Obituary: Truman P. Kohman / Chemistry professor with eyes always on stars
March 8, 1916 - April 28, 2010
May 1, 2010 4:00 AM
Truman P. Kohman
By Mark Belko Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Truman P. Kohman began searching the night skies at the age of 13 and never let up.
From the moment he first set his eyes to the heavens, Mr. Kohman fell in love with astronomy, a passion he pursued his entire life, culminating with an asteroid, MP 4177-Kohman, being named in his honor a decade ago.
"That was a great honor for him. He was very pleased with that," said his daughter, Leslie Kohman.
While Mr. Kohman built a stellar career as a chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project and taught at Carnegie Mellon University for more than 50 years, it was astronomy that left him star-struck.
He bought his first telescope at age 16 and his last one only a month or so ago. Mr. Kohman, 94, of Mt. Lebanon, died Wednesday at home. Right up until his death, he was peering into the heavens, trying to find the first 100 asteroids to be numbered.
"He was extremely curious about the nature of the universe," Ms. Kohman said.
Born in Champaign, Ill., Mr. Kohman grew up the son of a chemist. His dad worked as a food chemist for Campbell Soup Co. While Mr. Kohman's first love was astronomy, his father urged him to pursue a career in chemistry, saying he could always have stargazing as a hobby.
Mr. Kohman graduated with an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Harvard in 1938 and later obtained a doctorate in the same field from the University of Wisconsin.
After college, he worked on the Manhattan Project in Hanford, Wash. While there, he met his wife, Jane.
He began teaching chemistry at Carnegie Mellon, then Carnegie Tech, in 1948 and continued to do so until 1981. He also taught an introductory astronomy course at the school from 1970 to 1990 even though he had retired in 1981.
Merging career and passion, Mr. Kohman liked to refer to himself as an "astro-geo-nuclear chemist." Interestingly enough, the twin pursuits provided some of the most defining moments of his life.
Mr. Kohman, for instance, is credited with helping to discover in 1954 Aluminum-26, a nuclide (a word he created) that is important in the analysis of meteorites and other solar system matter. He also analyzed some of the first lunar samples brought back to earth by Apollo astronauts after the first moon landing.
Michael Bikerman, associate professor emeritus in the University of Pittsburgh geology and planetary science department, said Mr. Kohman was a pioneer in the field of radiochemistry, or the chemistry of radioactive materials. He also was an expert on gamma ray sources and their distribution.
"He was a brilliant chemist. His work was impeccable. He did very meticulous work," Mr. Bikerman said.
Still, it was the skies that most captivated him. Daughter Paulette Kohman remembers a youth filled with star parties and being roused from sleep in the middle of the night to look at asteroids, comets and lunar eclipses. During his life, Mr. Kohman traveled to South America, the Caribbean and other parts of the world to observe and photograph solar eclipses.
"He was extremely knowledgeable of everything in the sky," said Arthur Glaser, a member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh with Mr. Kohman.
So appreciative were CMU students of Mr. Kohman's teaching that they named the school's observatory after him in 1986. Mr. Kohman also was a strong supporter of the Wagman Observatory project in Deer Lakes Park and served as an officer in the astronomers group and often gave talks and presentations.
Before his death, he donated that first telescope he bought, a French model dating to 1895, to the organization. He also was instrumental in getting asteroids named after some Pittsburgh area astronomers.
Mr. Kohman's work on the Manhattan Project proved to have a lasting effect. He told his children he didn't know his efforts would lead to the development of the atomic bomb and its use on Japan in World War II.
"He became an anti-war peacenik after that, and he felt very bad about contributing to that effort," Paulette Kohman said. "He dedicated his life to making sure it was never used again. He was strongly in favor of peaceful uses of nuclear power."
"He was driven not only by his love of science and love of family but also considerations for the good of the whole world, equal rights and equal justice for all citizens of the world," Leslie Kohman said.
Mr. Kohman also was a bit of an eccentric who kept detailed records of the cost of every gallon of gasoline he bought and how many miles he got out of it. He also loved jazz, Dixieland and classical music, especially Bach, and played the trombone.
For those who wondered about his greatest accomplishment in a life filled with them, Mr. Kohman had a simple answer. "If you asked him, he would say marrying my mother and having three kids," Leslie Kohman said.
Mr. Kohman is survived by his wife, Jane; two daughters, Leslie of Syracuse, N.Y., and Paulette of Helena, Mont.; a son, Steven, of Mount Washington; and a sister, Barbara Howe of Colts Neck, N.J.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. today at Bower Hill Community Church, Mt. Lebanon. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh, the American Diabetes Association or the Pittsburgh chapter of the World Federalists Association.