James N. Pitts Jr. was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on January 10, 1921 to Esther Bengtson and James N. Pitts. The family moved when he was six months old to Los Angeles, which made him a "native Californian within experimental error", as he liked to say. He attended Manual Arts High School and then UCLA where he was introduced as an undergraduate to research in photochemistry by Professor F. E. Blacet. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Professor Blacet took a leave to become part of a civilian chemical corps for the National Defense Research Committee (1942-45); he asked Jim to join the group, working on the development of gas masks to protect Allied troops in the field. After the war ended, Jim returned to UCLA to finish his B.S. and then in 1949, his Ph.D. During this time, he did one of the first science shows on Los Angeles television with Arnold Miller, also in the Blacet research group. He married Nancy Quirt in 1946 and joined the faculty at Northwestern University in 1949. He thoroughly enjoyed Northwestern and his colleagues there, but the weather was a challenge for a California family. Thus, it was with some regret but also with enthusiasm for taking on new challenges that he returned to California in 1954 as a founding faculty member of the new University of California Riverside campus. His research focused on fundamental photochemistry, and in 1966 he coauthored with Jack Calvert a book that remains a classic in that area. He held an M.A. degree from Oxford where he spent two sabbatical leaves, in 1961 as a Guggenheim Fellow at University College and in 1965 as a Research Fellow and undergraduate tutor at Merton College.
In the 1960's he became interested in the new field of air pollution which was recognized as being driven by photochemical reactions as yet unknown. He was a co-founder in 1961 of the University of California Statewide Air Pollution Research Center (SAPRC), and he became its Director in 1970. He continued in this position until his retirement in 1988. During this time, SAPRC became an internationally known center for research in air pollution and the work carried out there largely laid the groundwork for the development of the new field of atmospheric chemistry. It was widely recognized as an independent source of scientific advice, with visits by scientists from all around the world as well as politicians of all persuasions including Ronald Reagan, George McGovern, Ed Muskie and Jerry Brown.
There are few atmospheric problems today that do not have Jim's early fingerprints on them. He coauthored 380 scientific publications and four books, two of which are on atmospheric chemistry co-authored with his wife, Barbara Finlayson-Pitts. He was designated one the "Most Highly Cited Researchers" by the Institute for Science Information. His scientific perception, vision and enthusiasm inspired a number of generations of young scientists, many of whom went on to win awards themselves, including in one case, a Nobel Prize. The research carried out by his team provided much of the scientific basis of California's forward-looking policies and regulations which have been widely adopted both nationally and internationally, and which led to the dramatic improvement in air quality we enjoy today.
He was always willing to testify to state and federal legislative bodies regarding the science of air pollution, and to provide informal advice to a variety of stakeholders. He received many commendations and accolades both for his science and for its translation into policy for the public good. These included recognition from the California Assembly, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the U.S. Congress. He was a member of, or chaired, a number of statewide committees for the California Air Resources Board, including the Acid Deposition Committee and the Scientific Review Panel on Airborne Toxic Chemicals. He had a firm policy of not accepting consultantships or support from industry that would give even a hint of perception of bias in his translation of science into public policy.
His accomplishments and contributions were recognized with many awards, including the 1973 Orange County Section of the American Chemical Society Service Through Chemistry Award; the 1979 California Lung Association Clean Air Award; the 1982 Air Pollution Control Association Frank A. Chambers Award; the 1983 Richard C. Tolman Medal of the Southern California Section of the American Chemical Society; 1983 Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; 1984-85 F. J. Zimmermann Award in Environmental Science, Central Wisconsin Section, American Chemical Society; 1992 Lifetime Achievement Clean Air Award from the South Air Quality Management District; 2002 Haagen-Smit Award from the California Air Resources Board for Outstanding Contributions to Air Pollution Science, and the 2007 Carl Moyer Award from the Coalition for Clean Air for Scientific Leadership and Technical Excellence.
In 1994 he was warmly welcomed at the University of California Irvine (UCI) as a researcher when his wife, Barbara Finlayson-Pitts whom he married in 1976, moved to UCI as Professor of Chemistry. At UCI he played a central role in mentoring at all levels, and particularly enjoyed interactions with undergraduate and graduate students.
Jim was an enthusiastic tennis player at both UCR and UCI, as well as during a sabbatical in Richland, WA. He was a life-long fisherman and bird hunter, with a love of the outdoors that was instilled by trips to the High Sierras at a young age with his parents. For a number of years he organized for friends chartered deep-sea fishing trips of several days duration; the neighborhood would anxiously await his return as they knew fresh fish would be generously shared. He and Barbara were "parents" to a series of Golden retrievers and a Labrador retriever that were hunting companions as well as family members. Their home in Fawnskin was the focal point for many of their outdoor activities, including photography of bald eagles and day trips around the mountains and surrounding desert, and a gathering point for friends and family.
Jim was universally known as an energetic, brilliant, charming, articulate, witty, warm and loving husband, father and friend with an unrelenting commitment to improving our environment. He treated everyone "up and down the food chain", from the janitor to governors with the same respect and interest. He would light up a room, and in a short time know everyone's personal stories. This Jim is very deeply missed by his wife/coworker/coauthor/fishing buddy Barbara and his black lab Major, as well as his daughters Linda Lee, Christie Hoffman, Beckie St. George. He is also survived by his former wife Nancy, and six grandchildren and their families. All of the immense love and support of friends, family and "adopted family", and the incredible caring assistance of Dr’s George and El-Sanadi, David, Fitz, Ryan, Danielle and Yolanda, all true angels, has been appreciated more than it is possible to express.
"Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." From Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2, William Shakespeare.
Jim Pitts died on June 19, 2014 of natural causes. To view pictures and a retrospective of Dr. Pitts' life, click here.
An undergraduate scholarship fund has been set up at UCI in his name. Memorial donations can be made at
Checks can be made out to the UCI Foundation and sent to:
UCI Department of Chemistry
1137 Natural Sciences II
Irvine, CA 92697
UCI Office of External Relations and Advancement
180 Rowland Hal
Irvine, CA 92697
Services will be private.