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Lyman Bonner Oral History Interview with Shelley Erwin

 Digital Record
Identifier: 2016-02-17-000042


  • Other: 2016 February 17


An interview in two sessions in April 1989 with Lyman Bonner, who held several important positions in Caltech’s administration from 1965 to 1989. He and his brother James spent the academic year of 1929-1930 as Caltech undergraduates while their father was on sabbatical here from the University of Utah. Both returned to Utah and received BS degrees in chemistry, James in 1931 and Lyman in 1932. Both then returned to Caltech as graduate students: James received a PhD in biology, joining the Caltech faculty in 1936; Lyman received his PhD in chemistry in 1935 (the second of four Bonner brothers to earn Caltech PhDs) and went as a postdoc to Princeton, where he switched to physics. He then worked at Duke University with Hertha Sponer on infrared spectroscopy, joined the faculty, and taught physics there in the wartime V-12 program. He recalls those early academic years and his wartime work on rocket propellants at Allegany Ballistics Laboratory and later at Hercules, Inc., ending as director of development for its Chemical Propulsion Division in Bacchus, Utah. He returned to Caltech in 1965 as director of foundation relations. Two years later, he became assistant to President Lee A. DuBridge for facilities planning and in 1968 became director of student relations. He describes the careers of his scientist siblings. He recalls the student activism led by undergraduate Joseph Rhodes and the moderate unrest at Caltech during the Vietnam War. Among his duties under President Harold Brown was oversight of the student Health Center; he discusses its history, as well as the admission of women beginning in 1970. In 1977, he became registrar, holding that post until his retirement in 1989.

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