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Ken Hedberg in front of black backdrop

Fond farewell to chemist Ken Hedberg, champion of science and inspiration to students for seven decades

By Debbie Farris

Ken Hedberg, Alumnus and Distinguished Emeritus Professor of chemistry

The College of Science is saddened by the death of alumnus and Distinguished Emeritus Professor of chemistry Ken Hedberg (’43), who passed away on January 5, 2019, just a month shy of his 99th birthday in Corvallis. He is survived by his wife and collaborator Lise, daughter Katrina, son Eric and grandchildren.

A celebration of Ken Hedberg’s life will be held at the OSU Foundation, 4238 SW Research Way in Corvallis at 2 p.m. on Saturday, February 2, 2019, which would have been his 99th birthday.

Hedberg lived a life of science, spending more than seven decades advancing science as a chemist at OSU with 30 of those years coming after his retirement in 1987. He kept regular office hours, conducted research, mentored undergraduate students and inspired everyone who met him. He was a constant presence in Gilbert Hall since 1956 when he joined the faculty. He frequented his office through the fall of 2018, coming in every week or two.

“I am deeply saddened by Ken’s death. He was one of our most accomplished scientists, training and mentoring generations of scientists. He was an internationally recognized physical chemist and collaborated with researchers around the world well ahead of his time,” said Roy Haggerty, dean of the College of Science.

“Ken was truly a caring and dedicated mentor to students and an inspiration to us all. He will be sorely missed.”

A physical chemist, Hedberg established a research program that focused on the structural analysis of various compounds using an electron diffraction apparatus that he designed and built himself. With research focused on molecular structure and intramolecular dynamics, Hedberg determined the structure of dozens of molecules throughout his career. One of which was Carbon-60 — also known as the “Buckyball” — in addition to various compounds of xenon. Hedberg’s colleagues fondly referred to him as the department’s “oldest innovator.” His first publication was in 1943 and his last one was in November 2018.

Hedberg received his doctorate in chemistry and physics from Caltech in 1948, where he made the acquaintance of Linus Pauling. The two remained colleagues and friends until Pauling’s death in 1994. An American Chemical Society (ACS) member since 1943, Hedberg served on the ACS committee that created the Linus Pauling Medal in 1966.

Hedberg received both a Fulbright grant and a Guggenheim fellowship in 1952 to travel and live in Norway, where he met laboratory assistant Lise Smedvik, with whom he collaborated and eventually married.

An internationally recognized scientist, Hedberg received dozens of prestigious honors and awards. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the Royal Norwegian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Sloan Foundation. He also was a member of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences. In 2005, Dr. Hedberg received the International Barbara Mez-Starck Prize, a distinguished honor awarded to scientists who have made outstanding contributions to structural chemistry. The College of Science awarded Hedberg its Lifetime Achievement award in 2016 to recognize his many achievements and impact at OSU.

Hedberg trained and mentored generations of scientists. He conducted fundamental research, collaborated with and hosted dozens of visiting researchers from around the world since the 1950s, and was a caring and dedicated mentor to students. He served as advisor to 18 doctoral candidates and 18 postdocs.

“Science is about people, collaborations, relationships and connections,” Hedberg remarked.

Indeed. He will be sorely missed by the entire OSU community and beyond. Hedberg was a smart, humble and lively colleague, scientist and friend who will not only be remembered for his scientific advances and contributions but also for his generosity of spirit.

Read more about Ken Hedberg’s work, life and impact. OSU recorded an oral history on his life in 2011.

In December 2020, the Journal of Physical Chemistry published a paper involving the structural determination of a fluorinated fullerene in honor of Ken Hedberg. This new paper was selected as a supplemental cover.

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