Childhood & Early Life
Frank Sherwood Rowland was born on June 28, 1927, in Delaware, Ohio. His father, Sydney A. Rowland, was a Professor of Mathematics and the Chairman of the Department at the Ohio Wesleyan University. His mother, Margaret Drake Rowland, taught Latin. He was the second of his parents’ three children.
Frank began his schooling at the age of five at a local public school. He was a brilliant boy and as accelerated promotion was allowed in Delaware school system, he skipped the fourth grade and entered the high school at the age of twelve.
During his high school years, he spent the summer vacations acting as the weatherman at the local voluntary weather station, keeping records of maximum and minimum temperature as well as the total precipitation. It was his first exposure to weather phenomenon and systematic data collection.
In 1943, just few weeks before his sixteenth birthday, Frank Sherwood Rowland graduated from school and entered Ohio Wesleyan University. Because he was not yet eighteen, he could not be enlisted for the military service and so he was few of the male students left in the university.
In 1945, he turned eighteen and joined the US Navy to get trained as a radar operator. The World War II ended in the same year while he was still a trainee. However, he had to wait for fourteen months before he was released from the Navy.
Thereafter, he hitched back to Ohio across a distance of 2000 miles from San Pedro, California, where he was transferred before release. He then spent two more years, completing his undergraduate studies, majoring in physics, chemistry and mathematics.
In 1948, Rowland graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a Bachelor of Arts degree. In fall, he joined the University of Chicago to study chemistry. Here he was included in the research group of Willard F. Libby, known for inventing the Carbon-14 Dating technique.
Professor Libby had a great influence on his young mind. Under his guidance, Rowland earned his M.S degree in 1951 and PhD in August 1952. His dissertation was titled ‘The epithermal reactions of recoil atoms’.
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In September 1952, within a month of earning his PhD degree, Rowland joined University of Princeton as an Instructor in the Department of Chemistry. Concurrently, he spent the summers of 1953, 1954 and 1955 working at the Chemistry Department of the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
While working at Brookhaven, he put powdered mixture of the sugar glucose and lithium carbonate into the neutron flux of the nuclear reactor. It resulted in one-step synthesis of radioactive tritium-labeled glucose. This work was noted by the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and it offered support for continuation of the research.
However, before anything could materialize, he received appointment as an Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas and joined his new post in the summer of 1956. The support promised by AEC also arrived on time.
He therefore, lost no time in gathering a research team, comprising of graduate student and postdoctoral fellows. For next eight years, he worked with this research group, investigating mainly the chemical reactions of energetic tritium atoms.
In August 1964, he moved to Irvin to become Professor of Chemistry and also the first Chairman of the Chemistry Department of the yet-to-be opened University of California. In spite of the transfer, he continued receiving the support from AEC.
Students began to arrive by September 1965. Here too he gathered an effective research team and continued his work on ‘hot atom’ chemistry. At the same time, he deliberately sought new topics, trying to instill some freshness in the research work.
Thus they first worked on radioactive tracer photochemistry, using tritium and carbon-14; then chlorine and fluorine chemistry using the radioactive isotopes 38Cl and 18F. In 1970, he gave up the post of Chairman of the Chemistry Department to concentrate more on actual research.
By this time, the state of environment became a cause of general concern and his daughter Ingrid, was especially involved in this matter. In 1970, he travelled to Salzburg, Austria to attend an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting on the environmental applications of radioactivity and had many close interaction with specialists in the field.
in January 1972, he attended another such meeting held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was here that Rowland first learnt about the traces of chlorofluorocarbon (a man-made chemical) found in the atmosphere both at northern and southern hemisphere.
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Initially, it was believed to be an advantage as the inertness of the gas would stop its early removal and so it could act as an excellent tracer for air movement. However, as a chemical kineticist and photochemist, Rowland knew that the solar photochemistry is going to break it down one day.
He then began to wonder what would finally happen to the chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) compounds in the atmosphere. In 1973, funded by Atomic Energy Commission, he and Mario Molina, a postdoctoral research scholar in his team, started working on that.
Within three months, Rowland and Molina realized that they are working on something that had grave consequences for the environment. They found that the CFC results in substantial depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer. In 1974, they published the result of their work in the June volume of the journal Nature.
However, the scientific community failed to take note of the danger and the paper was met with indifference. So in September 1974, they held a press conference, calling for a total ban on further release of CFCs in the atmosphere
This too failed to move the scientific community. However, Rowland remained calm and worked tirelessly to bring in legislation that would ban release of CFC in the atmosphere. At the same time, he tried to make scientific community as well as the general public aware of the danger they are facing by holding regular talks.
He tasted the first success when in 1976 The National Academy of Sciences concurred with Rowland’s findings. Later in 1978, CFC-based aerosols were banned in the United States.
However, Rowland kept on with his work, measuring the CFC level in atmosphere, colleting samples from various cities and from various latitudes. It added to his earlier research and made his stand stronger.
In 1982, working with Don Blake, he found that the concentration of methane, a green house gas, was rising alarmingly in the atmosphere. The findings attracted wide attention and resulted in the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which put in a blanket ban on the production of CFC and other ozone depleting chemicals.
Nonetheless, he continued his work. Just few months before his death, he started a novel research. With Blake, he began measuring chemicals in human breath. His idea was to see, if it could provide a new avenue for diagnosing diseases.
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Awards & Achievements
In 1995, Rowland and Morley were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on chlorofluorocarbon compounds and their role in ozone depletion. They shared the prize with Paul J. Cruzen, who independently worked on ozone depletion.
Some other significant awards won by Rowland are: Tolman Medal (1976), Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (1983), Japan Prize (1989), Peter Debye Award (1993). Albert Einstein World Award of Science (1994), (1994)
In 1978, Rowland was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Next in 1993, he became the president of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
In 2004, he was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society.