Jeffrey LewisHerbert F. York (1921-2009)

We’ve lost Herb York.

Herbert Frank York, founding chancellor of the University of California, San Diego and a world-renowned physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb as a young researcher and later championed arms control, died May 19 at Thornton Hospital in San Diego, Ca. He was 87.

The guy was a giant. I am totally bummed I never met him.

I was, in fact, thumbing through Making Weapons, Talking Peace (Basic Books, 1987) the other day for some early history on the test ban negotiations.

I will be at UCSD for a few days this summer. Maybe we’ll do something appropriate to commemorate him.


  1. Major Lemon (History)

    This is an on-line version of Mr York’s brilliant “Race to Oblivion A Participant’s View of the Arms Race”

  2. Ali C (History)

    I had the opportunity to interview Herb York a few years ago for my doctoral thesis. We spoke for a few hours while drinking iced tea in his living room (he almost outlasted my tape recorder, which was impressive for a gentleman of 84 or so). What I remember best were the anecdotes he told me about working on the Manhattan Project, about LLNL in its early years, and about working on arms control issues subsequently. He had an amazing memory of events that had happened 50 or more years ago, and yet he was also completely up-to-date on current nuclear issues. At the end of our interview, he gave me his e-mail address and told me to contact him with any other questions I had, or if I needed any other assistance. I remember being impressed by the fact that someone so distinguished would make himself so accessible to a young researcher, but I think he still relished the problem-solving and the discussions, even in his “retirement.” I’m still thankful that I had the opportunity to interact with him – truly a great man, in many respects.

  3. Sandra Ionno Butcher (History)

    That is a great photo!

    I found this quote by Herb this morning (from 1971), which made me think about how the many very influential voices calling today for an eventual NWFW are just catching up to what some of the ‘giants’ realized decades ago: “[O]ur final goal must remain the ideal of general and complete disarmament….Any reasonable extrapolation of history tells us that if we keep all those weapons around they will be used. While no one can say how to get from the present situation all the way to total nuclear disarmament, it is clear that throwing weapons away heads us in the right direction and building more weapons…heads us in the wrong direction. We have fussed too much and too long about fine structure. We must begin to focus on directions rather than details.” Herb York, “A Little Arms Control Can be a Dangerous Thing,” War/Peace Report, August/September 1971, pp. 3 – 7

    There are additional quotes from Herb and links to some articles/interviews on the Pugwash History Blog if any of your readers are interested. He was an amazing and inspiring man.
    And thanks, by the way, for the work all of you put into armscontrolwonk…

  4. Marian Wahl (History)

    Herb was my grandfather. It’s wonderful to see that people will remember him.

    He would have loved to meet you too- he loved meeting people, especially people who shared his passion for arms control.

    Thank you.

  5. Carey Sublette

    Herbert’s wife Sibyl graciously contacted me yesterday to inform of his passing, since he and I had been arranging to do an interview next month.

    I have just finished reading the last of his books that I had not read before, and in doing so I was struck by Dr. York’s prescience and the force of his intellectual leadership in national and international affairs, and especially in the all-important area of arms control and the advocacy of peaceful relationships. The test of time has validated his judgments with remarkable precision.

  6. Paul Stokes (History)

    A real loss to the store of intellectual capital for arms control. I worked for Herb York in Geneva as a technical advisor for Unattended Seismic Observatories when he led the CTBT negotiations.

  7. B. Walthrop (History)

    The plaque with the spear and the shield above his office door speak volumes in this picture.


  8. Catherine M Kelleher (History)

    Too bad you missed him—they don’t make them like that any more. Scientist, politician, organizer,institution builder extraordinaire with a generosity of spirit, a zest for debate, and an openness surpassed by few. And a great guy! We are the poorer….Catherine

  9. Rachel York (History)

    Thanks for that wonderful photo, I’d never seen it. I’d often heard about the club Dad had over the door, and it was nice to see the real thing.

  10. Alex W. (History)

    I interviewed York at his home in April 2008; he was extraordinarily generous with his time, a wealth of stories and sharp memory.

    One of the interesting little bits of trivia that he shared with me that I hadn’t seen printed anywhere else was that Livermore’s first (fizzled) nuclear test devices, “Ruth” and “Ray,” were named after his godparents. “I did all of the naming in those days. In a way they don’t want you to do that, but we did. I named it [Livermore] Project Whitney. I named the nuclear weapon rocket program Rover. You could do that.”

  11. Don Winslow (History)

    Herb was my 2nd cousin. Was always proud of his accomplishments. I remember, as a child getting a tour of the Pentagon when he was Director of Defense. He was a good man just like his parents. His father was someone that always joked with the kids. We always looked forward to visiting him. Herb seemed to take right after his dad. Recently he helped provide information on our family genealogy. The family was always very proud of Herb and his contribution to our country. May he rest in peace.