Verner Schomaker (1914-1997)

Verner Schomaker, possessor of one of the most critical and wide-ranging scientific intellects of our time, died in Pasadena, California, on March 30, 1997, of pancreatic cancer. What follows is a very personal account. Many of those who worked with or were closely exposed to Verner might have written something similar; I am confident that the general flavor would have been the same.

Every scientific question seemed to interest Verner, and anyone with a knotty problem was welcome at his always-open door. And his time was always yours -- until he, at least, understood in some depth what you were asking, and preferably you did too. The answer did not, of course, always come in one session -- even though the sessions could last for many hours, past meal times and past other appointments that you forgot about because you were so engrossed. His memory was prodigious, and when he encountered a problem he 'worried it', like a dog with a bone. He might not have all the insight he wanted when the question was first raised, or even during the next few days or weeks -- but he wouldn't forget. You might encounter him some years later, and he'd say: "I've been thinking about what you said, and ....".

He was at once friendly, open, uncommonly generous, and extremely bright. He was, to those who were privileged to work with him or otherwise benefit from his insights, simply without peer as a one-on-one teacher. In the 40's and '50's, many who worked with him felt complimented when he would say "How can you be so god-damned stupid?", since we realized that he expected us to understand and that, frustrated though he might be with our slowness, he would not give up until we understood, or left. In his later years, he learned patience and mellowed somewhat, and those who couldn't follow an abstruse line of reasoning he was explaining might be asked "What do I have to do, say it louder?" But never, and I do mean never, was there any animosity involved in what might seem to some to be harsh remarks. Nor did Verner's own ego ever intrude. He was selfless, far more so than almost anyone imaginable with his level of intellect and accomplishment. He was interested in getting things right, not in who got the credit, and was never afraid to admit his errors and his own limitations, although he overestimated them (as he, generously, did the abilities of some of his collaborators).

He is best known for his contributions in electron and X-ray diffraction. He thought that his most important contribution had been in the early days of electron diffraction, for development of techniques for the visual interpretation of the scattering of electrons by gas molecules. None of the structures reported from his productive group had later to be revised, when sector methods gave greater resolution and precision. But he published in many other fields as well -- one of his final papers (with J. Waser) was on the "Global Thermodynamics of Systems That Include Stressed Solids", and he was saddened that he could not interest any colleague in studying it intently enough to discuss it with him meaningfully. At least one of his papers became a "Citation Classic" in the Science Citation Index. However, his total publication list probably didn't reach 200 papers, because he was a perfectionist when writing a paper, and because he was so readily distracted by the intriguing problems presented by those who sought him out. His generous spirit, his penetrating intellect, his breadth of interests and curiosity, and his selflessness, led almost everyone within his orbit to use him as a consultant. There is little doubt that if there were a "Science Advisor Acknowledgment Index", he would have ranked at or very near the top. It has been estimated that during the 1940s and '50s, at least one third, and perhaps as many as one half, of the papers published by the "Gates and Crellin Laboratories" (the Caltech Division of Chemistry) concluded with a phrase such as "We are grateful to Professor Verner Schomaker for helpful discussions", or "The valuable insights provided by our colleague Verner Schomaker helped to make this work possible". And these papers covered the gamut of work in the Division, not just in diffraction, but in quantum mechanics, immunochemistry, nmr, spectroscopy, thermodynamics, inorganic and organic chemistry, ... In those years, the reference "V. Schomaker, unpublished" was so common (in others' papers especially) that it could be recognized by the astute as what Patterson meant by "Vernished" in his famous spoof of the Acta Crystallographica telegraphic style*.

A native of Nebraska, where he grew up on a farm, he earned a BS from that state's University in 1934 and a MS in 1935. He then moved to Pasadena, where Pauling quickly recognized his uncommon qualities. After receiving a PhD in 1938, he went up the academic ladder in Chemistry at Caltech (taking time out for war-time research from 1942 to 1945). He received the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry in 1949, and served as ACA President in 1961-62. In 1958 he left academic work to join the Union Carbide Research Institute (just north of New York City), where he spent seven years -- but when it became apparent that the initial promise of something modelled on the Bell Labs or what was then the Shell Development Laboratory was never going to materialize, he joined the faculty of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Washington in Seattle, serving initially for five years as Chair, during an important time for faculty growth. He became Professor Emeritus in 1984. After his retirement, he was also a Faculty Associate at Caltech, dividing his time about equally between Pasadena and Seattle.

He is survived by his wife Judy, his sisters Helen and Mariana, his sons David, Eric, and Peter, and eight grandchildren. His family has requested that donations in his memory be made to the Verner Schomaker Memorial Fund, c/o California Institute of Technology, Office of Donor Relations, Mail Code 105-40, Pasadena, CA 91125. The fund will be used to support student research.

Kenneth Trueblood

* The complete text of this 21-line paper by "A. L. Pon" is reproduced in "Patterson and Pattersons", edited by Jenny Glusker, Betty Patterson, and Miriam Rossi, Oxford University Press (1987), p. 618