When Joel Hildebrand began teaching chemistry at the University of California, the theory of the atomic structure of matter was in its infancy. So in fact were the grandparents of the students Hildebrand lectures to on the Berkeley campus today.
Professor Emeritus Hildebrand, an astonishingly spry 95, has been on the California faculty for 64 years—believed to be a record. He figures that about 40,000 students have taken his chemistry courses.
Among them are five Nobel Prize winners. One of them, Glenn T. Seaborg, a former teaching assistant who is now a colleague at Berkeley, says admiringly, “Joel Hildebrand has combined distinguished careers in teaching and research in a manner almost unique among American chemists.”
Hildebrand “retired” in 1952—”I was officially senile”—but never let up. Now he concentrates on research. “Brains are not such a drag on the market that they should be deactivated prematurely,” he says. To prove it, since 1970 he has published 13 papers and a book, Viscosity and Diffusivity. In his long career, Hildebrand has won most major chemistry awards and served as president of the American Chemical Society (1955).
Another distinction in Hildebrand’s life is his marriage, which has lasted 68 years. He still reads the classics aloud to his wife, Emily, who is 90. “No one has had a happier married life,” says Hildebrand. Their family includes three sons and a daughter, 12 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. (Two sons are teachers.)
One reason for Hildebrand’s longevity may be his interest in sports. As a Penn undergrad, he recalls, “I stroked a varsity crew. At 40 I discovered skiing and became sufficiently adept to manage the U.S. team in the 1936 Winter Olympics. At 77 I swam a half mile in 22 minutes.” Once president of the Sierra Club, he celebrated his 80th birthday by taking “a delegation of Hildebrands” to the mountains for a five-day hike. Today the 5’8″, 145-lb. Hildebrand gardens for exercise.
“I’ve been a good teacher,” Hildebrand believes, “partly because I’ve had some poor teachers. I’m full of my subject. When I talk to students about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, the response is thrilling.” He remains devoted to eclecticism—”a person who has an inquiring mind doesn’t limit it to one kind of question”—and feels he has benefited as a scientist by studying music, art and literature. While the permissiveness of American education disturbs him, Hildebrand nevertheless advises his great-grandchildren to be open-minded. “Beware of creeds, slogans and customs,” he warns as he looks toward his 96th birthday Nov. 16. “Don’t be afraid of an unstable society. The Eastern Roman Empire was very stable and the only things it produced were mosaics.”