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Sat, 03.26.1932

James A. Harris, Nuclear Chemist born

James A. Harris

*James Harris was born on this date in 1932.  He was a Black nuclear chemist who was involved in the discovery of elements 104 and 105 (rutherfordium and dubnium).  

James Andrew Harris was born in Waco, Texas.  His parents divorced when he was young, after which he moved to Oakland, California with his mother and finished high school. Harris met his wife Helen at Huston-Tillotson College, where they were both completing their undergraduate studies; they were married in 1957 and had five children, Cedric, Keith, Hilda, Kimberly, and James II. Between the time of his graduation from college and his marriage, Harris served in the Army.  His hobbies included golf, traveling, and community activities.   

In 1955, after the military, job hunting in STEM related field was difficult in the Jim Crow South.  Most employers not only refused to hire Harris, but they were also shocked he would even apply as an African American for a job in chemistry.  While many chemists have been involved in the development of the periodic table, some stand out more than others. Harris was the first Black to contribute to the discovery of a new element. Harris’ discoveries took place in the late 1960’s long after Mendeleev published the first periodic table in 1869. 

Harris' first job in chemical research was at Tracerlab Inc. in Richmond, CA.  He was a radiochemist; he worked there for five years. After that time, Harris left Tracerlab Inc. to work on the Nuclear Chemistry department of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at University of California-Berkeley working on isotope division.  In 1975, Harris received a master's degree in Public Administration at California State University, Hayward.  In 1977, Harris was promoted to head of the Head of Engineering and Technical Services Division at Lawrence.  Harris worked in the Heavy Isotopes Production Group. His job was to design and purify targets that would be used to discover elements 104 and 105. These targets needed minimal impurities of elements such as lead to work.  

Harris' colleagues praised his work, saying that it was high quality and good for elemental research.  Two research teams were simultaneously working to discover elements 104 and 105. One was Harris's team at the University of California-Berkeley and the other was a team of Russian scientists. Both teams successfully isolated the two elements around the same time, so there is dispute over which team was actually the first to isolate the elements. To ease the dispute, element 104 was given the name suggested by the American research team, rutherfordium, after the influential British physicist. Element 105 was subsequently given the name dubnium, representing the city where the Russian team worked.  He retired from his work in the lab in 1988.   

Harris was awarded an honorary doctorate from Huston-Tillotson College in 1973 for his co-discovery of rutherfordium and dubnium.  Harris was also a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.  James A. Harris, known for being the first Black to contribute to the discovery of new periodic chart elements died of a sudden illness on December 12, 2000.   

To become a Chemist and Materials Scientist


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