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African American Black Firsts

James A. Harris: The “hip, scientific soul brother”

James Andrew Harris was a nuclear chemist. He was the first African American scientist to play a key role in identifying two previously unknown chemical elements—104, in 1969, and 105, in 1970. Harris was once described by a writer for Ebony magazine as a “hip, scientific soul brother.”

james a harris

Harris was raised by his mother after his parents divorced. He moved to California to attend high school, but returned to Texas to study science at Huston-Tillotson College in Austin. After earning a bachelor degree in chemistry in 1953, he served in the U.S. army as a sergeant from 1953 to 1955. After his discharge he struggled to find a job as an African-American scientist in the southern US during the Jim Crow era.

Harris once said that he could write a book about his job-hunting experiences. Receptionists for some potential employers were incredulous that he was applying for a job in chemistry rather than as a janitor. A number of interviewers couldn’t hide their shock when they met him. But he persisted in his search and secured employment in 1955, as a radio chemist at Tracerlab, a commercial research laboratory in Richmond, California. Five years later he accepted a position in the Nuclear Chemistry Division at the Lawrence Radiation Lab at the University of California.

In 1975, he received a masters degree in public administration from California State University and in 1977, he was appointed Head of the Engineering and Technical Services Division of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. In the course of several years Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory produced a number of new elements by bombarding atomic targets in an accelerator. Harris’s responsibility was to purify and prepare the atomic target materials that would be bombarded with carbon, nitrogen, or other atoms in an effort to create new elements. The purification process was extremely difficult, and Harris was highly regarded for his meticulous work in producing targets of superb quality.

The research team discovered and identified new element 104 for just a few seconds in 1969 and Element 105 was produced in 1970. Harris’s work was key to the process. Harris had to devise the target that was to be bombarded and he prepared an extremely pure target. His colleagues said it was the best target ever produced by their lab. Harris described it to an interviewer as ”a very thin, small dot.”

Unlike most of his colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, James Harris did not pursue a Ph.D. degree. However, his alma mater (Houston-Tillotson) conferred an honorary doctorate upon him in 1973, predominantly due to his work in the co-discovery of elements 104 and 105.

Harris devoted much of his free time to recruiting and supporting young African American scientists and engineers, often visiting universities in other states. He also worked with elementary-school students, particularly in underrepresented communities, to encourage their interest in science. These efforts brought him many awards from civic and professional organizations, including the Urban League and the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers.

Married and the father of five children, Harris was devoted to his family and balanced his professional work with other pastimes, including golf, travel, and community activities.

Harris died in 2000 at age 68.


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