Yuan T. Lee Biography

Yuan Tseh Lee, the first Taiwanese to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is a renowned chemist known for his groundbreaking work in chemical elementary processes. His use of advanced chemical kinetics techniques to investigate the behavior of chemical reactions has earned him international recognition. From a young age, Lee displayed exceptional academic abilities and excelled in various sports. He was accepted into the prestigious National Taiwan University based on his outstanding academic records. After completing his education, Lee pursued his doctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley, where he collaborated with chemist Dudley Herschbach. Together, they conducted molecular beam experiments and introduced mass spectroscopy to identify reaction products. Lee’s contributions to the field of chemistry have been widely acknowledged, and he has received numerous international awards in addition to the Nobel Prize.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Yuan Lee, Yuan Tseh Lee
  • Age: 87 Years, 87 Year Old Males
  • Family: father: Lee Tze-fan, siblings: Yuan-Chuan Lee
  • Chemists
  • American Men
  • Education: 1965 – University of California, Berkeley, 1959 – National Taiwan University, 1961 – National Tsing Hua University
  • Awards: Nobel Prize in Chemistry – 1986, Kołos Medal-2011, National Medal of Science for Chemistry-1986, Guggenheim Fellowship for Natural Sciences Latin America & Caribbean -1976

Childhood & Early Life

Yuan T. Lee was born on 19 November 1936 in Shinchiku City, Shinchiku Prefecture, Japanese Taiwan to Lee Tze-fan, an accomplished Shinchiku-born artist, and Ts’ai P’ei, an elementary school teacher from Goseikō Town. When he was a young boy, Taiwan was still under Japanese occupation. His elementary education was disrupted during the World War II during which the inhabitants of his city were relocated to the mountains. He could resume his education only after the war ended and things returned to normalcy.

Education and Early Interests

Yuan T. Lee was a good student and performed well in his studies at the Hsinchu Elementary School. He was also athletic and participated in a variety of sporting events. He developed into a well-rounded personality during his time at high school. Besides excelling in academics and sports, he also proved himself to be a skilled musician and played trombone in the marching band. He had a keen interest in reading as well and read voraciously on a number of topics. He was deeply impacted after reading the biography of Madame Curie and decided to be a scientist.

He graduated from Hsinchu Senior High School with an excellent academic record and was promptly admitted to the National Taiwan University without having to take the entrance examination, in 1955. He earned a B.Sc. in 1959. He then went to the National Tsing Hua University from where he received his M.S. in 1961. He entered the University of California at Berkeley as a graduate student in 1962 and worked under the Professor Bruce Mahan for his doctoral thesis. Over the course of his research, he developed an interest in ion-molecule reactions and the dynamics of molecular scattering. He received his Ph.D. degree in 1965.


Yuan T. Lee remained in Mahan’s group even after completing his Ph.D. and began his work on ion molecule reactive scattering experiments along with Ron Gentry. In 1967, he joined Professor Dudley Herschbach at Harvard University as a post-doctoral fellow, where he worked on reactions between hydrogen atoms and diatomic alkali molecules. During this time, he also worked on the construction of a universal crossed molecular beams apparatus with Doug McDonald and Pierre LeBreton. In 1968, he was offered the position of an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and the James Franck Institute of the University of Chicago which he accepted, embarking on an illustrious academic career. He was promoted to associate professor in 1971 and professor in 1973. In 1974, he returned to Berkeley as a professor of chemistry and principal investigator at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He became a U.S. citizen in the same year.

Contributions and Achievements

Yuan T. Lee’s research primarily focused on understanding the dependence of chemical reactivity on molecular orientation, decay dynamics, and identifying complex reaction mechanisms. Over the years, the scope of his scientific research expanded greatly. He further developed Herschbach’s invention of the crossed molecular beam technique and extended the technique to introduce mass spectroscopy to identify the products resulting from the reactions of oxygen and fluorine atoms with complex organic compounds.

In 1986, Yuan T. Lee, Dudley R. Herschbach, and John C. Polanyi were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for their contributions concerning the dynamics of chemical elementary processes”. In the same year, he was also awarded the National Medal of Science and Peter Debye Award.

Personal Life & Legacy

Yuan T. Lee is married to Bernice Wu Chin-li, whom he first met in elementary school. The couple has three children.

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