Harold Clayton Urey was born 126 years ago on April 29, 1893, in Walkerton. For most he is considered the "father of NASA," and "father of the Atomic Age." He was born the son of teacher, Samuel Clayton Urey, Walkerton Schools Superintendent, and a minister in the Church of the Brethren, Walkerton.
Urey's Mom, Cora Rebecca née Reinoehl, was happily married to his Dad until he passed away in Walkerton when Harold was young. She took the family to her parents in Kendallville where he finished his High School diploma. He studied at Montana State University, Bozeman where he received a Bachelor's degree in zoology in 1917.
After the United States entry into World War I that year, Urey took a wartime job with the Barrett Chemical Company in Philadelphia, to make TNT as a chemical engineer. Later, he moved to the west coast and received his Ph.D. in physical and mathematical chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1923.
After his doctorate, Urey worked under Niels Bohr at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, for a year and then joined Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD. He was appointed Associate Professor of Chemistry at Columbia University, New York in 1929.
He discovered deuterium there, working with Ferdinand Brickwedde, and George Murphy. The team isolated the isotope by fractional distillation of liquid hydrogen. For this discovery, Urey received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1934. He also, maintained a lifelong friendship with Albert Einstein!
During World War II, Urey worked on the separation of fissionable 235U from 238U for the atom bomb as part of the Manhattan project. He advised against using the bomb in Japan and later supported an international ban of nuclear weapons. After the war, he joined the University of Chicago.
There, he developed the famous Miller-Urey experiment together with his graduate student Stanley Miller to find clues on the chemical origin of life. The experiment simulates conditions on the early Earth by passing electric sparks through a mixture of methane, ammonia, hydrogen, and water. Building blocks of living organisms, such as amino acids, were found among the reaction products.
During one dark chapter in American history Harold C. Urey was subpoenaed to testify at the McCarthy "red scare" hearings over his involvement with the State Department Teacher-Student Exchange Program. Urey was strained over discussing WWII Defense projects but, remained innocent. During that time he struck up a friendship with then, congressman John F. Kennedy who later consulted Harold C. Urey for the space race missions, the Moon, and creating the eventual NASA agency.
Urey joined the University of California in 1958, where he remained until his retirement in 1970. He was not only interested in physical chemistry, but also in lunar science and the study of meteorites and of course he maintained his support of the space program. Harold Urey died on January 5, 1981, in La Jolla, CA, USA.
The asteroid (4716) Urey and the lunar impact crater Urey are named in his honor. The Goddard Space Flight Center distinguishes annually with its most prestigious award The Harold C. Urey Prize for excellence in planetary and astronomical sciences.
Words about Urey from composer Phillip Glass with his Musical Journey at University of Chicago
"The University of Chicago was renowned for its faculty members. I remember vividly my freshman course in chemistry. The lecturer was Harold C. Urey, who had won a Nobel Prize in chemistry. He had chosen to teach the first-year chemistry class to maybe 70 or 80 students, and he brought an enthusiasm for his subject that was electrifying. We met at 8 a.m., but there were no sleepyheads in that class. Professor Urey looked exactly like Dr. Van Helsing from the Tod Browning 1931 movie Dracula—the doctor who examines Dracula’s victims and says, “And on the throat, the same two marks.”
"Now, when would a freshman or sophomore kid get to even be in the same room with a Nobel Prize winner, let alone being lectured on the periodic table? I think he must have thought, There must be young people out there who are going to become scientists."
"Professor Urey lectured like an actor, striding back and forth in front of the big blackboard, making incomprehensible marks on the board (I couldn’t figure out what he was doing—I only knew it had to do with the periodic table). His teaching was like a performance. He was a man passionate about his subject, and he couldn’t wait until we could be there at eight in the morning. Scientists on that level are like artists in a way. They are intensely in love with their subject matter, and Urey was one of them. In fact, I don’t remember anything about chemistry. I just went to see his performances."