Frank Sherwood Rowland
Donald Bren Professor of Chemistry and Earth System Science
1927 - 2012
Professor F.S. Rowland died at his home on 10 March, 2012 at age 84, from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was a distinguished scientist, first in physical chemistry and radiochemistry as a hot-atom chemist and later as an atmospheric chemist. He was also famous for his leadership in discovering and publicizing the danger to the ozone layer posed by continued human release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
Born Frank Sherwood Rowland on June 28, 1927 in Delaware, Ohio, he was universally known as Sherry. His mother was a Latin teacher and his father taught mathematics at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, where Rowland attended college after graduating from high school at 15. He loved sports and science; sometimes it was a toss-up as to which he loved more.
When he was old enough, he enlisted in the US Navy. As a lanky athlete, he readily found a home in sports teams in the Navy and later in graduate school at the University of Chicago, Illinois, where he played baseball for the university and for a semi-professional team. He kept a yellowing newspaper clipping of himself as a semi-pro baseball player in his top desk drawer for decades.
He earned his PhD. at the University of Chicago, mentored by future Nobel Laureate Willard Libby and was taught by four other eventual Nobel winners. He once said that the most important thing he did there was to 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.
In 1964, Rowland accepted an offer to start up the Chemistry Department at the new University of California campus in the then-unbuilt city of Irvine, moving his family and laboratory from the University of Kansas. Later, with atmospheric chemist Ralph Cicerone, he also helped to found the Earth System Science Department.
Rowland and Molina’s discovery of the effect of CFCs was published in Nature in 1974, and initially met with an underwhelming response. Recognizing the stakes for the planet, Rowland reached out to Ralph Cicerone, still at the University of Michigan and also exploring the effects of chlorine on the stratospheric ozone, and together they discussed how to raise public awareness. For the next two years, despite widespread opposition, Rowland and Cicerone—in a significant breach of academic protocol—became public policy advocates. Initially attacked by industry, government, and even colleagues in academia, they soldiered on, forcing the world to face the invisible environmental destruction taking place miles above the surface of the earth. They made phone calls and public appearances, wrote letters and papers, and testified before congressional committees, town councils, and state legislatures.
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.
The first turning point came in 1976, when the National Academy of Sciences confirmed the dangers of CFCs and stated that a ban would be necessary. And in 1985, the British Antarctic Survey team, which had been measuring ozone in the polar region since 1957, announced that a large hole in the protective layer had appeared over Antarctica. In 1987, 24 nations signed the Montreal Accords, banning many CFCs outright and planning the eventual elimination of the entire class of 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.
Rowland’s melding of atmospheric science and chemistry, and his predictions of the worldwide effects of CFCs helped to forge bridges across these disciplines. According to former Dean Harold W. “Hal” Moore, Professor Rowland’s vision and scientific clout facilitated the creation of UCI’s Earth System Science Department (ESS) in 1989, the first interdisciplinary academic department focused on climate change, now top-ranked by the NRC and a global leader in climate change research. In the words of UCI ESS Professor Susan Trumbore, “Rowland invented a new kind of science, and we will never look at the world the same way again. Because of Rowland and a few others like him, globalism is a natural concept to scientists of my generation.”
Rowland remains an academic legend among colleagues, known for his curiosity and integrity. In her nomination for Professor Rowland’s National Medal of Science, Susan Solomon wrote “[Rowland’s] work embodies the finest spirit of science in my view: to seek nothing but to understand and explore the truth.”
Over almost five decades, Rowland was active in his research lab as well as teaching, playing tennis and having collegial discussions over lunch. When not traveling, he could be seen carrying his briefcase in one hand, with a pile of papers under the other arm, to and from his office. He was a prolific note-taker, filling a notebook in a week.
Sherry Rowland contributed enormously to the public understanding and credibility of science. Along the way, he was President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993 to 1994); the AAAS building reflects his work with its designers. He insisted on a human-friendly design and no CFC-based refrigerants. He also served as foreign secretary of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (1994 to 2002), was instrumental in starting the field of atmospheric chemistry, and was a founding faculty member of UC Irvine. In 1995, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (with Paul J. Crutzen and Mario J. Molina). His many friends treasured his affinity for operatic music, his interest in sports, and his occasionally memorable jokes.
Rowland treated everyone like a colleague. He disarmingly considered questions from any listener with the depth and profundity due a scientific peer. This trait was appreciated by students, friends and family. To Sherry, the question was of foremost importance; it was at the core of his scientific quest. His passing ended a unique career that merged chemistry and atmospheric sciences, leading to a new partnership between science and policy for the protection of our planet. And according to the Nobel award committee, Professor Rowland may have “saved the world from catastrophe.”
In addition to his wife, Rowland is survived by his daughter Ingrid Rowland, his son Jeffrey Rowland and two granddaughters, Lindsey and Taylor Rowland.
Donald R. Blake