Born on 26 March 1932 in Waco, Texas, nuclear chemist James Andrew Harris (left in photo) was the first African American scientist to play a central role in the discovery of new chemical elements. Harris earned his BS in chemistry at Huston–Tillotson College in Austin in 1953. After a stint in the US Army, he struggled to find a job as a black scientist in the southern US. In 1955 he was hired by Tracerlab, a commercial research lab in Richmond, California, and in 1960 he joined the nuclear chemistry division of the University of California’s Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (now Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory). There he was part of the team tasked with producing new heavy elements via atom bombardment. The team produced elements 104 and 105 in 1969 and 1970, respectively. In 1977 Harris was promoted to head of the engineering and technical services division at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, where he remained until his retirement in 1988. Besides his research, Harris also worked at both the grade-school and university level to recruit and support African Americans in the sciences. For this work he received awards from a number of civic and professional organizations, including the Urban League and the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. Harris died in 2000 at age 68. (Photo credit: Digital Photo Archive, Department of Energy, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives)
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James A. Harris
26 March 2018
The nuclear chemist codiscovered heavy elements and worked to get African American students interested in science.
© 2018 American Institute of Physics