Skip to main content
Charles Bonner Harris
In Memoriam

Charles Bonner Harris

Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus

UC Berkeley

A world leader in the field of physical chemistry, Charles Bonner Harris, former Chair of chemistry and Dean of the College of Chemistry at the UC Berkeley, and former Director of Chemical Sciences at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, passed away on March 10, 2020. His distinguished career is marked by his many contributions to the field of condensed phase chemical dynamics during his long tenure at Cal, from 1967-2015, and he was also a visionary Renaissance man. A recipient of many prestigious awards and honors, most recently including the Ahmed Zewail Award in Ultrafast Science and Technology, Charles coauthored well over 200 publications and delivered over 200 presentations of his work worldwide. Over this distinguished career, the Harris Labs became both a citadel of scientific discovery and an incubator of some of the best scientific minds in physical chemistry. Charles’ outstanding mentoring would produce over 70 Ph.D.s and many postdoctoral fellows—including Nobelist Ahmed Zewail—who would go on to their own distinguished careers at top universities, government labs, and world industries. The success of these colleagues became a source of great pride to Charles. When asked which of his accomplishments he was most proud of, he would invariably identify his students and postdocs as his greatest achievement.

Charles was born on April 24, 1940 in New York City, a third generation American. Around 1900, his grandfather, Yusef Hariz, emigrated from the small town of Zahale in the mountains of Lebanon, becoming, at the hands of U.S. Immigration officials, Joseph Harris. Before Charles’ fourth birthday, his family moved first to Chicago and then to an affluent suburb of Detroit called Grosse Pointe. His father, also Charles, was a ‘jack of all trades,’ able to run small newspapers as well as perform as a factory engineer. His mother, Brenda Bonner Johnson, grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, becoming the first female lawyer to work for the Texas state government. When the family moved to Grosse Pointe, she decided to forego the practice of law and instead became a third-grade teacher. Lebanese roots fostered a close-knit family of four: father and mother, Charles, and his younger sister Sally.

By all accounts, the youthful Charles excelled at everything he set his mind to do, displaying a breadth of curiosity, energy, and ability. He collected butterflies, studied piano, and joined the Boy Scouts. By age 13, he was an Eagle Scout. By 14, he had mastered Beethoven sonatas and the Lebanese hand drum, known as a derbake. Attending Grosse Pointe High School, he became both athlete and scholar. He played varsity football and joined the track team, becoming a state champion pole vaulter. His musical tastes broadened, as he and his father often drove into Detroit to enjoy jazz music at the West End Hotel, where Charles occasionally joined in 2 a.m. jam sessions with well-known jazzman Yusef Lateef.

Charles’ early experiences in the academic world yielded mixed results. A scholarship took him first to Cornell, but an intense first year of partying secured him a less-than-stellar grade point average – including an F in chemistry – and a swift termination of the scholarship. A second attempt, this time at the University of Michigan, met with better results. And, by good fortune, also he met another graduate of Grosse Pointe High School, a young woman named Sara Ann Mikesell. Within the year, Charles and Sara were married and started life together in Ann Arbor. Fortified by Sara’s support, Charles graduated from the University of Michigan in 1963 with a degree in chemistry.

The 1950s saw widespread application of x-ray crystallography to the study of large molecules. In 1962, two Nobel prizes were awarded for the crystallographic determination of large molecular structures. Stimulated by this exciting atmosphere, Charles decided to attend MIT and study protein crystallography with Professor F. Albert Cotton, an inorganic chemist who had also become interested in protein crystallography. During the next three years, Charles and F. A. Cotton published a number of scientific articles in top technical journals. Later in life, Charles would tell the story that his Ph.D. thesis took him all of three days to write, since he had only to staple together the papers that he had already published!     

While his professional life was taking form, Charles still managed to hold on to a rich and multi-faceted personal life. A Julliard graduate taught him the stand-up bass, which he occasionally played with a jazz trio, but MIT gatherings saw him principally sitting at the piano during regular Friday night performances. He also found time to become a pilot, learning to fly and earning an instrument rating. Sara’s work helped pay for rented airplanes, and on one occasion the two of them flew as far as the Bahamas. Much later, he often called the time at MIT some of the best years of his life.

An Atomic Energy Commission fellowship enabled Charles to stay on at MIT for a year longer, working in the physics department with theorist John Slater and deepening his understanding of the theory describing the structure of electron atomic orbitals. Then, in 1967, an offer of an appointment as both an assistant professor in the College of Chemistry as well as a faculty scientist in what would become the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory brought him to UC Berkeley. The Berkeley chemists thought they were getting an inorganic chemist; in fact, they acquired a physical chemist whose skills were developing rapidly and moving into spectroscopic arenas. Initial years at Berkeley saw a flurry of activity. Building a new, independent research effort dominated his time, but left enough irrepressible energy to spend hours frequenting Sausalito jazz clubs. Home life also changed. A daughter, Heather, entered his life in 1968 and a second daughter, Sabrina, arrived in 1970.

The emerging field of ultrafast chemistry became the major thrust of Charles’ career. His first focus was on developing methods to create and measure vibrational coherence. Methods and insights developed in those early days continue to inform many areas of modern ultrafast science, including multidimensional infrared spectroscopy, femtosecond Raman spectroscopy and vibrational coherence experiments. Charles' research program exploded, producing an impressive collection of science and, in 1973, securing him tenure. Then, with a professional life flourishing, his personal life took a negative turn; Charles and Sara divorced in 1974.

The early 1970s also saw Charles pursue collaborative work in the Netherlands. This opportunity became the first of many international ventures that attracted his attention. While working in Groningen, Charles found time to play the piano at a local nightclub. There, he caught the attention of another young woman, Ingrid Elmendorp. Ingrid and Charles returned to his home in Orinda and married in 1976. Their marriage lasted until the year 2000 and saw the birth of daughter Vanessa in 1977 and son Maarten in 1983. In 2011, Charles married his longtime childhood friend, Donna Day Westerman, and gained a step-daughter, Johanna, and four step-grandchildren. Donna is a professor emeritus at Orange Coast College and an exhibiting fine artist, with studios in Oakland and Berkeley, where she is an ongoing Artist-in-Residence at the Kala Art Institute.

Throughout his career, Charles believed that the best science relied on cutting-edge technology combined with advanced theory. He pursued these principles to the end of his career. As established in the 1980s, research within the Harris Group had two foci: chemical dynamics in solution and excited electronic state dynamics at surfaces and interfaces. The liquid side of his research transitioned from the dynamics of photodissociation, geminate recombination, and vibrational relaxation that had been the focus of research in the 80s and early 90s, to investigations of photocatalysis with organometallic complexes. This research used the photodissociation of CO from metal carbonyl complexes to create reactive metal-centers in their electronic ground state capable of breaking notoriously robust CH bonds. This proved to be a critical research direction for the remainder of Charles’ career.

Charles proved to be at the forefront of uniting the technology of surface science and ultrafast lasers to address the dynamics of electrons at the interface between metals and 2D molecular layers. This activity focused on time and angle resolution in two photon photoemission events. Two areas of accomplishment rise above his other important activities:  characterization of the sensitivity of the time dependent energy and effective mass of image potential states to the conformational response of molecules adsorbed on a metal surface. His work also investigated the electronic structure and dynamics of interfaces between metals and organic semiconductors, information directly relevant to functional organic materials.

Charles, clearly most adventurous by nature, in addition to holding a pilot’s license, had a horse named “Dan” which he rode bareback in the hills above campus; he was also an avid fisherman and regularly wind-surfed between the Berkeley Marina and the Golden Gate Bridge. Along with classical and jazz music, which he played often on his beloved Steinway, wind-surfing became one of the great loves of his life.

The mid-2000s brought dual tragedies to Charles’ life. Even as he dealt with the terrible loss of his daughter Sabrina to cancer, he was presented with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. As he had with so many trials in his life, he confronted the challenge with courage, twice enduring surgery to install Deep Brain Stimulation devices. After these surgeries in 2016, and determined to stay strong physically, he worked out consistently 4 times each week with a personal trainer until a fall in September of last year, when he broke his hip.

On the morning of March 10, 2020, in his home in Orinda, California, with his wife, sister, and children by his side, Charles succumbed to the complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Richard J. Saykally