George A. Cowan | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 90 Issue 22 | p. 59 | Obituaries
Issue Date: May 28, 2012

George A. Cowan

Department: ACS News
Keywords: obituaries

George A. Cowan, 92, a pioneering radiochemist and a senior laboratory fellow emeritus at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), died at his home in Los Alamos, N.M., on April 20.

Born in Worcester, Mass., Cowan received a B.S. in chemistry from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1941. Shortly after beginning graduate studies at Princeton University under Eugene P. Wigner, he joined the Manhattan Project, moving to multiple locations as a technical troubleshooter. In 1942, he was involved in work that generated the first controlled nuclear reaction, which paved the way for the development of the first atomic bomb.

After World War II, Cowan worked briefly at LANL before earning a doctorate in physical chemistry at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1950.

Cowan then returned to LANL, where he became one of the world’s experts on nuclear weapons diagnostics, helping detect the first Soviet nuclear explosion. During his 39-year career at LANL, he served as director of chemistry, associate laboratory director of research, and senior laboratory fellow until he retired in 1988.

In the early 1980s, Cowan became founding president of Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit organization that fosters interdisciplinary research. He was an emeritus member of ACS, which he joined in 1949.

Cowan received the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award, the Enrico Fermi Award, and the Los Alamos Medal, and he served on the White House Science Council during the Reagan Administration.

He was a founding partner of Los Alamos National Bank and the Delle Foundation. Cowan loved travel, food, wine, and music, serving on the board of the Santa Fe Opera.

Cowan’s wife of 65 years, Helen (Satch), died in 2011.


Obituary notices of no more than 300 words may be sent to Susan J. Ainsworth at and should include an educational and professional history.

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