Remembering William Klemperer

November 6, 2017
William Klemperer

An innovative, versatile, and ebullient Physical Chemist, William Klemperer, Erving Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at Harvard University, died on November 5, at the age of 90.

Klemperer was among the world's leaders in the field of molecular spectroscopy, which explores the myriad wavelengths of light emitted or absorbed by molecules. Obtaining the spectra provides access to the arrangement of atoms within molecules, the properties of chemical bonds linking atoms, and the electronic interactions governing those bonds. By means of unconventional experimental methods, Klemperer produced a cornucopia for molecular spectroscopy, unprecedented in resolution and chemical scope. Especially important were studies of molecules linked by weak forces, which contributed to understanding such interactions in biomolecules. Most dramatic was his exploration into astrochemistry. Intrigued by spectra coming from molecules detected in vast, frigid interstellar clouds, he developed a theoretical model that explained the profuse variety of complex organic molecules in the interstellar clouds, in our galaxy, and others far distant.

William ("Bill") was born in New York City on October 6, 1927. His parents, Paul and Margit, were both physicians. Upon graduation from New Rochelle High School in 1944, Bill immediately enlisted in the U.S. Navy Air Corps and was trained as a tail gunner. In 1946, he enrolled in Harvard, where he majored in Chemistry and also met and married his wife, Elizabeth Cole, a Radcliffe student. On obtaining his A.B. in 1950, Bill and Beth headed to the University of California at Berkeley, where Bill received his Ph.D. in early 1954. Then, on a social visit to Harvard, intending just to see a friendly professor, Bill was offered and accepted appointment as an Instructor. That rank, now long gone, was considered unlikely to lead to the faculty ladder. However, soon his extraordinary caliber was evident and he skipped up the ladder, becoming a full professor in 1965, at age 38.

William Klemperer

Along with his bright, creative intellect, Bill had sound judgment, total integrity, contagious enthusiasm, lively humor, and a warm, engaging personality. Those qualities attracted many coworkers to join in his path-breaking research. Over five decades, Bill mentored many undergraduates, 67 Ph.D. candidates, 34 postdoctoral fellows, and a host of other collaborators. Moreover, an earnest citizen, Bill gladly rendered public service. During 1979 - 1981, he commuted to the National Science Foundation as Assistant Director for the Mathematical and Physical Sciences. He also served as an advisor to NASA and as a consultant to assess experiments related to stratospheric ozone depletion. Bill received major awards from the American Chemical Society, the American Physical Society, the Royal Chemical Society (English), as well as election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.

As with his science, Bill delighted in the bountiful rose garden that he avidly cultivated; in his many intense friendships with colleagues all over the world; and in his joyous family life with Beth and their children, Joyce, Paul, and Wendy. His family and all who knew Bill cherish his legacy of a loving, zestful spirit.

See also: Faculty, Klemperer