The Life and Science of Harold C. Urey

The Life and Science of Harold C. Urey

by Matthew Shindell

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Harold C. Urey (1893–1981), whose discoveries lie at the foundation of modern science, was one of the most famous American scientists of the twentieth century. Born in rural Indiana, his evolution from small-town farm boy to scientific celebrity made him a symbol and spokesman for American scientific authority. Because he rose to fame alongside the prestige of American science, the story of his life reflects broader changes in the social and intellectual landscape of twentieth-century America. In this, the first ever biography of the chemist, Matthew Shindell shines new light on Urey’s struggles and achievements in a thoughtful exploration of the science, politics, and society of the Cold War era.
From Urey’s orthodox religious upbringing to his death in 1981, Shindell follows the scientist through nearly a century of American history: his discovery of deuterium and heavy water earned him the Nobel Prize in 1934, his work on the Manhattan Project helped usher in the atomic age, he initiated a generation of American scientists into the world of quantum physics and chemistry, and he took on the origin of the Moon in NASA’s lunar exploration program. Despite his success, however, Urey had difficulty navigating the nuclear age. In later years he lived in the shadow of the bomb he helped create, plagued by the uncertainties unleashed by the rise of American science and unable to reconcile the consequences of scientific progress with the morality of religion.
Tracing Urey’s life through two world wars and the Cold War not only conveys the complex historical relationship between science and religion in the twentieth century, but it also illustrates how these complexities spilled over into the early days of space science. More than a life story, this book immerses readers in the trials and triumphs of an extraordinary man and his extraordinary times.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226662114
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/03/2019
Series: Synthesis
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Matthew Shindell is curator of planetary science and exploration at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Read an Excerpt


From Farm Boy to Wartime Chemist

In spring 1907, 14-year-old Harold Urey stood before his fellow grade schoolers and their assembled family members in a small Amish schoolhouse in DeKalb County, Indiana. Each of the graduating students was to give a short speech for the occasion. The topic Harold chose was "perseverance," presenting "an object lesson [on] what each one of the graduates have had to do to successfully pass their examinations and reach the point of honor that they have on this occasion." Instruction at the school had been basic, and yet Harold had struggled through, barely passing the graduation exam required of Indiana grade schoolers at the time. He finished at the bottom of his class, with only one boy below him in a class of thirteen students. Few of his classmates had to overcome as many obstacles as Harold on their way to graduation: his father's illness, madness, and death, and his own hard labor and poverty. It is safe to say that Harold understood perseverance.

When not in school, Harold spent most of his time working on his stepfather's modest onion farm — a forty-acre parcel of land near Cedar Lake, deep in the northern Indiana countryside — and helping to keep his family fed. Martin Alva Long, or simply "Alva," had been a hired man on Harold's grandmother Elizabeth Urey's farm in Corunna, Indiana, where Harold was raised from ages 6 to 11, along with his younger brother Clarence and sister Martha. Harold's mother, Cora Rebecca (Reinoehl) Urey, a widow, had married Alva in 1903. After the death of Elizabeth and the sale of the Urey farm, Alva had moved the family to the Cedar Lake farm. In addition to Harold and his two siblings, Cora and Alva soon had children of their own.

The family lived in rural poverty. As Martha described it, the farm "consisted of some low land down by a creek that emptied into the lake. There was some higher ground for pasture and other crops, a truck patch, and an orchard. The house and barn were on top of a hill, and both were made of logs." The house lacked indoor plumbing, and the summer kitchen lacked walls.

Harold and Clarence farmed on weekends and summer days. Despite the family's continued economic hardship, in later life Harold described this period as an ideal country boyhood, remembering that he slept in the attic of the log house, fished and swam in the lake, and weeded onions with his brother and stepfather during the summers: "It was a very pleasant life on the whole — terribly hot in the summertime, however, in the onion field." With little extra money to buy food, the growing family might have gone hungry had it not been for the bass and bluegill that Alva and the boys were able to catch from the creek. They would eat their fill for supper, and Cora would salt the remaining fish for winter.

It was a simple country life, filled with toil and religious observance. Alva was a minister, as had been Harold's biological father, Samuel Clayton Urey. Cora's marriage to Samuel on Christmas Eve, 1891, had estranged her from her family. Cora's parents were prominent members of the local German Evangelical Lutheran Church, while Samuel was a "Dunker." He had been born into the German Baptist Brethren church, an Anabaptist sect founded during the German Radical Pietism movement. Along with the Lutherans, Mennonites, and Amish, they were among the eighty thousand German immigrants who joined Penn's Quaker colony before the American Revolution and who collectively came to be known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. The Brethren insisted on a simple agrarian life and the practice of what they called "primitive Christianity." Urey's student Stanley Miller would later mistakenly assert that Urey lived a life marked by "rugged individualism," alluding to his time spent "pitching hay on his father's farm." In fact, Urey grew up in a religion that valued communalism and insisted against individualism within its ranks.

Wealth and ostentation were frowned upon, and Samuel's family could be accused of neither sin. They lived in a modest log cabin on one of the smaller tracts in Fairfield Center, Indiana. Samuel knew that his religion was a source of friction between his family and Cora's, and so he never asked her to convert. Nonetheless, she chose to become a Dunker, despite the fact that doing so meant "no jewelry, no puffed hair, and no fancy clothes," and few of the comforts she had known while living with her more prosperous family. Cora's Dunker conversion was sincere; even after Samuel's death, she remained a devout member of the Brethren community.

The family's daily life, as Harold later recounted, was shaped by their Dunker faith. Before the day's work could be done, mornings began with prayer and family worship. They observed a strictly modest dress code, a "Gospel plainness" that their religion required. On Sundays, regardless of the weather, the family drove their horse and buggy five miles to the Dunker meetinghouse in Cedar Creek. Harold later recounted:

In this church, and its Sunday School, I learned my knowledge of the Bible mostly. … In the old days, the women and men sat in different sections of the church. The women wore long skirts and long sleeves with high-necked collars, a marked contrast to the clothes of today. The men wore coats with no place for neckties. The sermons were about 1/2 hour long, and my father and stepfather both preached in this church. The communions and the full-scale meal in honor of the Lord's Supper, where we washed each other's feet, took place once a year.

The majority of Brethren that Harold grew up around in the Corunna area would have held that the Bible was the only guide to living as a Christian. What the Bible advocated was a life of discipleship based on a strict commitment to the Ten Commandments, as interpreted by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. (While Urey would claim to have rejected the literalism of his religion as a teenager, these chapters of the Gospel of Matthew remained his lifelong favorites.) The Brethren also held then the view that the Bible was an infallible record of human history, and that all great advancements in society were due to the Bible's influence. In the words of the Brethren ministers Owen Opperman and Charles M. Yearout — words that seem as though they could have inspired Urey's later position — the Brethren agreed that all the "comforts and learning and great improvements" of America were produced by the Bible's impact on society: it had elevated humankind from "a state of barbarism and superstition to a high plane of morality and enlightenment."

Harold had little memory of Samuel, whose time as the family patriarch had been marked by illness, and ultimately culminated in his death when Harold was only 6. He knew that his father had encouraged his education: "He was able to teach me to write a bit, and he always insisted that I should bring books home at night and read a small amount to him." In Harold's account of his life, Samuel was a dedicated father and educator.

Samuel had been an educator, although his aspirations in this arena were cut short by his illness. Shortly after their marriage, Samuel had moved Cora to Walkerton, Indiana, where he had taken a job as a school superintendent. He had put himself through a bit of college and had taught in the small schoolhouses of Fairfield Center, and the job in Walkerton was an attempt to better his prospects. Less than a year into his new appointment, on April 29, 1893, Harold was born. Aside from the birth of their first son, Samuel and Cora's time in Walkerton was far from joyful. They were barely settled in before illness forced them to move again. Tuberculosis had struck two of Samuel's sisters, and he moved his small family back to Fairfield Center to help. He soon contracted the disease himself and moved the family west on a doctor's recommendation that the dry climate might improve his health.

What Harold did remember of his father was from the brief time the family spent in Glendora, California. In 1897 Samuel took up the life of a Brethren missionary minister, and the little family — which now included a second son, Clarence — joined the ranks of the more than six hundred Brethren that the minister Matthew Mays Eshelman brought to Southern California to settle near his new college at Lordsburg. It was during this period that young Harold began to observe and recognize his family's hardship. Some of these memories were sensory — the sweet taste of a small spoonful of mission fig given to him by his mother on the front porch. Others were more emotionally fraught — when an interviewer later asked him about his childhood, he summed it up succinctly: "Poor. We were very poor. I remember terribly poverty stricken days."

As a missionary minister, Samuel preached alongside Eshelman, serving congregations in the towns of Covina and Colton. The position was not salaried, and so he found work in a local packinghouse, hammering together wooden strawberry crates. The manual labor exacerbated Samuel's tuberculosis. One of Harold's nieces later recounted the family's story, telling of how Samuel "hammered and coughed, hammered and rested, as his little boys, Harold and Clarence, played in and around the workshop." The family was destitute, surviving partly on the charity of their Brethren neighbors.

As bad as things were, they soon worsened. Samuel's mental health was rapidly declining. He knew that he was dying and that he was leaving his wife, newly pregnant with their third child, to raise the family alone and in dire poverty. Nothing could console him. As family member Kay Waters put it: "Neither prayer nor love could reverse his condition. … It is no surprise that this responsible, devout, loving man, unable to support his family, knowing he was to die, went briefly mad." This mental decline was perhaps accelerated by Samuel's self-imposed regimen of fasting. On the Fourth of July, 1897, after he had finished preaching an evening sermon in the Colton church, Samuel suffered what his family later described as a complete emotional breakdown. A newspaper report from the time suggests that in a fit of madness Samuel attempted "to kill an old man at Lordsburg" that evening. A county judge committed him to the Southern California State Asylum for the Insane and Inebriates in San Bernardino, where doctors determined him to be "acutely insane," and suffering from tuberculosis meningitis. The disease had reached his brain. He remained institutionalized within the asylum for eight months.

Restoration would not come. Samuel was released in March 1898, and two months later he traveled to his mother's farm to sit at his sister Etta May's deathbed. She died that August. Soon after Etta May's death, Samuel abandoned all hope that the California climate would improve his health. If he was to die, it was better to die in Indiana, where Cora and the children would be near family. In June 1899, they moved back to his mother's farm. Less than a half-year later, Samuel died, leaving Cora and their three children in the care of his mother. "He was a man of a brilliant mind," his obituary read. "The Brotherhood at large has sustained a great loss in his death."

For her part, Cora seems to have shouldered the burden of raising her children in the shadow of illness and poverty with little complaint. The family records describe her as "truly a strong, hardworking and brave pioneer mother and wife," and there is nothing to contradict this description. During Samuel's incarceration, Cora supported herself and her boys as a washerwoman. Even while several months pregnant with her daughter, Martha, Cora bent over the washtubs or bathtubs of her employers, "turning out freshly ironed clothes whose white smoothness belied her knuckles made raw on the washboard." "I have always thought I must have been the most unwanted child in the world," Martha later wrote. "How could anyone want a baby at a time like that? Yet, as I grew up I felt loved and extra special. My dear wonderful mother was a remarkable woman." Harold, more reserved than his sister about such matters, nonetheless felt much the same — Cora was his moral compass. In a speech accepting the first of many accolades in his career, he credited his mother as having been one of his most influential teachers: "It was she who taught me that 'man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.' Of all the lessons that I have learned in my life, this one has been most valuable."

A New Life

Life on Alva's Cedar Lake farm was free from the specter of death that had colored Harold's early childhood, but was still demanding. Brethren families in agricultural communities at the turn of the century typically remained isolated from the non-Brethren world. Harold's family, as he often emphasized, was pioneer stock, having settled the wilderness of Indiana. The frontier lifestyle persisted within the Urey household, since they had little money. As it had for previous generations of Brethren, life revolved mostly around the production from raw materials of all the necessities of life — including clothing and food. As a result, each member of the family was an essential part of "an industrial, social, moral and religious organization." The home was the center of religious life for a Brethren family, and home life included a daily routine of scripture reading and worship. "The home without daily family worship," wrote one Brethren sociologist, "was considered to be without true Christianity."

There was no high school in the Cedar Lake area, however, and this afforded Harold the opportunity to leave. Money from Samuel's life insurance policy went toward room and board with relatives on the outskirts of the small town of Kendallville, Indiana. Here he lived with his maternal grandparents and other relatives from his mother's side of thefamily throughout high school. Little more than a dozen miles from the family farm, Kendallville offered Harold a larger and more heterogeneous community. It was here that he would come into his own.

Urey was not completely cut off from his mother and siblings. When harsh winter weather did not prohibit it, he often rode his bicycle back to the farm on weekends. He participated in the family's religious life while home. As he was now living with Cora's family, however, he must also have been introduced to a type of family life unfamiliar to him. The family was active in Kendallville's First Evangelical Church; while devoted Christians, they did not observe the same types of restrictions in dress or behavior as did the Brethren. Harold likely also ate better while living with the Reinoehls. According to family sources, Martha Reinoehl "served bounteous meals every day. Breakfast was a feast which always included her favorite sugar cookies, pie, eggs, bacon or ham and much, much more." Just as in Harold's mother's home, breakfast was preceded by family prayer and worship.

Harold's time away from the farm had a marked effect on him. Prior to this point, he had been educated in relatively closed and orthodox settings, in very modest schoolhouses; his social group had consisted primarily of his siblings and Sunday school classmates. In Kendallville he immediately became self-conscious about his lack of sophistication, and in hindsight considered himself a "raw youngster" compared to his new cohort: "exceedingly timid, immature and unaccustomed to a town of 5,000 people." Harold's initial social anxiety did not go unnoticed by his new classmates; as one later recalled, she and her friends understood his shyness and reticence to be a product of his Amish schooling. By Urey's account, at the root of his insecurity were his country mannerisms, which no doubt included his Brethren peculiarities — his plain dress and his accent; he saw these as obstacles to his peers' acceptance. He would later write to a childhood friend, "What a crude country boy I was at that time, and you treated me so well."

The culture shock Harold experienced fits well with that described by other Brethren youth who attended high schools or colleges outside their sects. These educational environments were more diverse than the closely knit communities from which they came, where church life required a separation of male and female congregants. While these young Brethren reported feeling ashamed of their characteristic appearance and speech patterns, the experience could be a liberating one. Non-Brethren high schools and colleges provided them a "zone of invisibility" within which they could "experiment with questionable customs and practices without the knowledge or censure of their home community." For Harold this zone was defined by the absence of his primary living role model, his mother Cora. In Kendallville he socialized with girls and attended parties. High school, and later college, became spaces within which he could reinvent himself.


Excerpted from "The Life and Science of Harold C. Urey"
by .
Copyright © 2019 The Smithsonian Institution and Matthew Shindell.
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Table of Contents

Introduction       The Making and Remaking of an American Chemist

One       From Farm Boy to Wartime Chemist

Two       From Industrial Chemistry to Copenhagen

Three    From Novice in Europe to Expert in America

Four       From Nobel Laureate to Manhattan Project Burnout

Five        A Separation Man No More

Six          A Return to Science

Seven   To Hell with the Moon!

Epilogue               A Life in Science



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