Friends of the University

Michael Anthony Sweeney, of Santa Cruz, died in his home on March 26, 2013 of pancreatic cancer. He was 81. Sweeney joined the chemistry faculty at Santa Clara University in 1966, and he taught until the fall of 2012. In 2001 he was named professor emeritus. Prior to teaching he worked as a research chemist for Standard Oil, and also rose to the rank of captain while serving in the US Air Force.

Sweeney was born on Dec. 5, 1931 in Los Angeles, to James Robert Sweeney and Ruth (Bauter) Sweeney.

He attended Loyola High School, and in 1953 graduated cum laude from Loyola Marymount University, (then, Loyola University).  He earned his master’s, then doctorate in radiation chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley in 1962. The research for his Ph.D. dissertation, Radiation Chemistry of Isopropyl Compounds, was directed by Nobel laureates Amos Newton and Glenn Seaborg at Lawrence Berkeley Labs, where Sweeney operated a cyclotron. During that period he is credited along with two other scientists with discovery of the isotope Rhenium (181).

He performed research and published scientific articles throughout his career. In conjunction with NASA-AMES, he studied the area of abiotic biosynthesis—the origin of organic molecules on the early earth and solar system, the formation of organic molecules resulting from radiation fluxes, and carbonaeous chondrite chemistry. His investigation into the radiation levels of the primitive Earth atmosphere added to our understanding of the origin of life.

In 1966 Sweeney began teaching chemistry at Santa Clara University. It was a position he called "the best job I’ve ever had." Students from his first graduating class presented him with a pamphlet titled "Sweeney’s Similes," in which they had recorded many of the analogies from his lectures for which he was well-known. Ten of his first 11 chemistry majors went on to earn their doctorates in chemistry; the eleventh earned a J.D. Several of these students reached out to Sweeney during his final weeks, offering gratitude for his inspiration.

Sweeney is survived by three children, Matthew ’93, Anna ’86, and Daniel ’87, their spouses, and two grandchildren.  

A memorial service will be held at Mission Santa Clara on April 11 at 6:00 p.m. A reception will follow at the Arts and Sciences Building on the Santa Clara University Campus, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95053. His ashes will be laid to rest in Ireland by his children.  

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that a charitable donation be made to Santa Clara University, The Chemistry Dept., in Memory of Michael A. Sweeney, University Relations, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA  95053; or via the web at


Donations will be awarded to a chemistry major who demonstrates interest in a teaching career.

Notes of sympathy may be sent to:

The Sweeney Family

c/o Chemistry & Biochemistry Department

Daly Science Center

500 El Camino Real

Santa Clara, CA 95053


08 Nov 2018