Tribute to Professor Kenneth N. Trueblood (1920-1998)

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April 24 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kenneth Trueblood, who for nearly 50 years was a distinguished member of our department. 

Born in Dobbs Ferry, New York, Ken earned an A.B. from Harvard in 1941 and a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1947, both in chemistry. His Ph.D. research, under Howard Lucas, emphasized chromatography and spectrophotometry. However, influenced by Linus Pauling, Ken became a crystallographer and spent his research life determining the structures of molecules.

Trueblood%20Kenneth%20%2749 1In 1949, after a two-year research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology, Ken joined the UCLA faculty as a temporary instructor, replacing James McCullough who was on leave. Within a year he had made his mark teaching freshman chemistry – an assignment he kept throughout his academic life – and was made an assistant professor, rising to full professor in 1960.

Ken was a pioneer in the development and use of computers for the determination of three-dimensional electron-density maps from crystallographic data. In the early 1950’s he was able to take advantage of the Standards Western Automatic Computer (SWAC), which had been built at UCLA by the National Bureau of Standards and at the time of its construction in 1950, the fastest digital computer in the world. The availability of SWAC and Ken’s expertise led to a collaboration with Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin of Oxford University to determine the crystal structure of vitamin B12. In those days before e-mail, information about each cycle of refinement was exchanged by ordinary mail and telegraph between Los Angeles and Oxford. Ken’s electron-density maps determined larger and larger parts of the molecule and led to the chemical formula reported in 1955, the largest structure determined by that time. He then received a Fulbright Award for study at Oxford University for 1956-57 and continued working there with Hodgkin.

Ken continued to develop better computer programs for determining structures and contributed to fundamental interpretations of molecular motions in crystals. His computational expertise contributed to the Nobel Prize awarded to Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964 and later to the Nobel Prize received by his UCLA colleague Donald Cram in 1987. Ken served as President of the American Crystallographic Association (ACA) in 1961, and in 2001 the ACA established the Kenneth N. Trueblood Award to be given every three years for exceptional achievement in computational or chemical crystallography. Over the years Ken had many coworkers, graduate students, postdocs, and colleagues at UCLA and other institutions.

Uclakennethtrueblood12Ken was devoted to teaching; he continued to teach large freshman chemistry classes throughout his career. In 1961 he was the first recipient of the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award, and in 1978 he received the National Award for Excellence in Teaching given by the Manufacturing Chemists Association. He was a coauthor of two books, Crystal Structure Analysis (1972) with Jenny Glusker, and the freshman chemistry text Chem One (1976 and 1980) with Jurg Waser and Charles Knobler. Shortly after his death the large lecture room (CS50) where he had taught thousands of students was named the Kenneth N. Trueblood Lecture Hall in his honor.

Ken also served with distinction in various administrative positions at UCLA, first as the chair of the Department of Chemistry from 1965 to 1970, and then dean of the College of Letters and Science from 1971 to 1974, a position he resigned in order to return to teaching and research. His multifaceted career was recognized by the UCLA Letters and Science Faculty Award in 1982. Remarkably, at a time when most professors would be ramping down their commitments, Ken took on the position of chair of the UCLA Academic Senate in 1983-84. Moreover, although he retired to emeritus status in 1989, he was recalled to service as chair of the department (now Chemistry & Biochemistry) in 1990-1991.

Trueblood Tribute 650Ken was committed to teaching and research and he expected his colleagues to have similar high standards. He did not hesitate to speak with them or send them notes when he felt that they needed to improve. Clarity and correctness in writing was also a life-long concern; he regularly read documents with a marking pen in hand, correcting the English and passing his corrections on to the writer. A colleague, seeing a copy of her thesis in Ken’s bookcase that had been sent to him by her research mentor 10 years before, leafed through it and was astounded to see the corrections he had made as he read it.

This insistence upon standards suggests that Ken could be a difficult colleague. In fact he was anything but. A modest man, Ken was always friendly and had an infectious sense of humor. An avid sports fan, Ken had a particular passion for baseball. He was a long-time Yankee fan and was delighted to receive a Yankee’s cap and jacket among the gifts given to him at his retirement dinner.

In Ken’s honor, his former student Dr. Mary Ellen Friedman ’67, M.D. ’71, M.P.H. ‘79, established the Trueblood Tutor Fellowship Endowment in 2015. The endowment funds fellowships for talented graduate students who tutor undergraduate students and help them succeed in their chemistry and biochemistry courses. “I started at UCLA in 1963, at a time when girls were not supposed to be interested in science,” recalled Dr. Friedman. “I was extraordinarily fortunate to have Dr. Trueblood for Chem 1A and 1B. He genuinely cared about his students, and remembered them. I still have the typed letters that he wrote to me over the years.” 

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The Truebloods’ niece, Dr. Diane Russell (left), and her daughter, Eva Russell Yuma (right) attended the 2019 Kenneth Trueblood Endowed Chair installation of Professor Neil Garg (center).
TruebloodJeanieKen’s wife Jeanie, a graduate of the School of Social Work at Columbia University, is also remembered very fondly, as she was an active member of the UCLA community for many decades and a supporter of women scientists, women’s issues, and environmental and anti-war causes. Ken passed away at home in Los Angeles in 1998 and Jeanie in 2016. A gift to the department from their estate, along with matching funds from Dean Miguel García-Garibay, enabled the establishment in 2016 of the Kenneth Trueblood Endowed Chair in Chemistry & Biochemistry, which serves to keep their memory alive.

Remembrances of Professor Kenneth Trueblood:

“He launched our careers! Uncle Ken funded my first laptop computer in 1990 when I was writing my dissertation. A few years later he bought my daughter Eva a computer as she loved creating scenarios with some of the first simulation programs. I am still using the skills and knowledge from that dissertation and Eva is pursuing an MFA in film editing. He could see the potential that even we could not see. In addition to this material support, he modeled professional discipline. Almost every day at camp in Maine, ostensibly on vacation, he spent hours writing at his desk. Yet he always took time for games, adventures and giving good advice. Having someone like Ken Trueblood in your life is truly life changing.”
Professor Trueblood’s niece Dr. Diane Russell

“Ken Trueblood was a great researcher, teacher, and colleague. To undergraduates at UCLA who were taking General Chemistry as first year incoming students, Dr. Trueblood was kind, empathetic, and passionate about his teaching. I know this first hand, because as a first year student at UCLA I was lucky to be enrolled in his class! Our largest lecture room in Young Hall, CS50, is named for Dr. Ken Trueblood, and this is a fitting tribute to his commitment to education, and his wonderful talent for teaching.” 

Professor Catherine F. Clarke, UCLA

“Ken Trueblood was unsurpassed in combining the qualities as a first rank scientist (the American Crystallographic Association instituted an award in his name), a teacher (he learned the names of most of the students in his large lecture courses and could recall them by sight years after they graduated), and administrator (he became Department Chair and then Dean of the College). His intelligence, right-minded leadership, and warm personality were inspirational to all who knew him.” 

Professor David Eisenberg, UCLA

“Professor Trueblood was a painstaking and encouraging mentor of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.  Our reports would come back with dozens of comments (in red ink), yet we were treated as equals and friends.  He had contacts around the world, in Russia, Africa, Switzerland, Israel, Australia and England, and he helped his students to participate in international meetings, workshops and studies abroad. The practices of chemistry, crystallography and computer science had no borders for him or for us.”

Former Trueblood graduate student Dr. Emily Maverick, Los Angeles City College and UCLA

Many thanks to Professor Charles Knobler for writing this tribute.

Have a remembrance you would like to share? Please send to Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry,