nobel Prize with Edwin McMillan in 1951.  

Upon Thompson’s arrival in Chicago in late 1942, according to Seaborg,  

  “Within three months, he [Thompson] conceived and tested experimentally the Bismuth Phosphate Process which was put into successful operation at Hanford, Washington within two years. This process represented the largest scale-up in history, a chemical and technological achievement of enormous proportions. In the course of this very successful development, about whose potential success much skepticism was expressed, he [Thompson] directed the training of hundreds of chemists[7].” 

  Thompson also moved to Hanford when the plutonium separations began. He directed adjustments to the process from his analytical lab. When the atomic bomb was dropped at the Trinity Test in Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1945, it was filled with the plutonium refined by the chemical process developed by Stanley G. Thompson in the C-1 Met Lab of Glenn T. Seaborg. Thompson and Seaborg were only thirty-three years old. There was more to come as soon as Thompson returned from the Hanford Engineering Works to Chicago. Although he failed to include americium and curium in the list, at least Seaborg admitted,   

“ . . .his [Thompson’s] leadership in the discovery of five transuranium elements must rank as among the leading chemical accomplishments of his time[8].”   


Figure 2  Elements attributed to Thompson's leadership by Seaborg outlined in green. 

  Immediately upon Thompson’s return to the Met Lab, the pressing scientific issue was differentiating element 95 (later, americium) from element 96 (later, curium). Seaborg stated, “The key to their final separation, and the technique which made feasible the separation and identification of these and subsequent transuranium elements, was the so-called ion exchange technique.[9]  It was a pressing issue because Seaborg had rushed a papers to publication during the War that claimed to have discovered elements 95 and 96 only to discover that his published results were not replicable, even his his own lab! Thompson went to work, isolating and describing the chemical and physical characteristics by in his doctoral dissertation (in other words, "discovering" americium and curium). 

In the award of Seaborg's half of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1951, specifically cited as examples of the highest standard of scientific accomplishment were,  “methods were developed for its [Pu239] production on a large scale” and the “refined ultra-microchemical experimental technique[10]” for identifying the four additional transuranium elements (elements 95, 96, 97, 98) beyond plutonium (element 94).  The ion exchange adsorption-elution method, “conditioned by the war,” and the methods for producing Pu239 on a large scale belonged without a doubt to the genius of Stan Thompson[11].    

  Seaborg’s allusion to the Curies requires us to note that Marie Curie won a second Nobel Prize in 1911 for describing the chemical properties of radium. Again from Seaborg's (sparse but) unequivocal prose in praise of Thompson (albeit in Thompson's eulogy), Seaborg identifies Thompson’s scientific accomplishments in the chemical identification of the new actinide elements as demonstrating Thompson was a scientist of Nobel Prize caliber. Giving Professor Seaborg the benefit of the doubt, his comparison of Thompson to the Curies was a symbolic acknowledgement; a literary gesture to posthumously share the 1951 Nobel Prize with Thompson. What else could it have been? It is interesting that Thompson's image is included in the Nobel Laureate section of the LBNL Image Archives standing together with Seaborg. Thompson’s achievements were more than worthy of Seaborg’s literary generosity. In addition to his work with Pu239 ,Am and Cm (as if anything additional were required), Stanley G. Thompson led the team that definitively described the chemical properties for at least five more [12] [13] [14] new actinide elements.   


[1] Thompson, S.G. Ghiorso, A. &  Seaborg, G.T.; The new element berkelium (atomic number 97). Phys. Rev., 80: 781, 1950. [2]Thompson, S.G.  Street, Jr., K. Ghiorso, A. &  Seaborg, G.T.; The new element californium (atomic number 98). Phys. Rev. 80: 790, 1950.

[3] The first separation was the period between Seaborg’s move to the Met Lab in Chicago until Thompson joined him before the end of the same year (approximately April, 1942 until December, 1942). The second separation was the period between when Thompson was at the Hanford Engineering Works directing the process chemistry for the extraction of fissile grade plutonium for the Los Alamos Labs (approximately November, 1944 to May, 1945).  

[4] Seaborg, GT; Stanley G. Thompson—a chemist’s chemist. Chemtech, 8(7): 408, 1978 

[5] Seaborg, GT; The new elements-plutonium and beyond; remarks made at the ORNL 20th Anniversary Celebration on the occasion of the retirements of the graphite reactor. United States Atomic Energy Commission, Press Release: Page 4, Monday November 4, 1963 (HREX 1105978-1105991) 

[6] op. cit., p. 408, 1978 

[7] op. cit., p. 409, 1978 

[8] op. cit., p.408, 1978 

[9] op. cit., p. 7, 1964 

[10] Westgren, Arne; Presentation of Award. 1951 Nobel Prize for chemistry. On website. 

[11] op. cit., p. 412, 1978 

[12] Thompson, S.G.; Nuclear and chemical properties of americium and curium. Dissertation, University of California (Berkeley), 1948 [NRLF C 2 864 541} 

[13] Thompson, S.G.  Cunningham, B.B. & Seaborg,G.T.; Chemical properties of berkelium, J. Am. Chem. Soc. 72: 2798,(1950. 

[14] Thompson, S.G. Harvey, B.G. Choppin, G.R. & Seaborg, G.T.; Chemical properties of elements 99 and 100.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 76: 6229 1954. 

[15] Thompson, S.G.; The collected scientific papers of Stanley Gerald Thompson (1912-1976). Volumes I-II [NRLF 308xT476cor NRLF 308xT476c] available through the University of California Bancroft Library. 

[16] Thompson's war years scientific triumphs were hidden from public view by the Manhattan Project secrecy--most of his reports and lab books remain "classified" today. 

Try reading:

"Stanley G. Thompson--a chemist's chemist" by Glenn T. Seaborg
© CHEMTECH 1978 The American Chemical Society



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The Internet is a wonderful vanity press. It is a bully pulpit that costs the author of a website almost nothing. Therefore, it falls on the reader to exercise increased vigilence while browsing websites because the the layers of "editors" and "publishers" have been removed from the information transfer process and so that anybody can say most anything without regard for the facts or truth. This website is no exception. For that reason, I have tried to provide copies of enough of the original materials so that the reader can make his or her own interpretations of the source documents that led me to the conclusions expressed here. 

Last Edited 07/21/15 --Comments to Webmaster