1966 Arthur Adamson, USC

1967 Richard C. Tolman Medal Recipient
Arthur W. Adamson
University of Southern California

The seventh recipient of the Richard C. Tolman Medal was chosen for his contributions to chemical research, for his outstanding abilities as a teacher, and for his continuing service to the American Chemical Society.

Born on August 15, 1919, in Shanghai, China, where his parents were serving as Christian missionaries, Art Adamson took his undergraduate training at UC Berkeley, graduating with honors in 1940, and his graduate training at the University of Chicago, from which institution he received his Ph.D. in 1944.

As a graduate student, he joined the staff of the “Manhattan District Engineers”, the organization responsible for the war-time development of the atomic bomb. Working at the University of Chicago, and later at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Adamson played an important part in the development of the ion exchange column separation process for the isolation of plutonium. This process was the principal alternate to the one ultimately used for large scale production of plutonium. Out of these war-time efforts have come the highly efficient ion exchange chromatographic methods now used for the separation of the rare earth elements and many of the transplutonium elements.

In 1946, Dr. Adamson became a member of the staff of the Department of Chemistry of the University of Southern California where he now serves as Professor. His scientific researches at USC have dealt mainly with problems in physical inorganic chemistry and in the physics and chemistry of surfaces. He has made basic contributions to complex ion chemistry and especially to the photochemistry of coordination compounds. He is the author of some hundred scientific papers.

Professor Adamson is a dedicated teacher and takes a great deal of interest in his students. He is very popular with his graduate students and the post-doctoral researchers working with him, and through interviews with them, we have learned a great deal more about him as a teacher than we had already known.

He meets with his graduate students at least once a week, and more often if time permits. At these meetings, his students discuss with Dr. Adamson their progress and problems, the works of others in the field, new articles in the journals, current events and extracurricular activities of mutual interest. The students are always impressed by his ability to understand their problems and his direct approach to solving them. They are continually amazed by his vast knowledge of the world. Not only does he keep up with advances in his field of chemistry, but he is well informed on advances in other fields of science, in current events, and hobbies. They are fascinated by his efficient use of time. His travel time to and from the university is never wasted, for he either is using a tape recorder to learn the language of a foreign country where he will be presenting a paper or taping something for his students. Both his students and post-doctoral researcher are impressed by his choice of research projects for them to pursue. They are imaginative and original, and when the work is completed, the papers are well worth being published.

Dr. Adamson’s course in Surface Chemistry and his unsurpassed reputation in the field have attracted students from many parts of the world to enroll at the University of Southern California. His book, “The Physical Chemistry of Surfaces”, is the only text available on the subject covering all aspects of the field. Dr. Adamson has recently revised the book and brought it up-to-date, and the new edition will appear this month.

Professor Adamson’s undergraduate course in Physical Chemistry has a reputation as being a very difficult course, but his students emerge with a thorough knowledge of the subject. To help his students, he has also published, in two parts, paper back editions of “Understanding Physical Chemistry” which present review problems and their methods of solution. These books have proved to be greatly beneficial to his graduate students as well as to his Physical Chemistry students.

Professor Adamson possesses a very warm personality. His guidance and fellowship exist in and out of school. His graduate students come from all parts of the world, and, during the holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, he, his wife, Virginia, and daughters share with them the joys of the season by inviting them to dinner at their home. Not too long ago, a young Chinese student working on her Ph.D. was married. Because her parents lived in China, the Adamsons acted as her parents with the engagement dinner at their home and Dr. Adamson giving the bride away at the church. This warmth reaches not only the students but also visitors and professors from all parts of the world, who are often invited to their home as their houseguests. This method of sharing the American way of life helps create better understanding among the people of different countries. The State Department probably recognizes this qualification in him for his recent trip to Jamaica as a plenary lecturer at the Third Carribean Chemistry Symposium was sponsored by the State Department.

Whenever distinguished people visit the campus, Professor Adamson always introduces them to this students so that they may have the pleasure of meeting and talking to them. His students in surface chemistry are familiar with most of the names, faces, and voices of men who contribute to various aspects of surface chemistry, for Professor Adamson has the largest collection of film of these men. Whenever opportunity arises, he takes their pictures and has them say a few words.

Dr. Adamson travels extensively. During 1954-55 he was the recipient of the Guggenheim fellowship award which enabled him to work in the laboratory of Professor Janik Bjerrum at the University of Copenhagen, and during 1961-62, he was an NSF Senior Post-doctoral Fellow at University College, London, where he was associated with Professor R. S. Nyholm. He has given many lectures in the United States, Canada and abroad. In 1965 after presenting a paper in Czechoslovakia, he and his family toured many European countries, the spent a month in South Africa. In 1966 while at Bristol University as Unilever Visiting Professor, he revised his book on surface chemistry (grew a beard and did not shave it off till the book was finished), and kept up with his graduate students at USC by means of tape recordings.

Dr. Adamson is also being honored for his many contributions to the ACS. He served as Chairman of the Southern California Section High School Contest Committee in 1960, Chairman of the Section in 1964, member of the Board of Directors, Councilor, Chairman of Long Range Planning Committee, Chairman of the Nominations and Elections Committee, and member of several other committees. He is also member of the ACS Divisions of Colloid and Surface Chemistry, Physical Chemistry, and Inorganic Chemistry. He participated as a Symposium Chairman at the First Western Regional Meeting. At the National ACS meeting to be held April 9-14 in Miami Beach, Dr. Adamson is participating as Chairman of the first symposium on “Inorganic Photochemistry”. Dr. Adamson was also instrumental in the National ACS officers stopping in Los Angeles to discuss pricing of Chemical Abstracts last January.

This is the man, the teacher and the researcher who has earned the distinction of being chosen the recipient of the Richard C. Tolman Medal for 1966.


Arthur Adamson was born in Shanghai, China, on August 15, 1919, the son of American missionaries. He received his B.S. in Chemistry (with honors) from UC Berkeley in 1940, and his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1944. He served as a staff member of the Plutonium Project of the Manhattan District Engineers at the University of Chicago and at Oak Ridge from early 1942 through mid-1946, playing an important part in the development of the ion exchange process for the isolation of plutonium.

In 1946 Dr. Adamson joined the faculty of the USC Department of Chemistry, and has been a full Professor since 1952. His research projects at USC have dealt mainly with problems in physical inorganic chemistry, and with the physics and chemistry of surfaces. He has made basic contributions to our knowledge of the chemistry of complex ions and the photochemistry of coordination compounds.

The second edition of his authoritative and widely respected book, “the Physical Chemistry of Surfaces”, is to be published this month. He is the author of some 100 scientific papers and has recently written a textbook, “Understanding Physical Chemistry”, as part of a series on physical inorganic chemistry edited by R. A. Plane, Cornell University.

Dr. Adamson served the American Chemical Society in a wide variety of capacities. He was Chairman of the Southern California Section in 1964 and has been a Councilor and a member of the Nomination and Elections Committee since 1965. He will be chairman of the first symposium on Inorganic Photochemistry at the ACS National Meeting in Miami Beach, April 9-14, 1967.


Richard C. Tolman Medal Award Meeting
Wednesday, April 5, 1967
El Dorado Room
Pavilion Music Center

135 North Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, California

Dr. Arthur W. Adamson
Department of Chemistry
University of Southern California

“A Tale of Two Chemistries: Surface Chemistry and Photochemistry”

Abstract: Dr. Adamson’s address will be an account of some current research at USC in the two fields of surface chemistry and photochemistry.

In surface chemistry, physical adsorption studies are revealing some interesting surface properties of an unusual adsorbant – ice and snow. Related aspects of this work suggest the possibility of finding perfect adhering substances, that is, ones which show no mutual adhesion.

In photochemistry, current work with coordination compounds is providing information about the chemical nature of the electronic states involved. With Cr (III) complexes, for example, the excited state shows a specific stereochemistry of reaction that is not the same as that of the ground state.

Social Hour: The Department of Chemistry, University of Southern California, will be host for cocktails during the social hour.

Reservations: Mail check ($8.50 per person) to Section Office, 1540 North Hudson Avenue, Suite 2, Hollywood, California 90028 no later than March 31, 1967. Late reservations may be made by telephoning Fujiko Nakamura at 469-7278 by 11:00 a.m. Tuesday, April 4, 1967, and payment will be accepted at the door. Non-members and guests of ACS members are welcome! Members are urged to bring friends, associates and/or spouse to this outstanding event. Use Grand Avenue entrance and take elevator to the 5th floor.


Tolman Award Meeting
Southern California Section Honors Arthur W. Adamson

(from the May, 1967 issue of SCALACS)

Nearly one hundred members and guests of the Southern California Section were present for the Section’s annual Richard C. Tolman Medal Award Meeting on April 5, 1967. The meeting was held in the beautiful El Dorado Room at Los Angeles’ world famous Pavillion Music Center.

Among those attending the festive meeting were seven past-chairmen of the section in addition to the awardee, Dr. Adamson, who was chairman in 1964. They were George M. Cunningham (1946-47), Dr. Anton B. Burg (1954), Paul R. Pariseau (1955), Dr. Arie J. Haagen-Smit (1956), Dr. Ulric B. Bray (1963), Dr. Eugene V. Kleber (1965) and Dr. Kenneth W. Newman (1966). Dr. Burg and Dr. Haagen-Smit are also prior Tolman Award Medalists.

Attending as special guests of the Southern California Section were Walter Cooley, William Brooks and his wife, Molly. Mr. Cooley represented the University of Southern California Student Affiliate ACS Chapter. Molly Brooks is the Southern California Section’s new administrative secretary.

After a social hour generously sponsored by the University of Southern California Chemistry Department and an excellent roast beef dinner, Dr. Robert D. Vold, Chairman of the Southern California Section, introduced the guests and read a congratulatory telegram from B. R. Stanerson, Secretary of the American Chemical Society. Dr. Vold then introduced Dr. Milton C. Kloetzel, Acting Vice-President of Academic Affairs of the University of Southern California, who presented Dr. Adamson to the meeting.

Dr. Vold then presented the Richard C Tolman Medal and Certificate for 1966 to Dr. Adamson. Dr. Adamson was honored for his many contributions to the fields of surface and inorganic chemistry, for his pioneering research, for his long and continuing service to the ACS, for his service to the United States, for his representation of American science abroad, for his community service and “for exemplifying the academic man integrating teaching, research and administration in a spirit of public service.”

Dr. Adamson’s award address was entitled “A Tale of Two Chemistries: Surface Chemistry and Photochemistry.” He first discussed the absorption gases on water, ice and snow. When a gas, such as hexane vapor, is adsorbed on water, the surface of the water appears to be heterogeneous. This phenomenon is probably due to surface clathration of the adsorbed vapor molecules.

Ice surfaces, on the other hand, exhibit inert adsorption behavior, much like polyethylene. And snow is even more inert, like Teflon. The inert adsorption behavior of these surfaces may be due to surface hydrogen bonding. In continuing studies in his laboratory, Dr. Adamson is studying whether or not ice has a liquid-like surface film near the melting point.

In studies of adsorption on Teflon, Dr. Adamson pointed out that an adsorbed film reaches a finite limiting thickness near the saturation pressure, and that the film must therefore be structurally different from that of the bulk liquid formed on condensation. The structure of the solid on which the vapor is adsorbed may impose a structure on the adsorbed film.

It has generally been assumed that for no adhesion, one would want no interaction between the substrate and the adsorbate. Dr. Adamson’s studies, however, indicate strong interaction plus a high degree of structural distortion should lead to lowered adhesion.

In the photochemistry portion of his address, Dr. Adamson briefly discussed the color changes occurring on irradiation of octahedral complexes of chromium (III) with visible light. Studies in his laboratory have shown that the sterochemistry and rates of reaction of the excited species can differ greatly from those of the ground state.

At the conclusion of his address, Dr. Adamson took a few minutes to discuss his personal philosophy of chemistry. He, along with C. P. Snow and others, sees our modern culture divided into two – a scientific culture and a humanistic culture. The great danger lies in the ignorance of the humanist, including most government, people of the basis of the scientific culture.

He sees the scientific culture as based on the operational approach and the role of theory as a tool or bridge from one set of data to another. He feels that chemistry is the most cultured of the sciences – less theoretical than physics and more quantitative than the life sciences.


Prof. Adamson passed away on July 22, 2003. See his obituary on the USC Dornsife website.