Patterson, Clair C.

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Clair Cameron Patterson (1922-1995). Professor of geochemistry at Caltech.

From the description of Oral history interview with Clair C. Patterson. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 84185767


Geochemist Clair Patterson is best known for his determination of the age of the Earth and the solar system, and for his pioneering work on global lead contamination. His research affected the work of many other scientists involved in environmental chemistry and geochemistry. His findings brought about a substantial improvement in the quality of human life by initiating government policies to control the amount of lead in the environment and reduce human exposure to lead.

Patterson was born in Mitchellville, Iowa, near Des Moines, on June 2, 1922. He attended a small local high school and in 1943 graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa with an AB degree in Chemistry. He received his MS degree in 1944 from the University of Iowa and his PhD in chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1951.

While at the University of Chicago, Patterson worked under the supervision of Professor Harrison Brown, developing theories on the origin of meteorites, pioneering some of the early developments of mass-spectrometric methods for uranium-lead dating of common rock minerals, and using lead isotope tracers to study geological events.

In 1952, he followed Prof. Harrison Brown to the California Institute of Technology and continued his work on lead isotope chemistry. His research culminated in 1953 when he was first to establish the age of the earth to be 4.6 billion years - a result which is accepted to this day.

Patterson's continued examination of the Earth's geological evolution led to his discovery of the high concentration of lead in the atmosphere. He focused his attention on the problem of lead in the natural environment and its consequences for life on Earth. He sought to document the extent to which industrialization and modern society have increased the amount of lead in the environment. He conducted studies on ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, tested for lead in the easterly trade winds in American Samoa, and directed research projects in the Sierra Nevada, California. His studies of bones and teeth of prehistoric humans established that modern humans contain hundreds of times more lead than their ancient ancestors did.

His research was cited by environmentalists and scientists, who successfully lobbied for the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the phasing out of lead in gasoline. His work also contributed to the elimination of lead from drinking-water pipes and lead soldered food cans.

In the early 1980's Patterson began to focus his interests on evaluating the role of man in society, and the implications of the relationship between scientists and society.

Patterson's many accomplishments won him the 1973 J. Lawrence Smith Medal from the National Academy of Science; the 1980 Goldschmidt Medal of the American Geochemical Society; the 1983 Professional Achievement Award from the University of Chicago; and the 1995 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1987, and received honorary doctorates from Grinnell College in 1973 and the University of Paris in 1975. An Asteroid (2511) and a peak in the Queen Maude Mountains of Antarctica were dedicated to him.

Patterson died suddenly at his home in Sea Ranch, California, early in the morning of December 5, 1995.

From the guide to the Clair C. Patterson papers, 1937-1995, (California Institute of Technology. Archives.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Patterson, Clair C. Oral history interview with Clair C. Patterson. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
referencedIn University of Southern California Office of the Provost records, Bulk, 1973-2007, 1939-2007 USC Libraries Special Collections
creatorOf Clair C. Patterson papers, 1937-1995 California Institute of Technology. Archives.
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith California Institute of Technology corporateBody
associatedWith Tyler, Alice C. person
associatedWith Tyler, John C., 1887-1973 person
associatedWith University of Southern California. corporateBody
associatedWith University of Southern California. Office of the Provost. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
Environmental geochemistry
Lead--Environmental aspects
Geochemistry--Study and teaching


Birth 1922-06-02

Death 1995-12-05



Ark ID: w6710shk

SNAC ID: 76608976