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Max Wolfsberg
In Memoriam

Max Wolfsberg

Professor of Chemistry

UC Irvine
Max Wolfsberg was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 28, 1928.  After several tense years in Germany his family (his parents, his brother Kurt, and Max) came to the United States as refugees from Nazi Germany in 1939. They traveled via Sweden, leaving Germany only two days before the invasion of Poland. After spending a short time in New York City, the family settled in Galveston, Texas, and eventually moved to St. Louis, where Max obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees from Washington University. After completing his Ph.D. in 1951, he accepted a position at Brookhaven National Laboratory and advanced to a tenured appointment in 1956. He also held a joint appointment in the Chemistry Department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. In 1969 Max and Marilyn Wolfsberg moved to Irvine, California with their daughter Tyra.

Max’s contributions have spanned the scope of theoretical chemistry from early work on electronic structure theory and chemical dynamics, to his work on computer simulations of ionic aqueous solutions, and his prodigious work in the area of isotope effects on chemical reactions. His graduate work was the first application of the molecular orbital theory approach to electronic structure calculations of molecules. That work led to the Wolfsberg-Helmholtz approximation, which was widely used in early calculations of molecular electronic energy levels. Early recognition of the growing power of computer simulations motivated him to switch the focus of his work accordingly. While Max has contributed broadly to topics in theoretical chemistry, it has been his fundamental descriptions of isotope effects on chemical reactions that brought numerous experimentalists to him for advice, council, and collaboration.

Max was Chairman of the Chemistry Department at the University of California, Irvine from 1973 to 1980. His popularity as a teacher at both the undergraduate and graduate level was legendary and that attracted a number of both undergraduates and graduate students to do research with him—a large number of whom have continued his interests in fundamental chemical research in the U.S. and Europe. 

Max also played a major role in developing scientific collaborations with German scientists. In 1977 Max received an invitation to spend a year at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany. He did have some personal concerns about returning to Germany based on his early years before his family left in 1939. However, he decided to take a sabbatical leave from UC Irvine for the 1977/78 year and with the support of a senior Alexander von Humboldt Award he spent the year in Mainz where he became interested in new approaches to computer simulations of ionic aqueous solutions. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation also funds postdoctoral students to work with former Humboldt award recipients through a program called the Lynen Fellowships. Max seized this opportunity to have Lynen Postdoctoral Fellows work with him at UC Irvine. In the years following his first return to Germany, Max made several extended visits to Germany with continued support from the Humboldt Foundation to work with colleagues in Ulm, and also in Leipzig. He was in Leipzig in October, 1989, during what some view as the “birth of the East German revolution” which eventualy led to the reunification of West and East Germany in 1990.

In addition to his wife Marilyn, Max is survived by daughter Tyra Wolfsberg, son-in-law Eric Francis, and grandson Nathaniel Aden Francis. Max’s brother Kurt Wolfsberg died in 2005.

John C. Hemminger Distinguished Professor
Department of Chemistry, UC Irvine