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Herbert F. York, Founding
UC San Diego Chancellor, Dies May 19

Helped develop atomic bomb, but later served as ambassador for peace

May 20, 2009

By Pat JaCoby

Herbert Frank York, founding chancellor of the University of California, San Diego and a world-renowned physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb as a young researcher and later championed arms control, died May 19 at Thornton Hospital in San Diego, Ca. He was 87.

Photo of
UCSD's founding Chancellor Herbert F. York, right, talked with current UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox in 2004.

York excelled as scholar, researcher and diplomat, and leaves an enduring legacy as a UC San Diego professor and administrator, an innovative scientist dealing with issues of national urgency, and an ambassador for peace, stability and civility in the international theater.

A mentor to students and an advisor to U.S. presidents, York’s academic and world player roles intertwined in a career spanning more than 60 years. He served as founding chancellor of UC San Diego from 1961-1964, and returned as acting chancellor from 1970-1972.

UC San Diego Chancellor Marye Anne Fox said, “Herb was not only a leader of UC San Diego, he also was a world leader and had a global impact. During his exceptional, long-standing career, he was the ‘first’ in many of the positions he held.  Herb York made this campus and this world a better place. We will forever be grateful for his leadership and vision.”

Photo of
York, first from left, posed with four other UCSD chancellors in in the 1970s.

Harold Brown, Secretary of Defense under President Carter and one of York’s closest friends, said, “Herb York’s life was an unsurpassed record of achievement in science, education and national security. He played the leading role in creating a series of innovative and crucial institutions—a nuclear laboratory, the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, a UC campus, the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. In the national government, in California, and in international meetings and negotiations, he was dedicated to peace while being realistic about security needs. Beyond the public record, all of us who knew him as a friend appreciated his omnivorous interest in the world around him, dedication to his family, great sense of humor and zest for life; for us, the loss is both intensified and redeemed by our recognition of the model he provided.”

“Herb and I have been friends since 1948 and our lives have been intertwined ever since,” said Marvin Goldberger, former dean of UC San Diego’s Division of Natural sciences and former president of Caltech. “By the time Herb was only 28 years old, he had been appointed director of the Livermore Laboratory. That was the start of Herb’s career of public service at the highest levels of government and academe. He was an effective voice for science within the White House and enormously effective as the first chancellor of UC San Diego.”

Mark Thiemens, dean of UC San Diego’s Division of Physical Sciences, noted “Herb is one of the most remarkable and influential scientists I have ever met. Whenever I pick up a book on the history of science policy in the United States, a history of the Manhattan Project, or a history of fundamental physics, Herb is featured prominently. He played an integral role in creating our nation’s science agencies—the NSF, NASA and the Department of Energy—as well as an integral role in developing UC San Diego into a world renowned university.”

Photo of Herbert York
A recent portrait of York.

Speaking for the family, York’s oldest daughter, Rachel, said, “We are so grateful that Dad died in the embrace of the university he loved so very much, and was so very proud of.”

York first came to the UC system in 1943 when he was recruited to join the staff of the University of California Radiation Laboratory (UCRL) at Berkeley. Under the auspices of the UCRL, York was dispatched to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project,  where a group of scientists designed the first atomic bomb – the bomb detonated over Hiroshima, Japan.

In a memoir, York wrote that his contribution to the bomb’s development had not been all that profound, but that he still felt triumphant: “Not only did we complete the project, but we ended the war.”

Ending the war, or better yet, not starting one, was eventually to become a cause York advocated the better part of his life.

York received his B.S. and M.S. degrees, both in the same year, at the University of Rochester. At the end of  World War II, York returned to UC Berkeley as a graduate student, received a doctorate in physics in 1949, stayed on as research physicist, then joined the physics department in 1951 as an assistant professor. Life in academia was short-lived, as once again he was recruited to a more urgent mission. From July 1952, to March 1958, York initiated and directed the UC Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, overseeing research programs which included development of the hydrogen bomb and other classified programs under the sponsorship of the Atomic Energy Commission.

In March of 1958, York became the first chief scientist of the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon, Washington, D.C. In December of that year, President Eisenhower appointed him the first director of Defense Research and Engineering, serving as civilian supervisor of missile and space research.

It was during these duties in the 1950s that York’s belief that ending a war was done most effectively by not starting one sharpened, and turned him emphatically to arms control and to a nuclear test ban as a first step. “I was the only senior official who thought it (arms control and nuclear test ban) was a great idea,” York later said. “Others were tolerant of it, but the majority thought it was really dumb.”

Photo of
York posing for a portrait in 1985.

York returned to academia in 1961 when UC established a campus in La Jolla.   UC President Clark Kerr turned to York as someone with a solid record of administration and good rapport with the Board of Regents. York was named chancellor Feb. 17, 1961, and assumed office in July that year.

In his slightly more than three years as UCSD chancellor, York worked with faculty committees planning to expand the campus and was involved in planning the School of Medicine. Though pleased with the tangible progress, York was less than gratified by the bureaucratic system of committee-based decision making and resigned in November of 1964 to return to teaching as a professor of physics, later chairing the Physics Department and serving as dean of graduate studies, 1969-1970.

In these years at UCSD, York also was continuing in various capacities for the U.S. government. He served as a member of the first General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament, 1962-69; headed the U.S. delegation to a UNESCO conference in 1965 on the application of science and technology; served as a member of the U.S. delegation to Soviet-American Arms Control Talks, 1978-79, and served as U.S. ambassador and chief negotiator for the Comprehensive Test Ban negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland, 1979-81.

Opposition in both the United States and the Soviet Union scuttled the Geneva negotiations, and York later related his disappointment, but not surprise, saying that at that time: “The world situation just wouldn’t support it.”

York also was advisor to six U.S. presidents on arms and armament, and served on the President’s Science Advisory Committee and the scientific advisory boards of the Army and the Air Force.

The scholar and university administrator again served as chancellor of UC San Diego on an interim basis from 1970 to 1972.  In contrast to his first term as founding chancellor, before the first students had even been accepted, York relished the short interim chancellorship made sweeter by the fact that “we had real students, and it was a real university.”

Photo of
York spoke during a 2004 event at UCSD.

Following the second chancellorship, York taught physics and served as director of the Program in Science, Technology and Public Affairs, 1973-88. In 1983 York founded and directed the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC), which conducts research and seminars on conflict resolution and promotes international efforts to avoid war. In 1989 he became director emeritus.

He also served as advisor to the president of UC and the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories on the future of the nuclear labs.

Richard Atkinson, president emeritus of the University of California and former UC San Diego Chancellor, said, “Herb played a key role in the development of nuclear weapons and more importantly, in defining the nation’s policy on such weapons. As the first chancellor of UC San Diego he set the standard for excellence and the university’s subsequent development as a great research university. His contributions at the national level and in San Diego are truly legendary.”

Among his numerous awards were:

  • The 2000 Clark Kerr Award for Distinguished Leadership in higher education, the highest honor bestowed by UC Berkeley’s Academic Senate.
  • The 2000 Enrico Fermi Award for his efforts and contributions in nuclear deterrence and arms control agreements, presented by President Clinton in Washington D.C. The Fermi Award is the government’s oldest science and technology award honoring lifetime achievement.
  • The 2000 Vannevar Bush Award for leadership in the arms control movement and work in nuclear energy, presented by the National Science Board, the policymaking arm of the National Science Foundation.
  • Also, the American Physical Society’s Leo Szilard Award, 1994; the Federation of American Scientists’ Public Service Award, 1993, and the Atomic Energy Commission’s Ernest O. Lawrence Memorial Award, 1962.

York was the author of six books: Arms Control (Readings from Scientific American, 1973); The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller and Superbomb (1976); Race to Oblivion: A Participant’s View of the Arms Race (1978); Making Weapons, Talking Peace: A Physicist’s Journey from Hiroshima to Geneva (1987); A Shield in Space? Technology, Politics and the Strategic Defense Initiative (1988); and Arms and the Physicist (1994).

He is survived by his wife of  61 years, Sybil, whom he met at Berkeley, and three children: Rachel York, Dr. Cynthia York,  David Winters and four grandchildren.

At the request of the family, a memorial service will be scheduled at UC San Diego in the fall. In lieu of flowers, the York family suggests donations in Herb’s memory be made to the “Herb York Memorial Fund.” Checks payable to the UC San Diego Foundation can be sent to University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive #0940, La Jolla, Ca. 92093-0940; donations also can be made online at www.givetoucsd.ucsd.edu. Please type “Herb York Memorial Fund” in the keyword search section.

Additional York information can be found at:
http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/newsrel/science/mcfermi.htm or


Media Contact: Pat Jacoby, 858-534-7404; pjacoby@ucsd.edu

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