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Dr. Harley A. WILHELM


Posted By: Sharon R Becker (email)
Date: 6/14/2010 at 15:30:49


Harley A. WILHELM, son of Bert Clement and Annie Bell (GLICK) WILHELM, was born on a farm located near Ellston, Iowa, on August 5, 1900. He was one of seven children. He learned his math lessons well while attending country school, listening to the teacher instruct the older pupils. As Harley grew up, it became apparent that he possessed a superior mind fueled by an intellectual inquisitiveness besides being a gifted musician and an outstanding athlete. He was a member on the varsity team as a high school freshman. He was selected to an all-state team during his senior year, graduating from Ellston High School in 1919.

Harley accepted an athletic scholarship to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

While at Drake, he played on the basketball team as a forward starter and was the third leading scorer in the conference during his senior year. He was a half back on the football team and an outstanding pitcher on the baseball team.

By his sophomore year, Harley had completed all of the mathematics and physics courses Drake had to offer. With no more math courses available, he focused on chemistry and was later offered a fellowship in chemistry at Drak and Iowa State University. He returned to Drake in 1923 on a scholarship, earning a degree in chemistry.

Harley taught chemistry and coached on the college level at Intermountain Union College located in Helena, Montana. When his team failed to produce a winning season, the world lost a football coach, but gained a scientist. He returned to ISU as a graduate assistant, becoming a chemistry instructor in 1929. He earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from Iowa State University in 1931, remaining on the staff at ISU. Harley was promoted to assistant professor in 1940; associate professor in 1944; and full professor in 1945.

In February of 1942, two scientists at Iowa State University - Dr. WILHELM and Dr. Frank SPEDDING - were named to a commission headed by Arthur COMPTON for the Manhattan Project during World War II, assigned the seemingly impossible task of producing a suitable amount of uranium. U-235 uranium was needed but only 0.7% of all uranium found in nature was U-235 needed for producing and sustaining nuclear fusion. Although others had faile, Drs. WILHELM and SPEDDING discovered a new and successful method of doing the impossible after 6 months of scraping the initial research and starting from scratch. By December of 1942, the two doctors had refined two tons of pure uranium in the Ames laboratory. This laboratory supplied the necessary amount of uranium to produce the first controlled neclear reaction in 1942, made in a make-shift laboratory located underneath the abandoned Alonso Stagg Football Stadium in Chicago, Illinois.

The laboratory in Ames employeed 500 people and eventually produced over two million pounds of uranium. with Dr. WILHELM in charge of the project. Of note, Dr. WILHELM'S process is still used to the present day.

Dr. WILHELM was involved in various areas which included high-speed computer design, environmental cleanup, energy resources, and the study of new materials. He held over 40 patents in the field of metallurage and over 60 inventions with connection to atomic energy. He was the associate director of the Ames nuclear laborator from 1945-1966, and was the principal scientist and professor of chemistry and metaluray until his mandatory retirment at the age of 70 in 1971 after 43 years with ISU.

The metalluray building at ISU was renamed The Harley A. WHILHELM Hall in 1986 to honor Dr. WILHELM'S contributions to science and ISU.

Dr. WILHELM'S associations are numerous, including: American Society for Metals; American Institute for Mining; Metallugical and Petroleum Engineers; American Chemical Society; Iowa Acadamey of Science; Phi Kapp Phi; Phi Bea Kappa; Sigma XI; Phi Lambda Upsilon; member of the board of trustees at the national office of American Society for Metals; chairman of Ames Section of the American Chemical Society; and was a delegate for the U.S. State Department on missions in Europe and South America in connection with atomic energy matters. He was the associate director of the Ames Laboratory, Director of the Institute for Atomic Research, and Atomic Energy Commission. Dr. WILHELM represented the United States in 1955 at Geneva International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy. He was awarded the prestigous and coveted national Eisenman Award of the American Society of Metals in 1962 at New York City. He was one of 32 Drake alumni athletic winners to receive the first "Double D Award" based on the excellence and success of the letterman's professional field in 1968. Dr. WILHELM was named during Drake University's Centennial Celebration in 1961 as one of the 100 greatest athletes in the school's history.

He continued his interest in sports as a pitcher for the Ames Merchant, a semi-pro baseball team until he was well into his middle age. He was inducted into the Iowa Boys High School Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988.

Dr. Harley A. and Orpah WILHELM were the parents of four children: Lorna, Myrna, Gretchen, and Max. They enjoyed 68 years of married life together. Dr. WILHELM died at the age of 95 years on October 7, 1995. He never forgot his Ringgold roots, returning many times to play the accordian in the Ellston band and for various parades.

* * * *


Ames Laboratory co-founder Dr. Harley A. WILHELM passed away on October 7, 1995, at age 95. Dr. WILHELM invented the process for large-scale production of highly pure uranium and thorium for the Manhattan Project. With his process, still in use today, Ames Lab produced over two million pounds (1,000 tons) of high-purity uranium for the Manhattan Project.

WILHELM was associate director of Ames Lab from 1945 to 1966. He continued as a principal scientist and professor of chemistry and metallurgy at Iowa State University (ISU) until his retirement in 1971 at age 70. His research on metals led to 44 patents.

Lab Director Tom BARTON says a great deal of the credit for the existence of the Ames Laboratory goes to WILHELM. "It would be difficult to overestimate the contribution to both science and Iowa State University made by Harley WILHELM," says BARTON.

In 1986 ISU renamed the Metallurgy Building, Harley A. WILHELM Hall in honor of WILHELM'S contributions to science. In 1990, WILHELM received the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Medal.

Plaque Text: "In 1942, a group of Iowa State scientists led by professors Frank Spedding and Harley Wilhelm developed the process to produce highly pure uranium. More than 2,000,000 pounds of uranium were produced at Iowa State for the secret Manhattan Project, advancing the nationís wartime efforts. The success of the Ames Process led to the establishment of the Ames Laboratory at Iowa State."

"WILHELM showed up like a diamond in an ashpile." - The Tingley Vindicator

SOURCE: FETTY, Jack. Rings of Gold Pp. 141-146. Palindrome Pub. Co. Iowa. 2007.

Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, June of 2010


Ringgold Biographies maintained by Tony Mercer.
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