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Spedding, Frank Harold

Published onJul 30, 2021
Spedding, Frank Harold

(October 22, 1902 - 1984)

Quick Facts

Frank H. Spedding became the first director of the Ames Laboratory, one of the many national laboratories located throughout the United States. He lead a team of scientists working on uranium extraction for the Manhattan Project.

While sharing basic features with the other laboratories, Spedding’s personal experiences and bold vision made the Ames Laboratory particularly unique. Like other laboratories, the bulk of the Ames Laboratory’s funding comes from the federal government, in particular the Department of Energy, and like many of the other laboratories, an external facility (usually a university or corporation) administers the contract for the facility. For the Ames Laboratory, Iowa State University (ISU)1 holds this contract. However, many more characteristics set the laboratory apart from other national laboratories, most importantly, its unusually relationship with ISU. Rather than located on a distinct and distant site, the Ames Laboratory is completely integrated within the Iowa State campus. There are no fences separating the laboratory from the campus, and the two share buildings and facilities. The laboratory’s scientists use the roads, library, cafeterias, and sewerage of Iowa State University. Perhaps most important, the laboratory and the university personnel link these two institutions in an extraordinary way. Many of the scientists at the Ames Laboratory hold joint appointments in associated departments of the university, providing a stable base of funding for both institutions’ research programs and, thus, an attractive package for recruiting high-quality faculty and staff. The shared labor force (faculty, postdoctoral staff, and students) and facilities dramatically increase the “purchasing power” of both institutions.

Spedding’s educational experiences shaped his priorities and defined the particular nature of the Ames laboratory. Spedding was born on October 22, 1902 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, to Howard L. Spedding, a photographer, and Mary Anne Elizabeth Marshall, the daughter of the mayor of Dummville, Ontario. While Spedding was still a boy the family moved to the United States. He graduated from high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1921 and received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Michigan in 1925 and 1926, respectively. He earned his PhD in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1929. At Berkeley, both during his graduate years and after taking his degree, Spedding used spectroscopic techniques to study the structure and symmetry of atomic and molecular arrangements in materials, particularly the rare earth compounds.2 Following graduation, a series of short-termed, soft-money positions sustained Spedding and his young bride Edith Annie McFarlane, formerly of Victoria, British Columbia. A National Research Council Fellowship allowed him to remain at Berkeley for another two years where his rare earth research continued. This effort rewarded him with the Langmuir Award in 1933, for outstanding work by a chemist under the age of 31. During the 1933-1934 academic term, a Guggenheim Fellowship allowed the Speddings to travel extensively throughout Europe and his professional network grew. After returning to the States, a Baker Fellowship from Cornell University drew Spedding to Cornell University with an opportunity to return to his rare earth research. After two years at Cornell, Spedding tired of the uncertainty of these soft appointments. In 1937, Winfred Coover, the head of the Chemistry Department at Iowa State College (ISC), offered Frank Spedding the position of associate professor with tenure. Though initially disenchanted with the chemistry department’s lack of resources, personnel, and prestige, Spedding’s resourcefulness, collaborative skills, and international cadre of professional contacts allowed his research to succeed and his reputation grew.

In early 1942, Arthur H. Compton recruited Frank Spedding to join the federal project being organized at the University of Chicago—to determine the feasibility of building an atomic bomb. Spedding agreed to organize the chemistry division at the laboratory. However, in the interest of moving the project along as expeditiously as possible, Spedding suggested that work begin on the ISC campus where equipment and talent already existed. He set up a pyramidal organization, with himself at the helm, supervising two associate directors who oversaw eight sections comprising over 90 scientists. There they developed the means to purify “uranium” cheaply and in large quantities for the experiments underway in Chicago, solving a critical bottleneck to the project. By the end of the war, they had produced a total of 200 tons of uranium metal. On December 2, 1942, a successfully controlled chain reaction, that used this metal, confirmed the promise of fission and the potential of an atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project was underway. The federal government recognized this important work with the award of the Army/Navy E flag for excellence in production.

After the war, the US government continued to let contracts to Iowa State to fund research in the laboratory and Spedding set up an administrative apparatus that secured his principal position in its management. In 1945, the Iowa State Board of Education established the Institute of Atomic Research (IAR) to manage the flow of outside resources to Iowa State and appointed Frank Spedding its head it. In 1947, the federal government established the Ames Laboratory as one of its facilities that oversaw atomic energy research in the national interest and named Frank Spedding its Director. Iowa State delegated the responsibility for administering the contract for the Ames Laboratory to the IAR, thus centralizing Spedding’s authority. The character of the Ames Laboratory continued in the spirit that Spedding developed during the war years: it remained on the Iowa State campus, Iowa State faculty and graduate students constituted much of the scientific staff, and Spedding controlled the contracted research program. Its research continued to focus on materials, especially rare earths, with a strong interdisciplinary effort that became the hallmark of the Ames Laboratory. ISC’s policies forced Spedding to retire in 1968, ending his roles of over twenty years as Director of the Institute of Atomic Research, Director of the Ames Laboratory as well as Professor jointly in the departments of chemistry, physics, and metallurgy. Spedding died in 1984 and is interred at the Iowa State University Cemetery.

Spedding’s scholarship received accolades from scientific and academic communities throughout his professional career. His most cherished honors included his election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1952 and his designation as the first Distinguished Professor of Science and Humanities at Iowa State. In addition he received honorary degrees from Drake University, the University of Michigan, and the Case Institute of Technology. Numerous awards included the Nichols Medal of the New York Section of the American Chemical Society, the James Douglas Gold Medal of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum engineers, the Francis J. Clamer Medal of the Franklin Institute, and an honorary membership to the Verein Osterreichischer Chemiker.

Selected Sources

Corbett, John D. “Frank Harold Spedding, 1902-1984.” Biographical Memoirs 80. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2001. (accessed 9 January 2017)

Goldman, Joanne Abel. “Frank Spedding and the Ames Laboratory: The Development of a Science Manager.” The Annals of Iowa 67, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 51-81.

Obituary, New York Times:

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