‘A creator of new knowledge’: UC Berkeley professor, Berkeley Lab director David Shirley dies at age 87

Picture of David Shirley

UC Berkeley professor emeritus of chemistry and former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab, David Shirley died March 29 at the age of 87 due to age-related illnesses.

Remembered by friends and colleagues as being someone with great scientific passion, ceaseless generosity and immense devotion to his students, Shirley made great contributions to his field throughout his time on campus. Among other achievements, Shirley helped pioneer research on electron spectroscopy and initiated the creation of Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source, according to a campus press release.

“He had a generosity of spirit and was always looking out for his community,” said UC Berkeley Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Paul Alivisatos, a former colleague of Shirley. “That was the type of man he was.”

Alivisatos added that Shirley was “incredibly intelligent.” Born in New Hampshire in 1934, Shirley received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1955 from the University of Maine. He then went on to earn his doctorate at UC Berkeley, becoming a lecturer in chemistry in 1959 and chairman of the department in 1968.

During his time on campus, Shirley also grew involved with Berkeley Lab, becoming an associate director in 1975 and leading the Materials and Molecular Research Division, according to the press release. After a career filled with innovation and accolades — including the United States Atomic Energy Commission’s Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award — Shirley stepped down as lab director in 1989 and retired fully in 1996.

Among his colleagues, Shirley was immensely well-respected. Alivisatos said Shirley showed exceptional skill as a researcher and referred to Shirley’s numerous advancements in the field of chemistry.

“He was remarkable in his field and was seen as a creator of new knowledge,” Alivisatos said. 

In addition to being an extraordinary chemist, Shirley was also described as being kind and generous, dedicated to helping both his students and the other members of his field. Alivisatos said the Advanced Light Source that Shirley spearheaded was meant to be a shared facility where scientists from around the world could come and conduct research in an open environment.

As for his students, Alivisatos recalled a memory in which Shirley, who had just returned from Berkeley Lab to be a faculty member, eagerly volunteered to help second-year graduate students during their presentations. Shirley was both a leader and an encourager, Alivisatos said.

Alexander Pines, campus chemistry professor and senior scientist at Berkeley Lab, echoed these sentiments and said his biggest takeaway from Shirley was the importance of hard work.

“He didn’t defer too much to issues of prestige,” Pines said. “He cared about hard work and commitment.”

Contact Samantha Lim at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sssamanthalim.