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Harry Drickamer. pioneer in pressure tuning studies dies

James E. Kloeppel, Physical Sciences Editor
(217) 244-1073;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Harry G. Drickamer, a pioneer in the field of pressure tuning studies, which led to advances in the study of molecular, atomic and electronic properties, died Monday (May 6) at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, Ill. He was 83 years old.

Drickamer was Center for Advanced Study Professor of Chemical Engineering, of Chemistry and of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
His experiments demonstrated the essential nature of high pressure – millions of pounds per square inch – as a tool for understanding electronic behavior in condensed systems.

"His accomplishments are significant not only for chemical engineering, chemistry and physics, but also for geology and biochemistry," said Charles F. Zukoski, professor and head of the department of chemical engineering at Illinois. "They have relevance for such technological processes as the design of semiconductor devices, the improvement of phosphor efficiency, the elucidation of photographic processes and the improvement of practical energy recovery systems."

Drickamer was the first to observe that high pressure perturbs different types of electronic orbitals to different degrees. He exploited the pressure tuning of electronic orbitals to discover a wide variety of electronic transitions in solids with different optical, electrical, chemical and magnetic consequences. In addition, he used pressure tuning to perform numerous critical tests of theories concerning electronic phenomena.

"Drickamer was one of the towering figures in high pressure research," said Charles P. Slichter, a professor emeritus of physics at Illinois. "His contribution was to use high pressure to tune the energy of electronic levels, thereby dramatically changing the chemical and physical properties. Drickamer stands out clearly and uniquely as the pioneer whose work led to the flourishing of high pressure studies in chemistry."

His research contributed to the understanding of widely ranging scientific problems such as the band structure of solids, the insulator-conductor transition, the spin states of magnetic ions and denaturation processes in proteins. Apart from their fundamental significance, Drickamer’s discoveries have had an important influence on technology both in the chemical industry and other industries.

Drickamer received his bachelor’s degree in 1941, his master’s degree in chemical engineering in 1942, and his doctorate in chemical engineering in 1946, all from the University of Michigan. He joined the Illinois faculty in 1946 and became a full professor in 1953.

During his career, he trained more than 100 doctoral students and 20 postdoctoral researchers. Several years ago, his former students honored him by establishing a fund, which he designated be used to support graduate fellowships for students in chemical engineering, chemistry and physics.

He was long associated with materials research programs of the U.S. Department of Energy, and was instrumental in establishing the Frederick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory on campus. For his work, he was awarded the DOE Award for Outstanding Sustained Research in 1989.

Drickamer received numerous awards, including the National Medal of Science in 1989 and the Robert A. Welch Award in Chemistry in 1987 for career contributions "for the benefit of mankind." He also received the American Physical Society’s Oliver E. Buckley Solid State Physics Award, the American Chemical Society’s Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry and Irving Langmuir Award in Chemical Physics, the Franklin Institute’s Elliott Cresson Medal, the Michelson-Morley Award from Case Western Reserve University, and the first P.W. Bridgman Award of the International Association for the Advancement of High Pressure Science and Technology.

He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the American Philosophical Society, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Royal Society of Chemistry.

He also was appointed Professor in the University of Illinois Center for Advanced Study in 1989, the highest recognition the university bestows upon members of its faculty.

Drickamer was born Nov. 19, 1918, in Cleveland. He is survived by his wife, Mae Elizabeth McFillen, whom he married in 1942. Also surviving are five children: Lee, head of biology at Northern Arizona University at Flagstaff, Ariz.; Lynn, technical library assistant in the Law Library at Michigan; Kurt, a professor of biochemistry at Oxford University in England; Margaret, professor of medicine at Yale Medical School; and Priscilla Atkins, a reference librarian at Hope College in Holland, Mich., who is also a poet, with more than 50 published poems.