By Published: Jan. 15, 2021

CU Boulder Emeritus Professor of Chemistry Bert Tolbert celebrates his 100th birthday


Bert Mills Tolbert was born Jan. 15, 1921.

Margaret and Bert

At the top of the page: One of the remaining apple orchards in Boulder today. Above: Margaret and Bert Tolbert

That year, President Warren G. Harding signed the formal declaration ending the war between the United States and Imperial Germany. Adolf Hitler became the leader of Germany’s National German Workers Socialist—aka Nazi—Party. And baseball’s World Series, between New York’s Giants and Yankees, was the first to be broadcast on the radio.

“Have I seen changes in my life? I have indeed,” says Tolbert, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Colorado Boulder, upon reaching his 100th birthday. “I can remember horse-drawn carriages on the streets of town.” 

Town was Twin Falls, Idaho, where he was born. He grew up on the family sheep farm and attended a three-room school as a boy.

Bert Tolbert

Bert Tolbert

“The teachers were good. But they had a series of two dozen books, the (Children’s) Book of Knowledge, which I read to stay ahead of the class,” Tolbert says. “That was my learning secret in grade school.”

He started college at his hometown university, Idaho State University (then known as the University of Idaho, Southern Branch), before earning a bachelor’s degree, and in 1945, a PhD, in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. He later did postgraduate work at Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology.

From 1944 to 1957, he worked as a chemist for the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, later known as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, first focusing on nuclear-related projects for the war effort, then on isotopic labeling of organic compounds to understand biochemical and chemical processes, for the U.S. government. 

In 1957, Tolbert took a faculty position at CU Boulder, where he was one of the first faculty members in biochemistry, today a department all its own. He and his wife, Anne Zweifler Tolbert, now 90, bought a property on Kalmia Avenue, on the edge of an apple orchard at the northernmost reaches of the city of Boulder. The couple still lives there.

“Boulder was a very conservative town when I came here,” he recalls. “I think it’s changed.”

He loved the rural feel of his neighborhood, and still tells tales of some of the area’s colorful residents, such as Minnie Mae Cunningham, known to generations of neighborhood children as “The Goat Lady.”

“She said it was free grazing country, and (her goats) were free to eat wherever they liked. We sometimes had trouble with them,” he says with a chuckle. When Cunningham was moved to a care facility late in her life, the Tolbert family adopted her Shetland sheepdog, or sheltie, Queenie. 

There must be something in the Tolbert genetics that favors the academic life: Two of his three siblings became professors, as did all four of his daughters: Margaret Tolbert, long-time professor of chemistry at CU Boulder; Sarah Tolbert, a professor of chemistry at UCLA; Caroline Tolbert, professor of political science at the University of Iowa; and Elizabeth Tolbert, professor of ethnomusicology at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

“It really goes to show how important education was in our family and his,” says Margaret Tolbert, who lives on a property adjacent to her parents’ in north Boulder. “That’s a value his parents instilled in him, and he instilled in us.”

During his career, Tolbert also served on the board of directors for Hauser Chemical Research, was visiting professor at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and served as a biophysicist on the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission from 1967-68. He was also a long-time consultant for the U.S. Department of Energy at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and other locations.

But he didn’t restrict himself to work. He was a ski racer, mountain climber and hiker who still loves the land and enthusiastically talks about trees and plants. 

“My dad has really lived every day of his life; I was still skiing with him just eight years ago, when he was 92 and had just had heart surgery” Margaret says. “I feel so blessed at my age to live next door to my parents and have their love and support for all these years. I don’t know what gives rise to their longevity, but we all feel so fortunate. I’m lucky to have followed in his footsteps in the CU chemistry department.” 

Asked if he had any sage words on the occasion of his 100th birthday, Tolbert emphasized the importance of being flexible.

“All I know is, look for the change, then go with it,” he says.