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Podcast: There’s more to James Harris’s story

A Smithsonian curator expands the record on this “wicked amazing” Black nuclear chemist in this bonus episode of Stereo Chemistry

by Kerri Jansen
April 27, 2022


Black and white photo showing James Harris in the lab holding a target material as Albert Ghiorso looks on.
Credit: Steve Gerber/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory © 2010 The Regents of the University of California, through the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
James Harris (left) and Albert Ghiorso with a target Harris made for experiments to create element 105. Photograph taken April 21, 1970.
Credit: C&EN

Chemists may know James Harris as the first Black scientist to be credited with codiscovering an element. In fact, we referenced this in a previous episode of Stereo Chemistry about making superheavy elements. But beyond this memorable factoid, details about this accomplished nuclear chemist are scarce, and most sources repeat the same superficial information. Kristen Frederick-Frost, curator of modern science at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, wants to change that. After discovering that the museum's database lacked material on Harris, she scoured archival records and sought out former colleagues, friends, and family members to fill in details of his life and career. In this bonus episode of Stereo Chemistry, host Kerri Jansen and special guest Darryl Boyd join Frederick-Frost to explore James Harris’s story beyond the discoveries that made him famous. And we even get an unexpected peek into his lab, courtesy of the US National Archives.

Boyd, a polymer chemist, previously researched James Harris while writing a short article for C&EN’s “Black Chemists You Should Know About.”

Listen to our April 2019 Stereo Chemistry episode “If You Want to Change the Element, You Have to Change the Nucleus

Read the paper Kristen Frederick-Frost wrote about her James Harris research

Do you have an artifact or information related to James Harris to share with curator Kristen Frederick-Frost? Contact her via the Smithsonian website.

Read the Ebony magazine profile about James Harris

Read about James Harris’s experiments with element 104

Subscribe to Stereo Chemistry now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

The following is an edited transcript of the episode. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Kerri Jansen: You’re listening to Stereo Chemistry. I’m Kerri Jansen. Today I’m excited to revisit a Stereo Chemistry story from a couple years ago because we have some new information to share.

Back in 2019, we explored what it takes to make a superheavy element—that’s an element with a large number of protons in its nucleus. And as part of that story, we talked about nuclear chemist James A. Harris, who was the first Black scientist to codiscover an element. He was actually involved in the discovery of 2 elements—104 and 105, now named rutherfordium and dubnium.

Here’s the thing, though—beyond that piece of science trivia, it’s really hard to find good information about James Harris’s life and career, which is surprising, considering the critical role he played in achieving a scientific milestone. And our special guest today knows all too well how little information is out there about James Harris. Welcome to the show, Dr. Darryl Boyd.

Darryl Boyd: Greetings!

Kerri: Darryl wrote a short article about James Harris for C&EN; it’s one of a group of profiles about Black chemists you should know about. And I think, Darryl, that you encountered the same problem I did when I was trying to research James Harris back in 2019.

Darryl Boyd: Yes, yes. So James Harris, he has a wonderful backstory, but if you read about it or try to find information about it, you may not know so much about the wonderful work that he did as a chemist. Unfortunately, most of the articles that have been written about him, they leave out a lot of very important details. The thing that you find out mostly is that he was the first Black chemist to be associated with the discovery of an element on the periodic table, which is wonderful, and definitely that should be highlighted. However, you don’t really hear about the chemistry and the effort and the work that went into discovering the elements that he worked on and the actual work that he did that was key to those discoveries. You’ll find out that he loved to play golf, might find out what colleges and institutions he went to for education and the labs that he worked in, but outside of that, you don’t really know what he did and why it was so significant to the discovery of those elements. And that’s unfortunate.

Kerri: And it turns out, we are not the only people to have run into this issue. Several months after C&EN published that podcast episode about superheavy elements, I got a call from Kristen Frederick-Frost, who is the curator of modern science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History here in Washington, DC. And she was trying to track down details about James Harris after she looked at the easily accessible sources and found them lacking.

Using her incredible skills of curatorship, Kristen was actually able to fill in parts of James Harris’s story that are missing from the typical narrative. And we recently got to sit down with Kristen to talk about what she learned.

Darryl Boyd: Yeah I was honored to be a part of the discussion, and I’m really impressed with what Kristen was able to discover about James Harris, his background, and specifically about the chemistry that he did.

Kerri: We’ll play that interview for you in a moment. But Darryl, let’s quickly first go through some background about a few things that folks are going to hear in that conversation.

Darryl Boyd: Right, so first of all, let’s talk about the work that made James Harris famous. In the late 1960s, he worked with a team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in order to make element 104. And shortly after element 104, there was element 105, and he worked on that team as well.

Kerri: That team was led by Albert Ghiorso—that’s a name you’ll hear throughout the interview.

Darryl Boyd: Yeah, so, James Harris’s job was to prepare highly pure samples of material—in the world of chemistry, we call those targets. And he prepared those for Berkeley Lab’s Heavy Ion Linear Accelerator.

Kerri: Also known as the HILAC.

Darryl Boyd: Right, right. The team used the HILAC to bombard the target materials with nuclei from other atoms to try to get the incoming nuclei and the target nuclei to fuse and forge a new element. The targets had to be really pure to maximize the chances of the right nuclei fusing. So Harris performed multiple difficult chemical separations to purify the target materials. And he was really, really good at this. In fact, Ghiorso once noted that Harris’s target was “the best ever made for heavy element research.”

Kerri: And so considering the skill that went into making these things, it’s surprising that the chemistry part of the element discovery seems to have been lost over time. Today, we think of those elemental discoveries as being primarily a triumph of physics, rather than chemistry.

Darryl Boyd: That’s correct, and that may be in part because of a decades-long controversy around who should get credit for first discovering the new elements. There was the Berkeley team that Harris was a part of, but there was also a research team in Russia, and both teams claimed to have discovered the elements first. That dispute tended to focus on the physical verification methods for each team’s discovery. And that focus on the physical verification methods essentially pushed the chemical experiments to the sidelines.

Kerri: So in this bonus episode, we’ll shine a light on aspects of James Harris’s life and career that are left out of the typical narrative. We’ll hear from Kristen about how his earlier work in elemental analysis helped prepare him for the job that made him famous, and how his mission continued into probing the chemical nature of element 104. We’ll pull back the curtain on what may have motivated a surprising career shift. And we’ll even get an unexpected peek into his lab, courtesy of the US National Archives.

Darryl Boyd: Yeah, I’m so glad that she was able to uncover these details and a lot of the sleuthing that she did to find out all the information. I honestly just think that anyone listening to this podcast will thoroughly enjoy what they hear about James Harris. And I also hope—and I think Kristin hopes, too—that through her efforts and this podcast that many more people will become aware of who James Harris is, why the work he did was significant, and also learn the details of the work that he did, the effort that went into it, and why it was so, so critical to the discovery of those new elements, the specific work that he did.

Kerri: What you’ll hear next is an edited recording of our interview with Kristen Frederick-Frost at the National Museum of American History.

Kerri (in interview): Thank you, Kristen, for having us here today. We’re really excited to talk about James Harris. How did you first get interested in James Harris’s story?

Kristen Frederick-Frost: I think I saw a Twitter post about him. And I went to look at our collections database to see what kind of awesome stuff we had related to James Harris. And I didn’t find anything. And so I thought, that didn’t sound right. And I started searching a little bit more. And when I went online, I was kind of saddened by the narrative that just keeps on getting repeated over and over and over again, and I thought we could do better.

Darryl Boyd: I actually had a similar experience where there were a lot of short articles, like on some company websites, typically posted during Black History Month. And they weren’t very long. And it was difficult to find a lot of specific information on what he did, and especially what he did after the early 1970s. The most informative article I found was in Ebony magazine. That was a pretty expansive article in the sense that it did not just focus on the science, it talked about his personal life, his children, his love for golf, and then that he did some outreach and things of that nature. So it was much broader than what you typically find on the web. So it was difficult to find information on him. And there should be much more written about him.

Kerri: And we are going to definitely talk about some of the things that you found through the course of your research. But before we get to that, I wanted to talk a little bit more about, you know, big picture. Why are you as, you know, as a historian, interested in James Harris’s story, what is the significance of being able to fill in some of these details that were apparently absent from the easily available information?

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Well, I mean, for sure, for me, you know, thinking about what 104—and 105 a little bit less so—but 104 stands for is more about this like, moment where they didn’t really know what was going on with the periodic table. And that’s a pretty exciting moment to capture. And it’s also this really special moment where the relationship of chemistry and then verifying elements starts changing a little bit. And more of a physical kind of test, to figure out whether or not you have what you think you have come into play, more physics techniques. And so there’s this interesting overlap. And since Jim Harris was the only chemist on the team, going to his story is just like tapping into this amazingly useful part of the narrative.

Because if you look at the controversy of this particular element, the chemistry part of the story really gets buried. I didn’t even see anywhere mentioned that they tried a chemistry experiment with 104. And they did! And it’s described, there’s a publication on it, you know, and that is totally hard to find. And so he is that entrée to the chemistry part of the story. That’s why he’s exciting to me.


Kerri: So when we spoke earlier, a couple of years ago now, you had asked me if I had any knowledge of what James Harris’s day-to-day chemistry work would have been, like, what he would have actually been doing, and I didn’t. Why is that kind of specific information important to the larger story?

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Well, you know, I think it’s important because it again gives you that entrance into the story, the chemistry part, which has been obscured over time. And then I mean, this might sound weird, but it kind of just started making me a little mad. Like, he’s remembered more, because he was Black and was part of this discovery of the elements when he’s, like, a wicked amazing scientist, and I wanted to see that part of him really brought to the forefront. And so that’s, that was really what spurred me on.

Kerri: I mean, you identify that there’s this information hole in relation to James Harris. As a curator, where do you start to try to address that?

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Well, I really wanted to find objects related to his research. So my first place was Berkeley Lab. And I contacted the archivists there. And they were incredibly helpful. We looked at some of the objects that they had squirreled away, and there was only one that was directly related, and they were very kind to sign that over to us.

Darryl Boyd: Wow.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: So it’s a tiny little plastic champagne cup. And it has the people who discovered element 104. Actually, I think it’s for 105. But it has the discoverers around the bottom of it. And it’s a little design that Albert Ghiorso attached to the bottom. And the more I learned about the lab, and the way things went down there, it definitely seems like a little party memento is definitely appropriate. But yeah, that was, that was basically the only thing that they had in the archives there.

And so then I decided to try to contact his family. I did a search and I found one of his daughters and the only thing I could find was an address that was associated with her. And so I actually wrote a snail mail letter, sent it off. And amazingly, she wrote back to me. I was like, ‘I don’t know,’ when I put the stamp on that, if anything would come of it. And so I had a wonderful conversation with his daughter, Hilda. And she definitely helped kind of get me into more information by putting me in touch with his best friend, Benjamin Pope. And I was able to talk to him on several occasions and email back and forth. And Mr. Pope actually worked at Berkeley Lab too. So I was able to get not just information on Harris, but also on kind of what it was like there. And he had a very interesting role at Berkeley Lab.

Kerri: After doing some of your research, you published a paper in Journal of Chemical Education, outlining some of the things that you found. I did want to talk a little bit more about what you found out about other work, other scientific work that he did, because, you know, his involvement in the discovery of elements 104 and 105, that didn’t come out of nowhere. And you were able to fill in some of those details about what he was doing before and then immediately after those seminal papers.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Yeah so he was part of the beta spectroscopy group when he first came to Berkeley Lab. And there’s not too much information that I’ve been able to fill in for that time. But I do know that he was involved in basically working on some gamma detectors and activation analysis, and specifically looking for impurities in different samples. And that to me was like, woah, clearly that has an influence on his later work. And then later when he transitions into the heavy isotope production group, it’s clear that he’s helping produce those targets, even before the ones that he’s known for, right. And so he was working under Robert Latimer, I believe that’s how you pronounce his name and then, he learned how to make these targets. And so that didn’t, it just didn’t like, appear out of nowhere. And then he leads that group and has multiple assistants helping him.

Kerri: And then afterwards, he was doing some more of that really important chemistry with element 104. Right?

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Yes, yeah. So that was something that I saw mentioned that they did do this experiment. And so I kind of wanted to dig a little bit more into that. And I found this one conference proceeding that talked about it, in addition to a publication. It was just supposed to be the same thing. But when I started digging through that conference proceeding, it was clear that it wasn’t quite the same. Because as you know, you go to a conference, you present a paper, you get input, things change by the time you publish, it’s a lot different, a lot more streamlined than what was going on there. So a lot of times for me conference proceedings is about as close as you can get to me looking at the raw information, the notebooks and the like. So I jumped at getting that.

Kerri: So this was after element 104 has been announced. And James Harris is leading the charge to try to do some analysis on element 104, on whatever they can scrape together of element 104 to learn more about where it should go on the periodic table?

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Yeah, I think it was Robert Silva at Oak Ridge was the nominal head of that. But yeah, so I started digging into it. And it looks like this paper was presented by Albert Ghiorso. And it’s the first aqueous chemistry of element 104. And so the reason why I got excited about this is I’m reading here and Ghiorso is talking about what was involved in this experiment. And as I go forward in this, it says, “When you see the movie, I think you will appreciate some of the difficulties.” And I was like, hold the phone, there’s a movie?” And I got so excited. So then, I immediately wrote to some archivists at NARA, the National Archives Records Administration. I said, “Help! Find these things!” And I also wrote to the archivist at Berkeley Labs. And they actually, after a lot of work, we have found the record groups.

Darryl Boyd: Oh wow.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: The records that we think these movies were part of.

Darryl Boyd: Wow.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: And so then the pandemic.

Darryl Boyd: Oh no!

Kristen Frederick-Frost: And they are right now . . . most of the materials are kind of stuck in sort of a holding facility.

Darryl Boyd: Oh.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: But right before the pandemic they were able to send one box to NARA II branch here in Maryland. And so I was able to see James Harris move, on video.

Darryl Boyd: Oh nice, nice.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: And it’s, it’s the material they put together for the press release, I believe for 104.

Darryl Boyd: That’s awesome. I thought you’re gonna say that the footage was destroyed in the Sony fire.

Kerri: Pretty incredible. And as you were telling me earlier, if I’m remembering correctly, it’s no small feat to actually get this footage into a place where you can watch it on your computer.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Yeah, so I just have to give huge props to the archivists at NARA. They are amazing. And they got this material, they have to first digitize it, because you never know. It’s old, like . . .

Darryl Boyd: Fall apart.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Yeah, this could be the last time it’s watched. Right. And so they had to first digitize it for me and then they sent it. And I have to give them so much credit because I have been bothering them for over two years, and they’re still not, like, just sending my email to the trash, which I’m so thankful for. But yeah, so I can show you what we’ve found so far.

Darryl Boyd: Oh my gosh.

[typing noises]

Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory © The Regents of the University of California, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory/Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration
In this Berkeley Lab video, recently digitized by the US National Archives and Records Administration, nuclear chemist James Harris and colleagues demonstrate aspects of their experiments to create superheavy elements.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: OK. So that’s Albert Ghiorso in the laboratory there, it’s I believe in the cave at the end of the HILAC. And that is the vertical wheel that shuffled the products from the actual bombardment to the detectors. And there he is. Holding up a target.

Darryl Boyd: Wow. Wow. Nice.

Kerri: That’s one of the targets?

Kristen Frederick-Frost: That’s one of the targets.

Kerri: That little tiny round thing? I thought they were bigger for some reason.


Kristen Frederick-Frost: They didn’t have much to work with. And he’s putting it in a little petri dish, and somebody’s little hand comes out of the glove box. And it switches to video of Albert Ghiorso.

Kerri: And Seaborg?

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Yep, Glenn Seaborg. Looking at the experiment.

Albert Ghiorso (archival footage): But with the modern-day techniques, and the very sophisticated methods of looking at the fingerprints of these atoms, one can identify without question just a few atoms at a time, and it’s a little bit better than when we used to find the lighter elements, Glenn. The experiment is very complicated, takes quite a few people. I’d like to introduce to you my colleagues in this experiment. First, Dr. Matti Nurmia, formerly from Helsinki, Finland, who has been involved chiefly in the physics of the experiment. And Jim Harris, who has been responsible for making mostly the chemical phases. The target is extremely radioactive and it’s important that it be put in a very tiny area and suitable for this experiment.

Glenn Seaborg (archival footage): Very special kind of chemistry.

Albert Ghiorso (archival footage): This is Pirkko Eskola, who’s coming from also from Helsinki, Finland. [audio fades out]

Darryl Boyd: Wow, that is impressive. It’s very impressive.

Photo of Darryl Boyd and Kristen Frederick-Frost watching archival video on a laptop.
Credit: Kerri Jansen/C&EN
Darryl Boyd (left) and Kristen Frederick-Frost watch archival video of James Harris.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: One of my favorite things is to go back and look at him smiling. He’s getting, quote, “introduced,” end quote, to Seaborg. I just think it’s funny because he’s, it seems like he’s almost laughing. And they all are incredibly uncomfortable in the video. So I just wanted to . . . [rewinding video] . . . you see he’s cracking up. And I think one of the things that struck me about that is because when I was talking to Benjamin Pope, he would say they’d be like hanging out in the office together, Glenn Seaborg would come by, you know, and that it was a very collegial environment. You know, it was just clear that it was a group of people that really collaborated. And so this part where they’re fake introducing, you know, they’re all kind of cracking up, and they’re all uncomfortable, and it’s lovely. I don’t know.

Kerri: And so this is what you were saying that little party cup was an apt representation of the lab environment, the object that you collected?

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Yeah, it’s, um . . . one of the people I talked to involved in this experiment, one of the Finnish researchers, they said that there was two types of punch that they would make, the HILAC punch, and then the super HILAC punch. And if you had the super HILAC punch, you’d have to sit down for a little bit. So yeah, I was excited to collect that cup.

But yeah, I mean, the thing that kills me is like the entire experiment of them basically doing this in less than a minute is supposed to be on film somewhere.

Darryl Boyd: Oh really?

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Ohh. That’s the one I gotta get to.

Darryl Boyd: You know, what’s interesting is that all this time, no one’s seen it really. It’s just been sitting somewhere. That’s just stunning. That is really stunning. The foresight for them to have actually recorded it, I think is impressive, especially at the time . . . like now everybody has a recording device in their back pocket on their phones. But at that time, I’m sure it was a lot of heavy lifting to do. So the foresight to do it, as well as the amount of effort in preparation to get it done. That speaks a lot about the team and the group and the significance of what they were doing, because they knew it was that big of a deal. A lot of times scientific discoveries aren’t significant at the time that they happen, they become significant later on. But in this instance, here, they knew at the time, what they were working on was going to be a big deal. And once they got it, they knew it was a big deal. And so it makes sense that they would actually record it. But it’s shocking to me that it went underground for this long. And that’s just stunning.

The other thing that’s stunning about watching it is that Glenn Seaborg is such a big deal in chemistry. Just to see somebody interacting with him at all is a big deal. And in this case, James Harris, to see him like you know, just very summarily shaking his hand and being around him. That’s, you know, to me, that’s impressive. You know, people like Enrico Fermi and, and Glenn Seaborg. They are huge figures, particularly when you start talking about nuclear chemistry. And so to see him on camera, along with somebody who’s obscured, has been obscured historically, and we don’t know much about like James Harris, and for him to be, you know, the praises being sung about James Harris in the presence of somebody that significant, I think speaks volumes to the significance of the work that James Harris was actually doing. And why we probably should know way more about him and the work that he did, than we do.

Kerri: This is blowing my mind a little bit because I’ve seen photos that I now realize were taken on this day.

Darryl Boyd: Probably on the same day, yeah I was thinking the same thing.

Kerri: All wearing the same clothes. I had no idea there was video taken as well. What I want to know is do you think that what he’s doing there is actually chemistry or is he doing the classic like hold the thing up and look at it for the camera?

Darryl Boyd: Probably hold it and look for a camera as my suspicion but if they actually ran the experiment or recorded that you probably see it all and then that you know that will be amazing. Very much impressive.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Yeah, you’re gonna hear a squeal across DC if they ever can find that box.

Darryl Boyd: I wonder if he knew that it wasn’t going to be seen for like 50 years. Maybe he thought it was just in his back pocket or in the back of his mind, never thought about it again. And the other members of the team, like no one’s gonna see this footage for, you know, decades. It’s just, it’s mind blowing.

Kerri: So we’ve talked a little bit more about what you’re able to learn about some of the details of James Harris’s career, beyond, you know, the big discoveries. I also want to talk a little bit more about the personal side of James Harris. And specifically, I was really interested to learn about this kind of nonlinear path that he took into chemistry in the first place.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Oh, well, I just think it’s interesting that he went into college thinking he was going to be a musician and came out a chemist. That’s definitely a nonlinear path. And it just seems like kind of a really interesting person, that he used all of that together. So while he’s at the lab, he’s part of groups, you know, that meet up and play music occasionally. And it was quite a treat to be invited to, you know, listen to these, like, informal jam sessions. And so of course, that’s going to get him into different, different social situations, and who knows what was said at that, you know, you get this exchange of ideas, you know, it all links up. So all these, like, things that don’t seem to make sense. Probably why nobody’s focusing on him playing the French horn, you know, in these articles, but it is linked.

The big surprise to me was that he transitioned into work in the Equal Employment Office at Berkeley Lab.

Kerri: He decides to stop doing research.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Yeah. So that was a big question mark there, like, what happened? And then shortly after that, he makes another transition, becoming an administrator. You know, that seemed kind of interesting to me. Like, why?

And certainly, I think that’s where sort of pulling back and looking at what was going on with us as a country and as a world is helpful. And we definitely had a big change in how we’re doing energy research. And I think both of us as federal employees can understand how politics has a big role and what does and does not get funded and where research does and does not go.

Also, an energy crisis was pretty epic at the time. So, you know, like, if you’re gonna have energy funding going towards something, you know, superheavy elements take an enormous amount of work and you’re not putting that into your gas tank. Right. So, it’s hard to think about how these things could be useful and make that case. And the funding really dried up, funding stream for this. That didn’t work out so well for a lot of people at Berkeley Lab. And there was a lot of changes that happened as a result.


But, you know, one of the things that surprised me about Harris is that he definitely was reading what was going on well, and he could retool himself, it seems like pretty drastically, to go in different areas and be of service to Berkeley Labs in different ways. So that was interesting. And unexpected.

Darryl Boyd: I think something that underlies your prior two points is the negative impact that war can have on something that might seem to be unrelated, like chemistry, right. Something as ancillary in the general public’s mind, like who’s worried about chemistry at that point?

So fast forward a couple of years, you see somebody who has recognized, we’re not going to have funding anymore. Why? Because of a war, the Vietnam War, and it’s having an impact actually on the laboratory. And we see this even today. I hear whispers of like funding cycles, well, yeah, the government’s not gonna be funding this or that anymore, because this is happening, right? This kind of wars, this is the technology that they think they need, so this is gonna be the focus. You do hear those things now. And so in the case of James Harris, he was able to see that coming. And because he saw that coming, apparently, at least, it looks like he moved on to something else, where he . . . who knows if that was always his passion or not, or if it was something he always desired to do, and maybe just didn’t have the, you know, was also still very much interested in being in the laboratory. And when he saw that maybe the laboratory part was no longer going to be viable, for personal reasons then moved on to something else that maybe he always wanted to do anyhow. Who knows? But in any case, there’s no question in my mind that the impact came from something that most people might see as unrelated, which was war.

Kerri: So I wanted to talk a little bit more about what you were able to find related to his work in the Equal Employment Office. That’s where he worked with Ben Pope, right? So what kinds of things was he doing there?

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Well, when I talked to Mr. Pope, it sounded like the two of them were very interested in basically getting out there and really increasing the stream of women and minority candidates to come to Berkeley Lab. And so they went out and visited various universities and schools, they worked with HBCUs to create programs to get people to come to Berkeley Lab. Basically, really sounds like they beat the pavement pretty hard to really do a lot of traveling and increase the awareness that Berkeley Lab was actively trying to bring women and minorities on-site and benefit from all the different work that they could do.

Kerri: And then you mentioned later he becomes an administrator, do you have any sense of what that role would have been like?

Kristen Frederick-Frost: It gets definitely a little bit more clouded at that point. I can find like a square of him on an org chart. I think he was the oh, goodness, let me look it up. Just gonna . . . yeah, Assistant to the Division Head of Facilities Management and Technical Services. So I’m showing you a nice little org chart. And I’ve circled where he is, kind of like just the third tier down. And there’s a whole lot of squares underneath that.

And so I think also, that kind of comes to his retirement. At first, I did the math. And I was like, I think he’s in his 50s when he retired. What? You know, what happened there? And that was, again, this, it sounds like what happened at Berkeley Labs was they needed to, with the reduced funding, it sounds like what was going on is they had to kind of reduce these high earners. And so they’re offered enticements for early retirement. And it sounds like he jumped on that and got something like a little trailer or something like that of a home and toured all around the country. He and his wife, he convinced his wife to retire early, and they had a blast.

Darryl Boyd: Wow.

Kerri: Sounds lovely.

Darryl Boyd: Yeah.

Kerri: And it seems certainly an impactful career after the discovery that made him famous, even though he was not, you know, in the lab for too much longer after that point.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Yeah.

Kerri: So we’ve talked a little bit about now the work that James Harris did before and after, you know, the big discoveries. I guess I’m also curious, so you’ve had a chance to read the paper?

Darryl Boyd: Yeah, right.

Kerri: Is there anything in there that especially stood out to you?

Darryl Boyd: I think the focus on the chemistry is really important. The fact that it’s easy to tell a kind of a high-level version, almost a caricatured version of who James Harris was, or what was significant about what he did, without really paying attention to all the other beautiful aspects of who he was and what he did. And so that definitely, I think, was a great approach to his story.

It also is not lost on me that not everybody believed he actually did much. I saw at least one paragraph you put in there, there was somebody said they didn’t think he had much to do with the actual work. And I can say, as a African American scientist, as a Black chemist, that that happens often, with Black people and minorities in general, when they’re part of something that’s really major, it’s like their contributions tend to be discredited. People don’t necessarily think that they did so much. It becomes like a . . . they got credit because we were wanting to employ more African Americans. Like what? No. It takes even the short versions of the story of James Harris ought to be an indication that he was actually doing work in the lab. And not only was he doing work in a lab, but his work was absolutely critical to the success of the project.

James Harris had a skill and ability that was rare. And therefore not only was he a part of the team, but he was a critical and crucial part of the team. Also, you don’t become the head of some group of scientists like that for no reason. There’s just so many reasons why a comment like that is so incorrect and off base. Even if you just thought about it for like a second. It makes no sense why would he even be credited at all. So we do see that often. And I like in the modern era that we’re seeing such a push to truly credit people for the work that they do, credit them for the work that they do, and also highlight the significance of the work that they have done. And I think in this era, we are moving more in that direction, we should continue moving more in that direction, because that’s the only right thing to do. But that also did catch my attention in the article. And it doesn’t surprise me that some people would say that they didn’t think he wasn’t part of much, but also the fact that there’s not a lot of information out there doesn’t help. Right. So the more information we put out there, the more video like this, ought to make it plain to everyone. Yes, this guy did a lot of work. He was critical and crucial to the success of the discovery of these elements.

Also, the fact that you point out in your article that it wasn’t out of the blue, he had been doing purification science before. And so he already had a skill set that lent itself to actually purifying targets, that helped to lead to the discovery. So it’s not like he was just put on the project out of the blue. So he can stamp and say that there was an African American on the project. No, he had a skill set that had and for years he had been working up and improving upon. And then he gets to the point where now that skill set is absolutely necessary for the success of a project. And so the backstory really does matter. The broader story really does matter in telling the more complete story.

Kerri: And, Darryl, I’m curious, because I think of the three of us, you might have the most chemistry experience.

Darryl Boyd: Going out on a limb there.


Kerri: When you’re seeing these descriptions of James Harris’s work. And, for example, I think in the Ebony article it is, it refers to “22 separation methods” that he used to create the targets that were used in the element research. I’m curious if that’s any clearer to you.

Darryl Boyd: It probably is, but at the level of depth at which he was actually doing it and people who are actually nuclear chemists, because that’s not my background, my background is in inorganic chemistry and in polymer chemistry. My understanding is when you say 22 processes to purify something, that’s a lot of work, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. So for the point that you were making, the amount of effort and the specific details are very important to the story, even though they aren’t very well outlined in most of the literature that you find out about James Harris.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Well I still haven’t found out what the 22 separation techniques are; I’ve tried very, very hard. It’s tantalizing.

Kerri: What are some other unanswered questions that you’re, you’re still hoping to, you know, be able to fill in some more pieces on.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Oh, there’s so many. I was really hoping to find his personnel file. You know, as federal employees, that’s something that should exist on us. For some reason, they can’t find his. That’s definitely, I think, a gold mine of information that’s yet to be found.

His notebooks, I’m sure all of those are, again, at the National Archives. I suspect, strongly suspect, not just notebooks, but video and other assets of that nature that came from the lab that are already deposited into our records system. So it’s about getting eyes on and getting access to those. That stuff really needs to be done. And hopefully, by people that know more than me, which is the reason why I chose the publication venue I did, was we need chemists to look at this material, because, you know, I definitely have my limitations, many of them. That’s to be done, for sure.

But I think also filling in some of those personal stories. I would love to get interviews with some of his brothers in the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. It sounds like he was part of a very active chapter. It was a major part of his life. And I’d like to fill that in. There’s so much more work to be done to fill out stories and all these connected stories to him. You know, the more people on that the better.

Kerri: You mentioned the importance of having chemists involved in expanding this research, as well. And in your paper in Journal of Chemical Education, you aimed parts of that at educators, you know, motivating educators to involve, you know, students in trying to expand this work and trying to uncover more about James Harris, and other you know, individuals like him, where there may not be a lot of information readily available. Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to target educators in your paper?

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Well, I think it’s a pretty powerful in to something that’s big and monolithic and not easy to understand, like, you know, these experiments happened at a scale, talking about like, both physical scale, money scale, like all of it, just mind blowing. And so to have the opportunity to approach that whole project from a very personal story, I think, is extremely valuable. Because you have a reason to engage, and to make that somewhat approachable. And I think it’s a great way to engage with the chemistry and the physics, honestly, and to see how they’re intertwined.

I learned so much in the process of doing this research, and I learn a lot, you know, as I go forward. I just thought it would be amazing to not only encourage other people to explore that, but also, again, to get people who actually know what they’re doing, looking at it. Somebody that doesn’t have to sit down with one chemistry paper and be like, OK, I gotta block out the week. Yeah, that would be great.

Darryl Boyd: Yeah.

Kerri: Now you have done work in educational settings. Right?

Darryl Boyd: Absolutely.

Kerri: So what are your thoughts about, you know, the role of this kind of work in an educational setting?

Darryl Boyd: I think by extension it’s in line with what James Harris was already doing himself; he was doing outreach. He was definitely, from all that I have read, he was definitely working in the community to try to inspire youths, minority youths to take interest in chemistry and in science. And so education is critical, as I think we could all agree. And with an article like this, targeting educators makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. One, you can learn more information from the people who actually maybe work in the field, no question. But also you can inspire people. His story is very inspiring. It’s inspiring on a lot of levels. One thing about it that’s inspiring is the fact that he was not mono-dimensional, he was not simply a nuclear chemist. As I would say, most scientists are not like that; there are some people who are in the lab, and that’s pretty much all they ever do. But there’s plenty of us who have multifaceted parts of our life that are not minor, but actually are significant enough to us to play a role in who we are.

So I think targeting the educators with an article that is so informative, and so expansive, is very critical for inspirational purposes to everyone, not just young people, but certainly young people. Because when you read that you think like, OK, I can do more than just be an in-the-lab scientist, I can be an in-the-lab scientist, be very invested in it, and be incredibly successful, in fact, make groundbreaking discoveries. And at the same time, I can do many other things and have success in those other areas as well. So I think that’s really important.

Kerri: We talked a little bit about this object that you collected. Are there other things that are still out there that you’re interested in finding and potentially bringing into the collection?

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Oh, yes. Yes. I want to find more, anything to do with James Harris. I am very interested in doing so. It’s hard, for him, especially, someone who worked at a government lab on something that was gigantic. You know, you can’t collect the HILAC. And, you know, most of the stuff that he made was highly radioactive. What am I going to do with that? You know, I would love to have gotten . . . I’ve seen a picture in his office, he had a huge periodic table on the wall, you know, like things like that would have been really nice to sort of collect. There’s evidently a baseball card-type thing that was made of him, I’ve seen that.

Darryl Boyd: Yeah. Yes, I read that.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Oh, I really, really, really want that.

Darryl Boyd: Yeah.

Kerri: What was this baseball card?

Darryl Boyd: He was included, I think in a packet of like, Black discoverers or inventors or famous people and he had a card made of him. That’s what I understand from what I had read also. Yeah.

Kerri: OK, so like given out to like students.

Darryl Boyd: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, like a baseball card with your favorite scientist on there or your favorite athlete or something like that who happened to be Black. So yeah, I’d read that.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Yeah and so I’m still actively pursuing things, but it takes time and really a lot of eyes out there looking at what they have. And it’s surprising what people have squirreled away in their desks and attic. So, if anybody finds something, I’m more than happy to pounce on it at this point.

Kerri: So if someone does have an object that, you know, is tied to James Harris, how would they go about getting in touch with you?

Kristen Frederick-Frost: Oh, they just email me. I’m pretty accessible. Yeah.

Kerri: Well, thank you so much for having us. And sharing all of this, you know, information that you’ve learned. And thanks, Darryl, as well for joining us for this episode, bonus episode. Any final thoughts from either of you before we wrap up?

Darryl Boyd: If I can make a final thought, I think the contributions of James Harris are very, very important for people to study. So I’m glad that you’ve done a lot of digging, a lot more digging than I was able to do and get more and more information out. And it’s not lost on me that often someone like James Harris, a Black man, African American man who did significant work in the field of science, was part of a team that made a major discovery, their contributions are often obscured and then maybe glossed over by some of the other things they did. So he did do outreach. And so that becomes like the predominant storyline for James Harris.


I say that because I know from my own self, that’s something I’ve considered a lot. I say, a lot of times when we talk about African American scientists, whether in chemistry or physics or elsewhere, we talk about the outreach that they do. Because often that task does fall to us to reach out to our communities, because it’s like, no one else is going to do it, we’ll do it for ourselves. Same thing with women; we see often women, their contributions are overlooked or glossed over, but we’ll talk about the fact that they inspired a group of women, right. So it’s not lost on me that that seems to have happened with James Harris as well. So it’s important for us to tell a more complete and more full story. And so that’s why I appreciate the article that you wrote, because it does give a much more comprehensive understanding of who he was, what he did, the significance of what he did, and then the effort that went into it and the actual nuts and bolts science and chemistry that went into it and why that was important. And so it’s important for us to tell more complete, more honest stories about people that we revere. And I think it’s worthwhile to do more digging even on those that we know. Because a lot of times what we know is very superficial.

Kristen Frederick-Frost: I can’t top that.

Kerri: For more information about James Harris, check our show notes on C&EN’s website. We’ve got that long-lost video from Berkeley Lab up there so you can watch it also, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. And we’ve also linked to a bunch of the resources that were mentioned in this episode, including Kristen’s paper, that article in Ebony magazine, and the paper where James Harris and his colleagues described their chemical experiments on element 104.

If you have information or an artifact connected to James Harris that you want to share, you can easily contact Kristen via the Smithsonian’s website. And you can contact Stereo Chemistry by emailing

Stereo Chemistry is the official podcast of Chemical & Engineering News. C&EN is an independent news outlet published by the American Chemical Society. Thanks for listening.


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