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Herzberg, Gerhard (1904–99)

Gerhard Herzberg.
University of Saskatchewan Archives A-3234

Gerhard Herzberg was one of Canada’s and the world’s great scientists. Born and educated in Germany, he became recognized internationally by age 30 as one of the pioneers of molecular spectroscopy and structure. With the deteriorating conditions in Germany under the Nazi regime, he found a safe haven at the University of Saskatchewan thanks to John W.T. Spinks and the far-sighted Walter C. Murray. During his ten years there, Herzberg set up an impressive laboratory, was invited to speak at universities and conferences across Canada and the United States, and published forty research papers and three outstanding texts on atomic and molecular spectra. In 1946, he joined the Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago for three years and developed techniques that became standards in laboratory studies of planetary spectra. However, Herzberg was homesick for Canada, and in 1948 he accepted an invitation to establish a major research laboratory at the National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa. His famous spectroscopy laboratory at the NRC became a Mecca for hundreds of scientists around the world and helped to bring Canadian science to international prominence. Along with his research, Herzberg completed the trilogy Molecular Spectra and Molecular Structures, which became a bible for physicists, chemists, and astronomers working in spectroscopy. For his many accomplishments, especially his basic discoveries of spectra of free radicals, he was awarded the 1971 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He continued in active research at the NRC until his official retirement in 1994. After a brief illness, he died at home on March 3, 1999. Herzberg has been honoured in many ways, including scholarships and the Nobel Plaza at the University of Saskatchewan, a park in Saskatoon, the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Victoria, and laboratories across Canada, along with Canada’s most prestigious research award ($1 million), the annual Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering.

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