Pete Bragg, materials science pioneer, dies at 98

Robert Henry “Pete” Bragg, Jr., professor emeritus in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley, passed away on Oct. 3 at the age of 98. Bragg joined the Berkeley faculty in June 1969, one of six African American faculty on campus at the time.

Professor Bragg (Photo courtesy of the Bancroft Library)

Bragg was a leading expert in X-ray crystallography, X-ray diffraction and materials characterization. He specialized in characterizing the structure and electronic properties of carbon materials, which are used in aircraft and aerospace vehicles, as well as in everyday items such as golf clubs and tennis rackets.

“Professor Bragg pioneered the use of X-ray-based techniques to characterize the structure of complex materials, particularly those containing light elements that had traditionally been relatively ‘transparent’ to these methods,” said professor Mark Asta, current chair of materials science and engineering. “Bragg is best known for his work on carbon materials, where his research provided new insights into their structures, which has had a tremendous influence on how carbon materials are used in everyday applications today.”

Bragg retired from the Berkeley faculty in 1987, after a career that included service as chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering from 1978 to 1981; he was the first African American to hold the position. He also conducted research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Bragg’s legacy, in addition to his pioneering physics research, includes numerous contributions to supporting and expanding diversity in his profession and on the Berkeley campus. He received several honors and distinctions in his career including being named as a fellow of the National Society of Black Physicists.

Bragg was born on Aug. 11, 1919, in Jacksonville, Florida, grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and later moved to Chicago and attended Tilden Technical High School. He studied at Woodrow Wilson Junior College before enlisting in the military during World War II. After the war, Bragg attend Illinois Institute of Technology, where he earned three physics degrees (B.S. in 1949, M.S. in 1951, Ph.D. in 1960). Later in his career, Bragg was honored with the Illinois Institute of Technology Distinguished Alumnus Professional Award.

After his retirement, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in 1992 to conduct research for one year at the University of Ife in Nigeria. He also performed research at the Advanced Photon Source at the Argonne National Laboratory in 1999.