March 12, 2012

Nobel Laureate and NAS/IOM Member "Sherry" Rowland Has Died at Age 84


On March 10, F. Sherwood Rowland passed away at his home near the University of California, Irvine campus. Known to everyone as "Sherry," Rowland shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Mario Molina and Paul Crutzen "for their work on atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone."


Rowland showed that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), in everyday use in aerosol sprays and refrigerants during the 1960s and '70s, could destroy the Earth's ozone layer. He and his colleagues argued that continued use of CFCs could ultimately leave all life on the planet in danger from exposure to incoming ultraviolet rays unshielded by atmospheric ozone. In the public debate that ensued, Rowland was a dominant public figure and frequent witness before Congress. His work led to bans and curbs on the use of CFCs in the late 1970s and to the Montreal Protocol that prohibited their use worldwide in 1987.


Rowland was a founding professor of the University of California, Irvine campus. He was the Donald Bren Research Professor of Chemistry and Earth System Science, two areas in which he helped establish programs for the university. One of the many faculty he recruited to come to Irvine was atmospheric chemist (and now NAS president) Ralph Cicerone, who had collaborated with Rowland on the CFC work while at the University of Michigan.


"During the CFC research, we talked on the phone nearly every day," said Cicerone. "I considered Sherry to be my best friend, and over time I learned that many people considered him to be their best friend, too. In the midst of the debates over CFCs, he never exaggerated the dangers, always cited the science, and treated other people with dignity and respect. And through all of this, he continued his own research."


Rowland was elected to the NAS in 1978 and served as foreign secretary from 1994-2002. The Institute of Medicine elected Rowland in 1994. In 1995, he was a key figure in the creation of the InterAcademy Panel, an international organization of national science academies that has since grown to include the academies of more than 80 countries. 


E. William Colglazier, science adviser to the U.S. secretary of state and former executive officer of the NAS and National Research Council, worked closely with Rowland on international initiatives. "Sherry was not only a great scientist pursuing the evidence regardless of what the critics said," Colglazier recalled, "he was also a great humanist who viewed scientific knowledge as a means for protecting our planet and improving the lives of people everywhere."


In recent years, his experience with CFCs and ozone led Rowland to investigate the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that might trigger changes in the Earth's climate. Speaking to a 1997 White House roundtable on climate change, Rowland asked: "Is it enough for a scientist simply to publish a paper? Isn't it the responsibility of scientists, if you believe that you have found something that can affect the environment, isn't it your responsibility to actually do something about it, enough so that action actually takes place? …If not us, who? If not now, when?"