Internationally recognized Berkeley chemist dies at 64

Update 7/21/2014: This article has been updated to reflect more information from Michael Barnes.

UC Berkeley chemistry professor and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist Heino Nitsche died in his sleep Tuesday at the age of 64.

Nitsche was most well known for research about heavy metals and actinide interactions in the environment and for confirming the production of element 114, a superheavy radioactive element, at Berkeley Lab.

He was born in Munich in 1949 and studied nuclear and electrochemistry in Germany. In 1980, Nitsche began working in the Berkeley lab as a staff scientist until he moved to Dresden, Germany, to work at the Institute of Radiochemistry at the Dresden-Rossendorf Research Center in 1993.

Nitsche returned to Berkeley in 1998 to take on the roles of chemistry professor, founding director of the Glenn T. Seaborg Center in the chemical sciences division of the Berkeley lab and senior research scientist for the lab. This year, he had been conducting research with the Heavy Element Nuclear and Radiochemistry Group at Berkeley lab.

Geralyn Unterberg, assistant to the dean of the College of Chemistry, said Nitsche was “recognized as the pre-eminent international leader in actinide interactions in the environment,” in a 2010 review of his research. According to Unterberg, this meant that Nitsche was a global authority on bioremediation in relation to the cleanup of radioactive materials.

Darleane Hoffman, campus professor emerita of chemistry, knew Nitsche since 1984 and said in an email that he was tough on his students but would “staunchly defend them if he felt they were being treated unfairly.”

“As a person he was very open and friendly. He would always say ‘hello’ to people no matter if you were staff or faculty or students,” Unterberg said. “I never saw him grumble or complain or get mad about anything.”

Outside of the lab, Nitsche flew two-seater planes and was a skilled skier in his youth. He also was a part of a wine-tasting club and liked to sit in his garden, according to Nitsche’s wife Martha Boccalini.

“I used to call him my social butterfly; anytime we went out, it was Heino who was in the mix with the people,” Boccalini said. “His friends could not find a better person to honor and trust.”

Michael Barnes, principal editor at the College of Chemistry, said they used to talk about Nitsche’s childhood experiences of camping and traveling in the Swiss Alps.

“He loved the mountains, and he loved to travel,” Barnes said.

For Hoffman, it will be difficult to bridge the gap left by the loss of Nitsche.

“Prof. Nitsche’s untimely death at the height of his career is a great loss not only for nuclear chemistry and heavy element chemistry and environmental concerns, but for the international community as well,” Hoffman said in an email.

Nitsche is survived by his wife, older brother, two nephews and several grand-nieces and grand-nephews. The College of Chemistry will provide information about plans for a memorial service when it becomes available.

Contact Sophie Mattson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @MattsonSophie.