Dean’s Desk: Reading the signs of a future unseen

Dean Douglas Clark stands in front of Tolman Hall, which will be demolished this year to make way for the new Berkeley Science and Engineering Hub.

This year we are celebrating 150 years of chemistry at Cal. Many of you may be wondering how that can be, given that the College of Chemistry wasn’t established until 1872 (by an act of the state legislature, no less). However, we checked the University of California Historical Archive and found that one of the ten initial members of the faculty of the University, Robert A. Fisher, was professor of chemistry, mining and metallurgy in the newly formed College of Agriculture. Fisher taught the first chemistry course on the temporary campus in Oakland and traveled to Europe to buy the first lab instruments and reference books. Thus, there was a chemistry presence at Cal from the University’s founding. By the turn of the century the number of degrees awarded each year had increased from around three to 15. Last year we awarded a total of 382.

Having such a distinguished history and record of excellence for 150 years puts us ahead of some impressive American institutions. Dow Chemical Company was founded in 1897, and the Hershey Company a little earlier in 1894. Comparatively, the Ford Motor Company and New York Yankees were relative newcomers; both got their start in 1903. The College of Chemistry predates them all (and through its faculty, students, and alumni has spawned a number of successful companies of its own), and arguably, is unmatched in its reputation of sustained leadership at, or near the top, of its field throughout the world. Our record of achievement includes multiple Nobel Prizes and discoveries that Reading the signs of a future unseen have changed the course of humankind, all while educating generations of students who themselves have gone on to make their marks worldwide. It is an inspiring history, but past performance is no guarantee of future success.

Much has changed in the last 150 years. Advances in the chemical sciences, and their impact on our daily lives, have been nothing short of phenomenal. Many of those life-changing advances can be traced to research that was carried out in the College of Chemistry. A timeline of groundbreaking discoveries and notable accolades attributed to the College can be found on our website at

Even more will change in the next 150 years, with dissemination (if not synthesis) of new knowledge becoming nearly instantaneous and the impact of technology expanding on a number of fronts, many of which we cannot foresee. What will not change are our core values and mission of advancing society through education and research, which have enabled us to maintain our excellence for so long. We have fulfilled this mission, year in and year out, since our start. Education reflects our heart and soul, while research embodies our spirit.

Predicting the future can indeed be difficult, but not always. For example, chemicals, chocolate, transportation, and baseball will endure. And certain trends will no doubt continue: disciplinary lines will blur as science and engineering merge at the molecular level; amazing new products will result from greater understanding of how to manipulate the properties of matter; and scientific exploits at the atomic scale will grow in quantum leaps and bounds. Other trends, including some of the most exciting, have yet to develop and cannot be predicted. However, through it all, the College of Chemistry will continue to educate, mentor, diversify, and expand the frontiers of human knowledge with passion and commitment, striving to maintain if not exceed the standard of excellence it has set for well over a century. Future generations of students and alumni will help see to that. I know we can count on them for their support. Just as we can count on all of you.

So, let us embrace the future. It will be here sooner than we think, ready for all to recognize.

Dean, College of Chemistry
Gilbert N. Lewis Professor