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Jürg Waser (1916-2002)


Jürg Waser, who was president of the ACA from 1960 to 1961 (vice-president, 1959-1960), died at his home in La Jolla on August 16, 2002, at the age of 86. He is survived by his wife Plüdi, children Nicki, Peter and Kathy, grandson Andrew Waser, and stepson Roy Weiss.

Jürg was born in Zurich and attended the U. of Zurich. He went to Caltech on a one-year graduate exchange program in 1939 but remained because of World War II, receiving his PhD (chemistry) in 1944 under the supervision of Linus Pauling. He continued at Caltech as an Instructor in Mathematics and a Research Fellow in Chemistry until 1948, when he returned to the U. of Zurich. He soon came back to the United States as Professor of Chemistry at Rice U. in Houston, and returned to Caltech as Professor of Chemistry in 1958. He retired in 1975.

Jürg’s primary responsibility at Caltech was to teach the introductory chemistry course required of essentially all undergraduates. He taught it meticulously; meticulous in his preparations for lectures, meticulous in his insistence that he thoroughly understand the subjects himself, meticulous in his supervision of the Teaching Assistants. He was famous for his 'pop qwisses' (pronounced with his native Swiss accent), and for his stern yet sympathetic mien. In effect, he ruled the course with an iron hand - well hidden under a soft glove, for he was always willing to give help to any student who sought it. When he could find no satisfactory textbook for the Analytical Chemistry portion of the laboratory work, he wrote one; it went through two editions and was used in several other colleges. He also wrote a slim volume on 'Basic Chemical Thermodynamics', to help the students (and TA’s) understand these concepts. His thoughtful lectures and his close interaction with his Teaching Assistants surely inspired many students, both undergraduate and graduate, to become more disciplined and more understanding - as well as far more knowledgeable in their pursuit of a scientific career.

Although most of his time at Caltech was spent with his teaching duties, he carried out extensive research in the field of structural chemistry, using the experimental methods of x-ray diffraction and his thorough knowledge of mathematics; he particularly enjoyed the concepts and notations of dyadics. He was one of the first to include 'restraints' in the least-squares refinement process. After his retirement he turned more and more to questions involving basic thermodynamics, and often collaborated on this subject with his close friend, the late Verner Schomaker (also a past president of the ACA) and with Hans Kuhn of the Max Planc Inst. at Goëttingen, Germany on theories concerning the origin of life.

Jürg was tall and stately, and an excellent dancer - particularly enjoying Viennese waltzes. He also enjoyed camping and the outdoors, He returned to Switzerland most summers, and it is easy to visualize him striding along with an alpenstock and a red-feathered hat, planning in his mind a lecture on chemical equilibrium.

Dick Marsh, ACA Newsletter, Winter 2002
29 July 2009