Professor Kenneth B. Eisenthal (1933 - 2024)

March 06, 2024

EISENTHAL, Kenneth B.:

Columbia University mourns the passing and celebrates the life of Professor Ken Eisenthal, long time member of the Department of Chemistry. His passion for scientific inquiry and dedication to the field of chemistry have left an indelible mark on the world.

Born in Brooklyn in 1933, Prof. Eisenthal's fascination with the foundations of chemistry began at Brooklyn College, where he earned his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. His academic journey continued at Harvard University, where he earned a Master's degree in Physics and a Ph.D. in Chemical Physics under the mentorship of Marshall Fixman. He completed his formal training as postdoctoral researcher under the guidance of Mostafa Al-Sayed at UCLA. 

Prof. Eisenthal’s independent research career blossomed at  IBM Research in San Jose, where he was staff member and group leader following a short stay at The Aerospace Corporation.  This period marked the emergence of ultrafast lasers, new sources of coherent light producing intense pulses as short as a picosecond (a millionth of a millionth of second). Prof. Eisenthal recognized the transformative power of this tool to follow the evolution of fundamental chemical processes directly as they evolve in time.  In his landmark studies using a home-built laser,  he demonstrated how such laser techniques could be used to capture and understand the rotation of molecules in the fluctuating environment of a liquid. 

In 1975, Dr. Eisenthal brought his wealth of knowledge and expertise to Columbia University, where he was an active faculty member for more than forty years, later assuming the position of the Mark Hyman Professor of Chemistry.  In addition to his teaching responsibilities at Columbia, Prof. Eisenthal led a research group in which he and his students and postdocs applied ultrafast laser techniques to a wide range of fundamental problems in physical chemistry.  He made ground-breaking contributions to studies of free electrons in water, the photochemistry of carbenes, and various photochemical processes. He is also widely recognized for his creative and incisive application of nonlinear spectroscopic techniques to examine the behavior of chemical processes at aqueous interfaces, probing, for example, how acid-base equilibria are modified at interfaces compared to the behavior within the bulk liquid.  Prof. Eisenthal's legacy extends beyond these scientific accomplishments to the many brilliant students and postdocs whom he mentored over the years and who are now leaders in academia and beyond. 

Prof. Eisenthal’s research career was recognized by his election to the National Academy of Sciences in 2000. The remarkable breadth and depth of his scientific contributions also led to his selection for major prizes by the American Chemical Society in three distinct fields:  the ACS Adamson Award for Surface Chemistry, the ACS Joel Henry Hildebrand Award for Theoretical and Experimental Chemistry of Liquids, and the ACS Award in Colloid Chemistry.  

We remember Prof. Ken Eisenthal not only as a brilliant scientist but as a mentor, collaborator, and friend. His intellectual curiosity, passion for discovery and commitment to advancing the frontiers of knowledge will continue to inspire generations of scientists to come.