Bertram Donn (1919 - 2012)

Dr. Bertram "Bert" Donn, the first head of NASA Goddard's astrochemistry group, passed away on Friday December 28, 2012 at age 93.

The Washington Post's brief obituary for Bert is here, from January 3, 2013, while its much longer obituary is here from January 13.
Bert, a New Yorker by birth, attended Brooklyn College and Harvard University for his degrees, where he was taught by such legends as Fred Whipple, Cecilia Payne, and Bart Bok. A meeting with physical chemist Harold Urey in the 1950s turned Bert's attention to problems of low-temperature reactions and their connections to interstellar chemistry. A research collaboration was arranged with Urey at the University of Chicago, and several joint, influential publications resulted. Laboratory experiments followed, but were interrupted by Bert's move to NASA Goddard in 1959 to lead the newly-formed astrochemistry section. He remained at Goddard for over 30 years until retirement to his home in Old Greenbelt. Photo of Bert Donn and Colleagues
Bert (left) and three colleagues (ca. 1960)
Bert's research at Goddard spanned theory, observation, and experiment, with connections to NASA missions such as Skylab, Apollo, and the International Ultraviolet Explorer. Almost all of his research problems concerned cometary and interstellar matter in some way, and so perhaps it is not surprising that he began laboratory research in each area. Goddard's Cosmic Ice Laboratory and the Nucleation & Dust Chemistry Laboratory were established by Bert during his supervision of the PhD researches of Marla Moore and Joe Nuth, respectively. Each facility is still doing high-level science, and now with larger staffs, more equipment, greater funding, and larger lab spaces. Bert also was an early NASA contributor to the astrobiological literature, and set in motion several astrobiology-related research projects. Bert Donn 
 and Bill Jackson
Bert Donn and photochemist Bill Jackson (1972).
Bert never was completely satisfied with either the theoretical work or laboratory experiments that he and others did. He knew the limitations of both observations and theory, and always was eager to make things better by doing more precise simulations, constructing better models, or pursuing more lab work. He would publish models that were "good enough" to advance the state of the art, even when the approximations involved bothered him. Two examples come to mind where he was the first to publish and also the harshest critic: nucleation theory used to calculate the rate of grain formation in circumstellar outflows and the possible presence of PAH molecules in the interstellar medium. He considered both to be good approximations - but really only the starting point in understanding the physics and chemistry of the process or environment. Photo of Bert Donn and Joe Nuth
Bert Donn and graduate student Joe Nuth (ca. 1980)
Bert was a pioneer in astrochemistry and NASA research. His contributions and many contacts did much to establish NASA's strong scientific reputation among astronomers and planetary scientists around the world. He organized and participated in scientific meetings around the world, such as the 1972 Tucson Comet workshop shown here.

For more details on Bert's career, see the brief autobiographical article posted here (212 kbytes, pdf), which he published in Planetary and Space Sciences in 1999.
Program of Bert 
  Donn meeting in 1995
Program from a meeting held in Bert's honor at the University of Virginia (1995).
Aside from his Goddard work, Bert was a well-known and honored advocate of non-violence and peaceful conflict resolution, and was instrumental in the racial integration of Greenbelt, where he and his family lived for 50 years.
Photo of Bert Donn with sign
Bert Donn (right) with sign (2007)
Photo of Bert and Marjorie Donn
Bert and Marjorie Donn (2012)
A memorial service was held for Bert Donn at Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church on Saturday January 5 at 2:00 PM. A copy of the order of service is posted here.

Bert's passing was noted twice in The Greenbelt News Review, a local newspaper, in a small editorial article as well as a longer article about his memorial service.

Written by Reggie Hudson and Joe Nuth. Last updated on Saturday January 14, 2013.


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