1st Black department chair of materials science, engineering at UC Berkeley dies at 98

Felix Norris/Courtesy

Robert Henry “Pete” Bragg Jr., professor emeritus in the UC Berkeley College of Engineering, died Oct. 3 at the age of 98.

Bragg came to UC Berkeley in 1969, where he became one of six Black faculty members on campus. Later, Bragg became the first Black chair of the campus’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Throughout his career, Bragg received several distinctions and honors. One such honor was being named a fellow of the National Society of Black Physicists during the society’s early years. Herbert Winful, also a fellow of the society, fondly recalled a conversation he had with Bragg about his surname.

“I asked him if he was related to the famous Braggs, father and son, who won the Nobel prize for (their) theory of diffraction,” Winful said. “He made some joke out of it. … It was sort of interesting that he also had the name Bragg and he also worked with diffraction.”

Bragg worked closely with carbon materials, which were not as “hot” an area of study then as they are now, according to campus professor Bill Morris, Bragg’s colleague of about two decades. Bragg’s interest in carbon and graphite stemmed from his previous job as a manager in the Lockheed Missiles and Space Company, where he worked on developing materials for atmospheric reentry.

“He was an expert in the use of a technique called X-ray scattering,” said Mark Asta, current department chair of materials science and engineering at UC Berkeley. “He used that technique to look at … carbon materials, and he made a number of important contributions in understanding the atomic arrangement of the material.”

According to Asta, Bragg’s research is significant because carbon materials are used in “all sorts” of applications, ranging from batteries to composite materials.

Bragg retired from UC Berkeley in 1987 and was awarded a Fulbright fellowship five years after his retirement to conduct research for one year at the University of Ife in Nigeria. At 86, he became a member of the Museum of African American Technology in Oakland, where he helped develop an exhibit called “The Black Revolution in Science and Technology.”

Winful said Bragg had a “warm” personality, adding that he tried to find opportunities for young Black scientists.

“There aren’t that many Black physicists,” Winful said. “It was inspiring to see someone … who grew up in a time where Jim Crow was the law of the land in the U.S. and was able to, against all odds, succeed.”

Bragg is survived by his former wife Violet Bragg, his daughter Pamela Bragg, his sibling McFarland Bragg and his nephew Jamal Abdul-Kabir.

Contact Anjali Shrivastava at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anjalii_shrivas.