Dr. Gerhard Herzberg: The legend and the legacy

This is a portion of the spectrum of white light from violet to blue to green (left to right). There is a line, like a ruler, with some of these colors labelled by their wavelengths in nanometers.


Celebrating a legend in Canadian science and his legacy

From mining deep into the earth to measuring the distance to the stars, Dr. Gerhard Herzberg's seminal work on molecular spectroscopy opened doors to a spectrum of scientific discovery. His work and accomplishments that span far beyond 50 years ago continue to impact countless research fields across Canada and the world.

Photograph of Dr. Gerhard Herzberg's Nobel Prize Medal for Chemistry

Nobel Prize medal

Photographs of Dr. Gerhard Herzberg's Nobel Prize Certificate.

Nobel Prize certificate


When Dr. Gerhard Herzberg began his pioneering work in physics, very little was known about atoms or how they combined to form molecules. By the time he won his Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1971, Dr. Herzberg was nicknamed the "founding father of molecular spectroscopy" for his formative work discovering some of the simplest and most important molecules in the universe.

50 years later, we commemorate his Nobel Prize and groundbreaking research. At the NRC, we are particularly proud to recognize his contributions to research excellence, through his 50 years of service.

Today, leading research and discoveries in far-ranging fields can be traced back to fundamentals uncovered by Dr. Herzberg. From astronomy to medical imaging, mining and nanotechnology, his far-reaching impact speaks to the significant impact of his work.

The King of Sweden and G. H. Nobel Ceremony 1971
Dr. Herzberg receives the Nobel Prize for Chemistry from the King of Sweden in 1971
Gerhard Herzberg, King Gustof Adolf, Nobel Ceremony, 1971

Nobel Prize ceremony in Sweden, 1971
Photo credits: Scandia Photopress and Reportagebild for the second and third images respectively

The legend

About Dr. Gerhard Herzberg

Portrait of Dr. Gerhard Herzberg

One of Canada's greatest scientists was born in Hamburg, Germany on December 25, 1904. Following high school, Gerhard Herzberg first set his sights on astronomy but was told not to pursue that path without private funding. Without enough money to pursue astronomy, he enrolled in the field of physics.

Dr. Herzberg came to Canada in 1935 to work at the University of Saskatchewan where he began to write the first of his three seminal textbooks on molecular spectroscopy.

In 1948, Dr. Herzberg began working at the NRC. With funding and staff, he set up a new spectroscopic lab that would soon unveil discoveries that would change our understanding of the nature of matter. His contributions to the knowledge of electronic structure and geometry of molecules, particularly free radicals, would later lead to his 1971 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Learn more: Read the full biography

Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Museum 360°

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360° video – Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Museum - Transcript

Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Museum 360 video

[On screen: Plaque outside the Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Office and Reading Room] [00:00:11 Dr. Gerhard Herzberg] Well, I would say what drives me is simply curiosity. I like to know how things work. And I'd like to know how to explain natural phenomena, because I'm concerned exclusively with the basic science and I'm not concerned with applications.

[00:00:29] His school triangle, his lab coat and teacup remain untouched. The Herzberg family. Dr. Herzberg (centre) was the youngest child and was born on December 25, 1904.

[00:00:34] Whether the particular study that I'm making is of any practical use, it doesn't interest me. If it does, well, well and good. But that's not the reason why I'm doing it. And I think you might say, well, I wouldn't say the majority, but many scientists have as much as their motivation. I think curiosity about nature.

[00:00:50] Dr. Herzberg won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1971. This is a replica of his Nobel Prize. Samples of the science that led to Dr. Herzberg's Nobel Prize in Chemistry. King Gustaf Adolf of Sweden and Dr. Gerhard Herzberg (right) at the Nobel Prize Ceremony, 1971.

[00:00:56 Interviewer] Is that the essence of science?

[00:00:58 Dr. Gerhard Herzberg] Well, and I always like to quote a statement by a famous mathematician, Jacoby, from the last century, who said the sole purpose of science, sole aim of science, is the glory of the human spirit. And that is my motive.

[00:01:16] It's intellectual activity that is similar in many ways to artistic activity. The artist, the painter, the musician, the writer, they all are motivated by lifting the human spirit in some way or other. Wrapped in science we have the additional fallout, so to speak, of practical things that will be useful for mankind is for the motivation, not very relevant.

[00:01:34] This is his scientific calculator. His doctorate from Darmstadt University in Germany. Several spectrograms, his measurement magnifier and a photo of Dr. Herzberg in 1971.

[00:01:48] For some people, it is. I mean, of course, if a person wants to go into medicine and medical research or speak to medicine, his motivation is different.

[00:01:58] Dr. Herzberg used double doors to sound proof his office so he could focus on his work.

[00:02:00] But I'm talking about the motivation of a basic scientist on my own.

[00:02:05] My point is simply that you should do science for the sake of human culture, for the sake of knowledge. I mean, we don't live there just to be fed and to grow and get wealthy and die. There must be some purpose in life that is not just surviving.

[On screen: Official signature, National Research Council Canada / Conseil national de recherches Canada]

[On screen: Government of Canada wordmark]

Highlights from the NRC Herzberg Archives

The NRC digital repository contains a host of biographical information about Dr. Gerhard Herzberg. Browse content by category:

View the whole collection of digital materials on Dr. Herzberg's life.

The legacy

The impact of Dr. Gerhard Herzberg's work, today


His namesake: the Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre

Dr. Herzberg first showed interest in astronomy as a teenager. Decades later, his interests came full circle. In 1974, the NRC combined its units in spectroscopy and astronomy, and named it the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (HIA). Dr. Herzberg worked at the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics until he retired in 1995.

Today, the Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre continues his legacy, as it develops spectroscopy instruments for some of the world's most powerful observatories.

"Dr. Herzberg was a Canadian science icon, whose discoveries left an indelible mark on astronomy. Today, we bear his name with pride as we put his foundational work into practice by designing and building advanced spectrographs for world-class observatories around the world to explore the nature of the many fascinating objects populating our Universe such as planets, stars and galaxies."

Luc Simard, Director General
Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre

Learn more

Defining Moments Canada: Herzberg50

Defining Moments Canada Herzberg 50 campaign logo

This fall, Defining Moments Canada will be launching a virtual exhibit and pedagogical tools for the classroom, focused on Dr. Gerhard Herzberg.

Learn more about the Herzberg50 virtual exhibit by Defining Moments Canada:

  • News release
  • Virtual exhibit – launching in Fall 2021
  • Pedagogical tools – launching in Fall 2021

Related links

Awards and professional associations

Awards named in Herzberg's honour

1971 to 2021 Canada-Germany collaboration


For more information about Dr. Gerhard Herzberg and the Herzberg50 anniversary, follow us on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn and search for #NRCHerzberg50.