Associate Professor of Biology Chris Smith recently learned that Harold Urey (pictured below), the namesake of a classic scientific experiment, earned a teaching certificate from Earlham in 1911. Wendell M. Stanley ’26 (pictured below Urey), is Earlham’s more widely known Nobel Laureate and the namesake of Stanley Hall.
Reconnecting with Earlham's first link to the Nobel Prize
December 11, 2015
Associate Professor of Biology Chris Smith would like to apologize to his former students.
While Smith has long lectured about the classic 1952 Miller-Urey Experiment, he admits that the connection between the experiment’s namesake and Earlham was unknown to him.
“I had just taught this in my Earlham seminar and didn’t know that Harold Urey had gone here,” Smith says. “Urey made big contributions and is a really famous scientist, and I think it is pretty phenomenal that he went here. Why is this not broadly known and celebrated?”
Earlham’s records indicate that Urey received a teaching certificate here in 1911, according to History Professor Tom Hamm, who also serves as Curator of the Quaker Collections and Director of Special Collections.
The scientist’s experiment simulated the conditions of early Earth and tested the chemical origins of life under those conditions.
Urey, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1934 after discovering deuterium in 1931, is one of two Nobel Laureates who earned credentials from Earlham. The other is Wendell M. Stanley ’26, the namesake of Stanley Hall, who won the Nobel Prize in 1946 for his research on viruses.
“Knowing that Harold Urey received a teaching certificate at Earlham definitely changes the way I will teach,” says Assistant Professor of Physics Michael Lerner says. “I find my students get excited when I can bring modern research into the classroom and get even more excited when I can make a connection to Earlham alums.
“Molecular dynamics simulations are at the heart of my research, and I typically mention them in most of my classes,” he says. “I’ll make sure to do so even more now that I can point out the EC connections. Urey-Bradley terms are important in several modern molecular dynamics force fields.”
The Urey-Earlham connection wasn’t always unnoticed. In her book Earlham: The Story of the College 1847-1962, Opal Thornburg wrote, “Nobel prize winner Harold C. Urey attributed to a 1911 summer session chapel address by Dr. (Harry Nichols) Holmes the inspiration to choose chemistry for his life work.” This idea is confirmed in the Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science by Stephen S. Visher, 1953, which states, “Urey was started at Earlham, inspired by the distinguished chemist Harry N. Holmes, professor there 1907-1914.”
Emeritus Professor of Biology Bill Harvey, who also serves as a Health Services Adviser, says that he often felt like Urey, who was born in Walkerton, Ind., in 1893 was overlooked at Earlham.
“His father was a Church of the Brethren minister, so it is not too surprising that he would come to Earlham,” Harvey says. “Clearly he was launched into his teaching career from here. He was a master of isotope separation.”
After teaching in rural schools in Montana for a few more years, Urey went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. His list of accomplishments is diverse and hefty, both in quantity and quality.
As director of the Atomic Bomb Project at Columbia University, Urey made major contributions to the Manhattan Project during World War II. At the end of the war, Urey became outspoken about the dangers of the atomic bomb, and his interests went in a different direction. His 1952 book, The Planets, is regarded as the starting point of the modern science of the solar system, and Urey is considered one of the founders of cosmochemistry.
Urey knew Albert Einstein and was a close friend or worked with Nobelists Willard Libby, Maria Mayer, Enrico Fermi, William Fowler, Hans Bethe, Niels Bohr, Isador Rabi, James Franck and Henry Taube, according to John Urey. He taught and or mentored Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Stanley Miller, Samuel Epstein, Jerry Wasserburg, Harmon Craig, Mildred Cohn and Ceasare Emiliani.
After retiring from the University of Chicago at age 65, he worked at the University of California at San Diego and wrote 105 papers, of which 47 were about the study of the moon. His last two scientific papers were written and published in 1977, when he was 84 years old.
According to his personal papers, Urey was an early opponent of German Nazism and assisted refugee scientists, including Fermi, by helping them find work in the United States and to adjust to life in a new country.
Sagan wrote in an obituary for Icarus and the Planetary Society report, that Urey, who died in 1981, was “a scientist who transcended disciplinary boundaries, who confounded the traditional wisdom about significant research being the province of the young, and who helped carry us to the moon and planets.”
Smith says, “Urey should be held up as an inspiration to every scientist, and here at Earlham we should recognize that he was here — starting his career here, just like all of our students.”
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Earlham College, a national liberal arts college located in Richmond, Indiana, is a "College That Changes Lives." We expect our students to be fully present: to think rigorously, value directness and genuineness, and actively seek insights from differing perspectives. The values we practice at Earlham are rooted in centuries of Quaker tradition, but they also constitute the ideal toolkit for contemporary success. Earlham is one of only 40 national liberal arts colleges ranked among U.S. News and World Reports' "Great Schools at a Great Price."
Brian Zimmerman is director of media relations at Earlham College. He can be reached at (765) 983-1256 and email@example.com.