UCI Nobel Laureate F. Sherwood Rowland has died at 84
His research is credited with saving Earth’s critical ozone layer
UC Irvine founding professor F. Sherwood Rowland, who patiently endured years of criticism and then won a Nobel Prize for showing that chlorofluorocarbons could destroy the Earth’s ozone layer, died Saturday, March 10, at his home in Corona del Mar from complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 84.
“It is with a heavy heart that I am writing to tell you that Sherry Rowland died yesterday afternoon. After spending a peaceful morning with his wife of almost 60 years, Joan, and his son, Jeffrey, his heart stopped beating early in the afternoon,” said UCI physical sciences dean Kenneth C. Janda in an email to faculty on Sunday.
“We have lost our finest friend and mentor,” Janda said. “He saved the world from a major catastrophe: never wavering in his commitment to science, truth and humanity, and did so with integrity and grace.”
As a founding faculty member at UC Irvine, Rowland was a pillar of the community, said Chancellor Michael Drake.
“His Nobel Prize-winning research is noteworthy not only for its scientific impact and clarity, but also for the direct effect it has on all living things,” said Drake. “His contributions as an architect and citizen of our campus, as teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend, have been instrumental in making us who we are. He was a wonderful man. We would not be who we are, without him.”
Nearly 40 years ago, Rowland and postdoctoral student Mario Molina made a shocking discovery: a single chlorine atom byproduct from aerosol hair sprays, deodorants and other popular consumer products could chew up 100,000 ozone atoms in the stratosphere. The stratospheric ozone layer, 12 to 30 miles above Earth, protects life on the planet from harsh solar radiation.
“Mario and I realized this was not just a scientific question, but a potentially grave environmental problem involving substantial depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer,” Rowland said later. “Entire biological systems, including humans, would be at danger from ultra-violet rays.”
They decided they had to advocate for a ban on consumer products that were earning billions annually. Industry representatives fought back: At one point Aerosol Age, a trade journal, speculated that Rowland was a member of the Soviet Union’s KGB, out to destroy capitalism. Even some fellow scientists in grumbled that he was going overboard with a hypothesis.
Rowland calmly stayed the course, working to convince everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Al Gore to reporters from hundreds of news outlets, of what was at stake. Scientists doing similar research stuck by him, and consumers stopped using the sprays. One who believed him from day one was his wife, Joan. When he told her the results of their calculations in 1974, she searched the house and threw out every spray can.
It took far longer for others to act – 13 years and the discovery by British scientists of a gaping hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic – before an international treaty was signed prohibiting sale of the harmful chemicals. Today, 196 nations have signed the Montreal Protocol, widely viewed as the single most successful international environment agreement to date. Production and use of ozone depleting substances has been reduced more than 95 percent.
Molina, now with UC San Diego and head of an environmental center in Mexico City, praised his old mentor and friend.
“We really sort of stumbled onto a problem of global proportions. His impact and his legacy are extraordinary,” Molina said. “He was a superb scientist, and he worked with a very important problem affecting society. He was always persevered and kept his values, he always did it with honesty and with all the qualities a scientist should have. He’s a wonderful example for good scientific behavior, unlike some today, and did not have any inclination to exaggerate or abuse the media.”
After the ozone war, Rowland and his team researched and publicized the risks of cook stove pollution over cities, the alarming build-up of methane and other greenhouse gases, and even hydrocarbons over the Gulf of Mexico.
“Is it enough for a scientist simply to publish a paper? Isn’t it a responsibility of scientists, if you believe that you have found something that can affect the environment, isn’t it your responsibility to actually do something about it, enough so that action actually takes place?” Rowland said at a White House climate change roundtable in 1997. “If not us, who? If not now, when?”
At 6-feet-5-inches, with furrowed brow and dry wit, Rowland, was a familiar giant on campus. Until earlier this year he worked steadily in his cramped office on the top floor of the building that bears his name. He taught freshman chemistry until he was 80, and continued as an authoritative voice on the dangers of greenhouse gases, methane and other crucial topics. In addition to the Nobel, he won numerous other awards, including the Japan Prize in Environment and Energy.
Throughout his tenure, he recruited other faculty, including fellow chemist Ralph Cicerone, who went on to become UCI chancellor, and who is now National Academy of Sciences president.
“I and a few other people considered Sherry Rowland our best friend,” said Cicerone. “He and I talked by telephone nearly every day during the intense years of chlorofluorocarbon-ozone research. At UCI, he laid a tremendous foundation for the campus as a founding faculty member; he helped to launch two of UCI's strongest departments in chemistry and Earth system science, and he did his Nobel Prize quality research.”
Rowland was always modest about what he had done, including the landmark ozone research.
“I don’t think about it all that much. I do find that other people seem to know about it,” he said in 2010. He was more interested in his latest observation, fingers of potentially harmful air pollution over the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Sure enough, he was right again, said his laboratory partner of 38 years, fellow professor of chemistry Donald Blake.
This time, others listened right away. A jumbo NASA aircraft loaded with sophisticated research equipment flew straight to the Gulf. It was his last of 425 published research papers, said Blake.
Born Frank Sherwood Rowland on June 28, 1927, in Delaware, Ohio, he was universally known as Sherry. He entered high school at 12, and graduated at 15. He loved sports and science; sometimes it was a toss-up as to which he loved more. He kept a yellowing newspaper clipping of himself as a semi-pro baseball player in his top desk drawer for decades. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, mentored by future Nobel Laureate Willard Libby and was taught by four other future Nobel winners.
The most important thing he did there, he once said, was meet Joan Lundberg when she was dating a college friend of his. “The way it went, I became aware of her before she was aware of me,” he joked. They went on a road trip to Louisville, and while Rowland’s friend slept in the back seat, the two talked for five hours. They would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary this June.
He began his career as a nuclear chemist. In 1964, he moved his young family and laboratory from the University of Kansas to the new UC campus rising out of the cattle fields of a yet-to-be built city called Irvine.
In an interview in 2010, he remembered walking the streets of Paris, his time in Vienna listening to favorite operas, and his early years playing semi-pro baseball. His was an amazing life.
“I wouldn’t trade it,” he said.
In addition to his wife, Rowland is survived by his daughter, Ingrid Rowland; his son,Jeffrey Rowland; and two grandchildren.
Rowland’s ashes will be spread at sea in a private ceremony, within sight of his home. Joan Rowland asks that in lieu of flowers a donation be made to the F. Sherwood Rowland Chair and Graduate Fellowship Fund of the UC Irvine Department of Chemistry.
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