• by Kirk Gaw

Celebrating Harold C. Urey's Birthday In Walkerton

The man who discovered isotope separation and discovered heavy hydrogen has a birthday coming up! Dr. Harold C. Urey, was born in Walkerton on April 29th 1893 in a house on Ohio St. and Van Buren. He is considered the town's most famous citizen. His Father was the Superintendent of Walkerton Schools and the Principal at Walkerton High School. He is considered the Father of the Atomic Age, and one of the Founder's of NASA. During the "Red Scare of Communism" during the McCarthy era in the 1950's, Dr. Urey's left wing views were portrayed unpopular in what was then, conservative Walkerton.

Urey studied thermodynamics under Gilbert N. Lewis at the University of California. After he received his PhD in 1923, he was awarded a fellowship by the American-Scandinavian Foundation to study at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark. He was a research associate at Johns Hopkins University before becoming an associate professor of Chemistry at Columbia University. In 1931, he began work with the separation of isotopes that resulted in the discovery of deuterium. During World War II, Urey, turned his knowledge of isotope separation to the problem of uranium enrichment. He headed the group located at Columbia University that developed isotope separation using gaseous diffusion. The method was successfully developed, becoming the sole method used in the early post-war period. After the war, Urey became professor of chemistry at the Institute for Nuclear Studies, and later Ryerson professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago.

Urey speculated that the early terrestrial atmosphere was probably composed of ammonia, methane, and hydrogen. One of his Chicago graduate students was Stanley L. Miller, who showed in the Miller–Urey experiment that, if such a mixture were exposed to electric sparks and water, it can interact to produce amino acids, commonly considered the building blocks of life. Work with isotopes of oxygen led to pioneering the new field of paleoclimatic research. In 1958, he accepted a post as a professor at large at the new University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where he helped create the science faculty. He was one of the founding members of UCSD's school of chemistry, which was created in 1960. He became increasingly interested in space science, and when Apollo 11 returned moon rock samples from the moon, Urey examined them at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory. Lunar astronaut Harrison Schmitt said that Urey approached him as a volunteer for a one-way mission to the Moon, stating "I will go, and I don't care if I don't come back."

The John Glenn School Corporation honored Dr. Harold C. Urey by naming the Junior High after him. The Harold C. Urey Middle School is located at Washington St. on the westside of Walkerton. It commands Place Park.

Frieda Urey photographed last year during Indiana Bicentennial festivities at Urey Park in downtown Walkerton. She is the wife of Dr. Urey who lives in California and celebrated there with son, John Urey. - Photo by Terri Buckmaster

There is much history about Dr. Urey who regularly visited Walkerton for special events. He is honored with the most prestigious award at the Goddard Space Flight Center at NASA in the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

On April 29th I ask you to make a toast to Dr. Urey for his contributions to Science and humanity in honor of his birthday in Walkerton!

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