1900-1982

George Bogdan Kistiakowsky

Location: Basement Floor, West Wing, North Wall, Sequence 1

Source: Harvard University Archives


Kistiakowsky spent most of his career at Harvard University where he was a central figure in experimental physical chemistry and in science politics. Working on basic questions of reaction mechanisms, his interests ranged from gas phase photochemistry and reactions of methylene to reaction kinetics to biochemical transformations. He measured the first accurate heats of hydrogenation of hydrocarbons, isomerization energies and heat capacity data showing hindered rotation about carbon-carbon bonds. He measured the rotational quantum states in the UV spectrum of formaldehyde, used shock waves and scanning mass spectrometry to study very fast reactions, and provided the first demonstration that enzymes may have more than one active site.

During WWII Kistiakowsky was chief of the explosives division of the National Defense Research Council, and later at Los Alamos his division designed, for the Manhattan Project, the conventional explosives needed to detonate the first atomic bombs. In 1959-61 Kistiakowsky was President Eisenhower's science adviser. Later, he organized and was the first chair of the National Academy of Sciences committee on science and public policy. During the cold war period he worked tirelessly to prevent nuclear war.

Kistiakowsky was born in Kiev, the Ukraine. After fighting in the Russian army during WWI, he went to the University of Berlin where he obtained the Ph.D. in 1925 with Professor Max Bodenstein. He then moved to the U.S., spent four years at Princeton and in 1930 joined the Harvard chemistry faculty. Among his numerous honors were the Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry (1967) and the ACS Priestley Medal (1972). Kistiakowsky received medals from three U.S. presidents (Truman, Eisenhower and Johnson).