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by Linda Raber
August 29, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 35


Centenarian Chemist Ray Crist Dies

Chemist's impressive career spanned nine decades in academia, government, and industry

Ray H. Crist, a chemist with an 80-plus-year research career who may have been the oldest active scientist in history, died on July 23 after a brief illness. He was 105.

Crist was born on March 8, 1900, and grew up near Grantham, Pa., a few miles south of Harrisburg. He witnessed essentially the entire modern era of science and technology, ranging from his childhood using a horse as the power source on the family farm, to his participation in the development of nuclear weapons and energy on the Manhattan Project, to the end of his career as an environmental scientist.

Farm life taught Crist the value of hard work and gave him a respect for nature, he told C&EN in an interview in 2002. Those attributes fed a lifelong drive to work with his hands and to be diligent in approaching research problems.

"When you are on a farm and work with the animals, the plants, the soil, you are an integral part of what life is," Crist observed. "It has given me a continuous curiosity about things, a sense of respect and wonderment. So throughout my life, I have just kept on living, wondering, and trying to understand the nature of things."

HE GRADUATED from high school in 1916 from nearby Messiah Bible School. Crist then attended Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa., where he received a B.S. degree in 1920. Crist later entered graduate school at Columbia University.

At Columbia, he worked on the photochemical decomposition of salts under varying conditions. One of Crist's major studies included potassium persulfate (K2S2O8), which was the basis of his thesis work (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1927, 49, 16, 338, and 960). Using the same system a few years later, he was one of the first to show that one quantum of light can cause one molecule to react.

He received a Ph.D. degree in chemistry from Columbia in 1927 and immediately joined the faculty there. In 1928, he took a postdoctoral position in the lab of Max Bodenstein, one of the principal developers of chemical kinetics, at the University of Berlin, in Germany. While there, Crist worked on several projects, but he also sat in on seminars attended by the likes of Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, and Werner Heisenberg.

Back at Columbia a year later, Crist began teaching and conducting research on photochemistry and gas-phase reaction kinetics. One of his pivotal studies was to show that a third-order reaction, the reaction of nitrogen oxide with oxygen to form nitrogen dioxide, proceeds by successive bimolecular steps.

Crist served as an associate editor for the Journal of Chemical Physics and wrote a general chemistry lab textbook. He also worked closely with Columbia chemistry professor Harold C. Urey on several projects during the 1930s. Urey was credited in 1931 with the discovery of deuterium and awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1934.

Urey was involved with the early work on developing a nuclear weapon shortly after uranium fission had been discovered in the late 1930s. In the summer of 1940, Urey asked Crist to determine the vapor pressure and triple point of UF6, the compound that later would be used to separate the fissionable 235U isotope from 238U.

When the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear weapon formally began a year later, Urey was named director of the project's Columbia University division. Crist was selected to lead part of the project that focused on the large-scale separation of deuterium from hydrogen. He later directed the uranium isotope separation chemistry.

In 1945, once the primary goal of developing a bomb was realized, he took over for Urey as the Columbia division's director and managed the project through to its completion a year later. Crist recalled that he and his colleagues had mixed feelings about the Manhattan Project: They were excited by the science and driven in their work by the war effort, but they felt remorse over the use of atomic bombs in Japan, even though they understood the rationale of saving potentially millions of Japanese and American lives.

Crist became a research director at Union Carbide in Charleston, W.Va., in 1946. At Carbide, he worked on several projects, including a coal hydrogenation effort geared toward using coal instead of natural gas as the raw material base for Carbide's aliphatic chemicals business. In 1959, Crist became director of the new Carbide Research Institute in Tarrytown, N.Y., which conducted basic research for all of Union Carbide's divisions. Crist directed the lab until he retired in 1963 to pursue a goal involving science education.

"There was a growing national concern that science for the liberal arts student was poorly served by university science departments," Crist told C&EN. "I took it as a mission to help liberal arts students become socially responsible and to understand how they might help control the impact of the technological revolution on society and the environment."

Crist returned to Dickinson College as a faculty member, where he supervised student projects in environmental chemistry and taught courses in chemistry and in the history of science. He remained at Dickinson until 1970, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

NOT ONE TO sit idle, Crist returned to his high school alma mater, now Messiah College, a four-year liberal arts college. He started out teaching courses and helping to develop the college's degree program in environmental science. He eventually stopped teaching but continued to do research, which evolved over the years to focus on bioremediation. His studies involved the use of various plants or plant-derived materials to sequester toxic metals from water and soil, and he published nearly 30 papers on the topic. His work at Messiah turned out to last for 34 years, all of which Crist faithfully served for a token salary of $1.00 per year.

In recent years, retinal degeneration left Crist with no vision in his right eye and only minor peripheral vision in his left eye. He also had a pacemaker and wore hearing aids. Yet, until last year, he managed to live alone and work 40-hour weeks in the lab year-round.

Crist continued to do all of his own experimental work and wrote first drafts of research papers. One of his three sons, DeLanson (Lance), a chemistry research professor emeritus at Georgetown University, helped him do literature searches, prepare final manuscripts, and give presentations at scientific meetings for a number of years.

In March 2004, Crist was unable to continue working on a regular schedule. He finished up his last experiment with the help of a research assistant and closed his lab door for the last time. The paper reporting the results of the final work is currently in press.

Crist formally retired from Messiah in April 2004. He wrote his memoirs with the assistance of his son Robert, a literature professor at the University of Athens, in Greece. The book, titled "Listening to Nature: My Century in Science," was published earlier this year.

"To go on living is to go on discovering," Crist wrote. "My primary delight has always been to come in direct contact with life processes in their intricate, amazing mechanisms. I realize that nature is telling me something, so I listen alertly to find the next step."

An emeritus member, Crist joined ACS in 1926.--STEVE RITTER

Other obituaries

John M. Hunt, 86, former head of chemistry at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), died on July 23 following a brief illness.

Hunt was born on Dec. 1, 1918, in Cleveland. He received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Cleveland's Western Reserve University in 1941, a master's degree in petroleum chemistry from Pennsylvania State University in 1943, and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Penn State in 1946. During his doctoral studies, he worked as an assistant in petroleum refining, analyzing gasolines from worldwide refineries.

In 1947, he went to Tulsa to start a chemical group in the geology section of a subsidiary of Standard Oil. He was named a research chemist in 1948, initiating geochemical research at Jersey Production Research in Tulsa. He held various other positions with the firm between 1948 and 1963.

In 1964, Hunt joined the WHOI staff and served as chair of the department of geology and chemistry from 1964 to 1967 and as chair of the department of chemistry from 1967 to 1974. As department chair, he led an expansion of the chemistry department that included diversifying and adding depth for chemical oceanography and marine geochemistry research.

During his career at WHOI, he made a number of cruises, serving as chief scientist on expeditions to the Red Sea in 1966 and the Black Sea in 1969 on Atlantis II and returning to the Black Sea on the Glomar Challenger in 1975. He retired in 1984, when he was named a scientist emeritus.

Beyond his professional pursuits, Hunt was interested in aviation history, particularly World War I fighter planes, and in cartoons and cartooning, keeping an extensive book collection on both of these subjects. At the age of 22, he rode a racing bicycle around Lake Erie with his best friend, a feat accomplished in 10 days. In middle age, he took up distance running, and at the age of 62, he ran the New York City Marathon with his wife, Phyllis Laking Hunt.

His wife, a sister, two sons, and three grandchildren survive him. An emeritus member, he joined ACS in 1941.


Kurt Wolfsberg, 73, died while snorkeling in the Turks & Caicos Islands on July 16. He was vacationing with his children and grandchildren, celebrating 50 years of marriage with his wife, Alice. He was 73.

Wolfsberg was born in Hamburg, Germany. His family fled Nazi Germany the day before Hitler marched on Poland. Upon arrival in the U.S., the family lived for several years in Galveston, Texas. They then moved to St. Louis.

He received a B.S. degree in chemistry from St. Louis University in the Air Force ROTC program. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant and spent two years completing a master's degree in radiochemistry at Washington University, St. Louis. Following his master's degree, he was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, during the Korean War. After leaving the Air Force, he spent the next two years obtaining his Ph.D. in radiochemistry.

Wolfsberg retired from a 32-year career at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1991. He is survived by his wife, a brother, a daughter, two sons, and six grandchildren. An emeritus member, he joined ACS in 1955.

Obituaries are written by Linda Raber. Obituary notices may be sent by e-mail to and should include detailed educational and professional history.


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