When 1986 Nobel laureate and Harvard professor emeritus Dudley R. Herschbach was 11 years old, he discovered an issue of National Geographic during a visit to his grandmother’s house. Inside the magazine, the young scientist found “gorgeous” star maps—designed by Donald H. Menzel, former chair of the Harvard Astronomy department—that Herschbach says sparked his interest in science.
Though Herschbach, at that time a farm boy in rural California, had never heard of Harvard, he would later become not only a Junior Fellow and a Nobel Prize-winning chemist at the same institution as Menzel, but also a House master and an inspirational mentor for many students.
A SCIENTIFIC “GENIUS”
As an undergraduate, Herschbach received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Stanford University. After completing college, he stayed in Palo Alto for another year to get a master’s degree in chemistry before moving to Cambridge, where he would earn a master’s in physics and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Harvard.
Herschbach was also a gifted athlete. He was recruited to Stanford as a football player—though he chose to take an academic scholarship instead—and was invited to try out for the Los Angeles Rams in his sophomore year. Herschbach turned down the offer in favor of continuing his education.
The young man’s scientific potential was recognized early in his career. In 1957, shortly before he received his Ph.D., Herschbach was awarded a Harvard Junior Fellowship—an accolade honoring “exceptional ability, originality, resourcefulness ... and intellectual achievement” in young scholars. The fellowship allows recipients to freely pursue research at Harvard for three years, according to the Society of Fellows website.
In the years that followed, Herschbach proved to be an extremely prolific scientist, publishing over 400 scholarly articles over the duration of his career.
But his most noteworthy achievement was his research using crossed molecular beams, which won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1986.
With co-recipients Yuan T. Lee and John C. Polanyi, the Harvard professor showed that scientists could use molecular beams to understand the specific mechanisms of a chemical reaction, such as the orientations of the colliding molecules.
Before Herschbach’s discovery, chemists could only deduce a general picture of chemical processes. But despite the extraordinary potential of his research, Herschbach says that many other scientists were dubious, referring to it as “lunatic fringe chemistry.”
Overcoming this skepticism, Herschbach’s research team achieved what they had envisioned. He says their discovery provided scientists with important knowledge that allows them to work across scientific fields and integrate information from chemistry, physics, and biology.
A “TRANSFORMATIVE” MENTOR
Herschbach’s students describe the professor as a warm and inspirational man with a contagious enthusiasm for knowledge—something he attributes to the circumstances of his upbringing.
Growing up in San Jose, Calif., Herschbach says he never expected to go to college. As a boy, he milked cows and raised livestock in his rural hometown.
“We didn’t know any scientists,” he says. “We didn’t even know anyone who had gone to college.”