Rowland, F. Sherwood (1927- ) American Atmospheric Chemist (Scientist)

F. Sherwood Rowland shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry with his colleague Mario J. Molina, as well as Paul Crutzen, for their roles in realizing the erosion of the protective ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which the scientific community assumed until that point to be inert in the atmosphere. Their informing the world of this phenomenon elicited an extremely swift response from the international community, and within the quarter of a century since their initial discoveries, CFC production has ceased.

Frank Sherwood Rowland was born on June 28, 1927, in Delaware, Ohio, the middle son of three. The family had moved there the year before, when his father, Sidney A. Rowland, was appointed as the chairman of the mathematics department at Ohio Wesleyan University. His mother, Margaret Drake, taught Latin. Rowland’s parents encouraged his scientific curiosity and study, and he developed his interest in atmospheric science by volunteering at the local weather station, measuring temperature highs and lows as well as the amount of precipitation. He attended an accelerated public school system that promoted him through its ranks to graduate from high school at the age of 16.

Ineligible for the draft, Rowland entered college at Ohio Wesleyan University in 1943, studying year-round for two years before he enlisted in the U.S. Navy to train radar operators. After World War II ended (he saw no action), he returned to Ohio Wesleyan, electing to finish his studies in two years instead of just one year. He graduated in 1948 with a bachelor of arts degree in chemistry, physics, and mathematics. He immediately matriculated at the University of Chicago to pursue graduate studies under some of the most prominent scientists of the day: the chemist Willard Libby, the physical chemists Harold Urey and Edward Teller, the inorganic chemist Henry Taube, and nuclear physicists Maria Goeppert Mayer and enrich Fermi.


Rowland earned his master’s degree in radio-chemistry in 1951 and then focused his dissertation on the chemical state of radioactive bromine produced in the cyclotron to earn his doctorate the next year. On June 7, 1952, he married a fellow graduate student, Joan E. Lund-berg, and the couple embarked for Princeton University, where Rowland had secured an instructorship in chemistry. There, their first child, Ingrid Drake, was born in the summer of 1953; a son, Jeffrey Sherwood, joined the family in the summer of 1955, born on Long Island during one of Rowland’s summers conducting research in the chemistry department of the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Rowland remained at Princeton until 1956, when the University of Kansas hired him as an assistant professor. The university promoted him to a full professorship by 1964, when the University of California at Irvine appointed him as a full professor and the first chairman of its chemistry department. He chaired the department until 1970, when he stepped down to pursue a new direction in research. That year, he chanced upon that direction: after attending the International Atomic Energy Agency meeting on the environmental applications of radioactivity in Salzburg, Austria, he shared a train compartment with an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) official, who introduced Rowland to the notion of studying the atmosphere at the chemical level, an approach the scientist immediately espoused.

The AEC representative invited Rowland to his 1972 Chemistry-Meteorology Workshop in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the second in a series, which featured the speaker James Lovelock, who suggested the utility of following the atmospheric movement of an extremely stable molecule, chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), to track wind patterns. The idea fascinated Rowland, who wondered what happened when this molecule eventually destabilized, as it must through solar photochemistry. With financial support from the AEC, Rowland commenced a study of the atmospheric chemistry of CFCs, enlisting the services of his new postdoctoral researcher, Mario Molina.

Within three months, Rowland and Molina determined that CFCs drift into the stratospheric ozone layer, some eight to 30 miles above the earth, where ultraviolet radiation breaks down the bond, releasing an atom of chlorine. This free radical readily combines with ozone molecules, destroying their radiation-blocking properties. What is more, a single chlorine atom recombines with thousands of ozone molecules. That year, the United States alone produced 400,000 tons of CFCs, most of which was released into the atmosphere. Rowland and Molina announced these initial observations in a landmark paper that appeared in the June 28, 1974, edition of the prominent British scientific journal, Nature, creating an almost immediate sensation.

The National Academy of Sciences confirmed Rowland and Molina’s findings in 1976; their testimony in legislative hearings convinced the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban production of aerosol CFCs in October 1978. They continued to study CFC-ozone depletion, as did a spawning generation of atmospheric chemists who realized the dire implications of such diminution. In late 1984, Joe Farman discovered what the CFC-ozone depletion theory inherently prophesied: a "hole" in the ozone above Antarctica, as revealed by satellite pictures.

Susan Solomon led two Antarctic expeditions in fall 1986 and summer 1987, gathering data that confirmed the disappearance of the ozone layer above the south pole. Rowland had collaborated with Solomon (as well as Rolando R. Garcia and Donald J. Wuebbles) on the paper announcing her hypothesis explaining the polar concentration of atmospheric destruction, "On Depletion of Antarctic Ozone," published in the June 19, 1986, edition of Nature.

In 1987, the industrial nations of the world adopted the Montreal Protocol to phase out CFC production before the end of the century, and 1992 amendments foreshortened this time frame. The University of California at Irvine recognized Rowland’s accomplishments by naming him to endowed chairs: from 1985 through 1989, he served as the Daniel G. Aldrich Jr. Professor of Chemistry; from 1989 through 1994 as the Donald Bren Professor of Chemistry, and from 1994 on as the Donald Bren Research Professor of Chemistry. Also since 1994, he has served as the foreign secretary of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In 1995, he received global recognition for his contributions to the welfare of humankind with the awarding of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, which he shared with Molina and Paul Crutzen.

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