For day 13 of our Black History Month celebration, we recognize: James Andrew Harris!
James Andrew Harris was a nuclear chemist, the first African American to participate in the identification of a new element, and the co-discoverer of elements 104 and 105.
Born on March 26, 1932, in Waco, Texas, Harris shared a natural gift in chemistry. In 1953, Harris graduated from Huston-Tillotson College with a Bachelor’s of Science in chemistry.
After earning his degree and serving in the Army, Harris faced adversity when it came to finding a job. During the Jim Crow era, Harris experienced a great deal of prejudice and discrimination as a black scientist. Some employers were doubtful and skeptical of Harris applying for a job as a chemist as opposed to a janitor.
Despite the racism and adversity, Harris landed a job at Tracerlab in 1955. Following his position at Tracerlab, Harris accepted a position at the University of California’s Department of Energy’s Lawrence Radiation Lab. In 1975, Harris received a Master’s in Public Administration from the university and was later appointed as Head of the Engineering and Technical Services Division at the lab.
Working under the Nuclear Chemistry Division, Harris was responsible for purifying, preparing, and bombarding atomic target materials in an effort to create new elements, a highly difficult process. For his skillfulness and steadiness in purifying and preparing the elements, Harris was widely praised.
In the process of bombarding atomic target materials, Harris and his team discovered two new elements, element 104, Rutherfordium, and 105, Hahnium. After discovering these elements, Harris and his team continued to search for other elements that would be beneficial to energy production, medicine, and more.
On December 12, 2000, Harris passed away. Not only was Harris a co-discoverer of two new elements, but he was also a mentor to many African American scientists and engineers. He often worked with elementary schools students in underrepresented communities to encourage their involvement in science. For his service and dedication, Harris was awarded by many civic and professional organizations.