Harley A. Wilhelm (1900-1995) was a professor of chemistry at Iowa State and co-founder of the Ames Laboratory. But little was known publicly about his work on the Manhattan Project until after his death.
In 2015, his granddaughter Teresa Wilhelm Waldof began researching Wilhelm’s life story, the fruit of which is her new book “Wilhelm’s Way: The Inspiring Story of the Iowa Chemist Who Saved the Manhattan Project.”
Waldof will give an author talk from 7 pm to 9 pm Tuesday at the Ames Public Library, 515 Douglas Ave.
You can attend in person or via Zoom.
The Ames History Museum and Ames Public Library present the event in partnership.
Wilhelm and his team came up with a process for producing pure uranium, which made the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction possible.
Waldof explained that it wasn’t until the late 1980s that she had any inkling about her grandfather’s contributions to science and World War II.
On June 5, 1986, the metallurgical building on the Iowa State campus was renamed Wilhelm Hall.
“Growing up, my grandfather never really talked about his work. He was very humble, and yet he changed world history and no one knew it,” Waldof said. “After he died, we found all the awards on a shelf in the closet.”
In 1942, Wilhelm was approached by his boss (and later Ames Lab co-founder) Frank Spedding, to form a chemical research and development program, known as the Ames Project. Its mission: to discover how to produce uranium for the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the first nuclear weapons (atomic bombs).
Spedding had been recruited by Arthur Compton, a physicist who had won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927 for his 1923 discovery of the Compton effect, which demonstrated the particle nature of electromagnetic radiation.
“Uranium had been discovered 150 years earlier and no one had been able to purify it. There were many entities working on that problem including UC Berkeley, Princeton University, University of Chicago, the US Bureau of Standards, Westinghouse, and others,” Waldof said. “If boron or other elements got in there, it would kill the reaction. So Wilhelm went to work finding a substitute to uranium, but on the side, was working on how to purify uranium and he solved that in six months — on Aug. 3, 1942. He used uranium tetrafluoride and calcium in a vessel that was under high pressure and high heat to get a thermite reaction going and it changed history.”
He was able to produce 20 grams of it, but was told in just a few short months he needed to come up with 12,000 pounds.
“Compton wanted 100 pounds a day of pure uranium by January 1943, then 2,000 pounds a day by March,” she noted. “And Wilhelm did it. September through November 1942 he worked on thermite reactions and got a patent on his bomb — not the A-Bomb, but a bomb.”
He worked out of the Little Ankeny building at ISU. Highly flammable, it had been constructed of corncob wallboard. Due to the confidential nature of the work, employees learned how to put out fires and contain explosions, as the fire department wasn’t allowed in.
“During the war, he decided to sleep in a different bedroom from my grandmother because he talked in his sleep and he didn’t want to accidentally give away any secrets,” Waldof said.
Wilhelm’s children, Lorna, Gretchen, Myrna and Max (Waldof’s father, who is 94 years old) knew their father was working on a project related to the war effort, but did not know the extent of his involvement until many years later when information was declassified.
Came from an unlikely background
Waldof said her grandfather was an unlikely hero in this story due to his impoverished upbringing and obstacles obtaining an education. He was born on a farm near Ellston, Iowa where his parents worked as sharecroppers, and he attended the local (unaccredited) high school. His basketball skills caught the eye of Drake University recruiters. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Drake in 1923 followed by a Ph.D. from ISU. He also served as a basketball coach.
His wife Orpha Lutton Wilhelm, whom he met at Drake, helped him fine-tune his grammar and speaking skills.
As a young man, he helped solve the mystery as to why children in Ankeny were suffering from fluorosis (Colorado brown stain).
“He discovered there was too much naturally occurring fluoride in the water and figured out that when a deeper, new well was dug, going into a different water table, it had a higher level of fluoride,” Waldof explained.
He endured a three-year battle with the Spanish Flu and survived near drowning as a child.
“If he had died, we probably would have invaded Japan and world history would be different,” Waldof said.
He continued to conduct experiments into his late 80s. His legacy also includes helping to create nuclear energy and nuclear medicine.
“It’s a story that’s been overshadowed by the physicists, but without the chemists, the whole thing wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “It’s an inspiring story of leadership, perseverance, ingenuity and operations management.”
She holds a BA in speech communications and an MBA from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Rochester, Minnesota with her family.
For more information, visit www.teresawaldof.com.