The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Ken Hedberg Oral History Interviews

Four life history interviews conducted by Chris Petersen.

September - October 2011


Kenneth Wayne Hedberg was born in 1920 in Portland, Oregon. Hedberg's father was a wholesale grocery salesman and his work required the family to move several times during Hedberg's youth. As a result, Ken spent time as a child in the Coos Bay region and in Hoquium, Washington, and he completed high school in Medford, Oregon. A strong student with an affinity for science, Hedberg skipped two grades growing up, graduating from Medford High School in 1937.

Hedberg began his college studies at the height of the Depression, first at Southern Oregon Normal School (now Southern Oregon University, in Ashland) and later as a transfer student at Oregon State College. Hedberg began his undergraduate work in Chemistry at Oregon State in fall 1939 and completed his degree at the end of 1942. A member of Theta Chi fraternity, Hedberg also worked in the chemistry stock room during his OSC years and conducted research on the microdetermination of a hydroxyl group.

In 1943 Hedberg moved to Emeryville, California to take a job as a Junior Chemist with Shell Development Company, where he worked on synthetic rubbers, the mass production of penicillin, and an aviation gasoline inhibitor. With the conclusion of the war, Hedberg returned to school, enrolling as a doctoral student in Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology in 1946. While there, Hedberg worked under C. Gardner Swain and Verner Schomaker on two different projects, one focusing on the oxidation of leuco malachite green and another devoted to determining the structures of various borane compounds.

It was at Caltech as well that Hedberg made the acquaintance of Linus Pauling, and the two would remain colleagues and friends until Pauling's death in 1994. A member of the American Chemical Society since 1943, Hedberg was on the ACS committee that created the Linus Pauling Medal in 1966, granted each year by the society's Oregon and Puget Sound sections for outstanding achievement in chemistry.

Hedberg completed his Ph.D. in June 1948 and remained at Caltech for three more years - first as a post-doc and later as a research fellow - working with Richard Badger on spectroscopy and with his mentor Schomaker on an Office of Naval Research grant.

In 1952 Hedberg received both a Fulbright grant and a Guggenheim fellowship to travel and live in Norway, where he would work in Oslo in the laboratory of Otto Bastiansen. Once arrived, Bastiansen introduced Hedberg to his laboratory assistant, Lise Smedvik, with whom Hedberg collaborated and soon fell in love. The couple wed at Oslo's city hall in the summer of 1954, and the broader experience of Norway led to a long professional collaboration between Hedberg and numerous Scandinavian scientists in the years to come. A fluent speaker of Norwegian, Hedberg is now a foreign member of two Norwegian scientific societies and has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Trondheim.

In the fall of 1954, Hedberg and his new wife made a return trip to Pasadena, where Ken had been offered a position as Senior Research Fellow. They remained there until the end of 1955 when, partly because of Lise's aversion to the smoggy conditions prevailing in southern California, Ken accepted a faculty position in the Chemistry department at his alma mater, Oregon State College.

Hedberg began work at OSC in January 1956. Initially burdened by a very heavy teaching load, Hedberg was eventually able to establish his research program, the focus of which was the structural analysis of various compounds using an electron diffraction apparatus that Hedberg designed and built himself. This apparatus, which is now one of the last of its kind in the world, served as the centerpiece of Hedberg's research for his thirty-one years on faculty at OSU, and for the multiple decades of continuous funding that have elapsed since his formal retirement in 1987. In 2005 Hedberg received the International Barbara Mez-Starck Prize, a distinguished honor awarded to scientists who have made outstanding contributions to structural chemistry.

Often working in collaboration with his wife, an accomplished computer programmer, Hedberg has determined the structure of dozens of molecules over the course of his career, including Carbon-60 - also known as the "Buckyball" - and various compounds of xenon, a noble gas. He has also served as advisor to eighteen doctoral candidates and another eighteen post-docs, and as host to scores of visiting researchers interested in using his equipment and applying his methods to chemical studies of their own.