Frederick Seitz, 96; Physicist Cast Doubt On Global Warming

Physicist Frederick Seitz led the National Academy of Sciences and Rockefeller University.
Physicist Frederick Seitz led the National Academy of Sciences and Rockefeller University. (Courtesy Of Rockefeller University)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 6, 2008

Frederick Seitz, 96, the former president of the National Academy of Sciences who was an outspoken skeptic of global warming, died March 2 at the Mary Manning Walsh nursing home in New York City. No cause of death was reported.

Dr. Seitz was a highly honored physicist who won the 1973 National Medal of Science for his earlier contributions to the modern quantum theory of the solid state of matter. He also wrote a number of books, including "The Modern Theory of Solids" (1940), an influential text on the development of solid-state physics and of transistors.

He turned to science administration in the 1960s, becoming the National Academy of Sciences' first full-time president from 1962 to 1969. He was appointed president of New York's Rockefeller University in 1968, a post he held for 10 years. He also co-founded the George C. Marshall Institute in 1984 to conduct assessments of scientific issues affecting public policy.

Dr. Seitz became a familiar name on opinion pages and in news articles late in his life, when he expressed his deep skepticism about the existence of global warming. A 1995 report from the Marshall institute, with which Dr. Seitz agreed, dismissed the chances of major global warming as "inconsequential." In 1998, he solicited thousands of scientists to sign an eight-page petition against the Kyoto protocol on global warming.

He also was a member of the Strategic Defense Initiative's scientific advisory group and was a strong proponent of deploying space-based military defenses. In 1987, he told The Washington Post: "Early in the 1990s, the Soviets should have it all together, ready to break out of the treaty, if and when they wish. It will be their gain." Restrictions on the U.S. program, he added "are the death knell of SDI . . . [and] could deliver us into the hands of the potential enemy."

In a 2006 interview with the PBS television show "Frontline," Dr. Seitz said that while he was president of Rockefeller University, the institution accepted about $50 million from major tobacco company R.J. Reynolds. He said it wasn't odd for the school, which had done significant cancer research previously, to take money from a tobacco company.

"It's who spends the money that's important. At the same time, I would tell people to stop smoking, as I did," he said. "The blame for smoking should be placed upon smokers. . . . If they buy them, it's their responsibility."

He told investigative reporter Mark Hertsgaard for a 2006 article in Vanity Fair that the research the money had funded avoided the central health issue facing the tobacco industry. "They didn't want us looking at the health effects of cigarette smoking," he said.

But later, in response to a question about his statement, Dr. Seitz told the TSC Daily Web site,"That's ridiculous, completely wrong. The money was all spent on basic science, medical science."

Dr. Seitz earned approximately $585,000 for his consulting work for R.J. Reynolds, Hertsgaard reported and Dr. Seitz confirmed.

Born in San Francisco on July 4, 1911, Dr. Seitz graduated from Stanford University in 1932. He received a doctorate in physics from Princeton University in 1934. While working on his doctorate, he and his professor collaborated on a method for calculating the cohesive energy of a metal, the first such calculation based on known properties of atoms.

He taught physics at the University of Rochester, the University of Pennsylvania and the Carnegie Institute of Technology before going to the University of Illinois in 1949, where he made his name as a scientist and contributed substantially to the understanding of quantum mechanics, properties of solids and radiation effects.

Throughout his career, Dr. Seitz served on numerous governmental and academic committees, including the President's Science Advisory Committee, the Defense Science Board and the policy advisory board of the Argonne National Laboratory.

His awards include the 1965 Franklin Medal from the Franklin Institute, Stanford University's Herbert Hoover Medal in 1968, NASA's Distinguished Public Service Award in 1969 and the American Institute of Physics' Compton Award in 1970. The National Science Foundation gave him the 1983 Vannevar Bush Award.

His wife, Elizabeth Seitz, died in 1992.

Survivors include a son, Joachim Seitz of Palo Alto, Calif.; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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