Skip to main content

Wilhelm, Harley A.

Published onNov 08, 2021
Wilhelm, Harley A.

(August 5, 1900 - October 7, 1995)

Quick Facts

Harley Wilhelm served in the chemistry department during the Manhattan Project and as Associate Director of the Ames Laboratory for nearly thirty years.


From a humble start in rural Elliston, Iowa, Harley Almey Wilhelm became an accomplished scholar; he served as Chemistry Professor at Iowa State, scientist on the Manhattan Project during World War II, and Associate Director of the Ames Laboratory from its creation in 1947 until his retirement.

On August 5, 1900 Bert and Annabelle Glick Wilhelm welcomed their third son in the small southwest Iowan town of Elliston. There, Bert Wilhelm worked a poor tenant farm. Harley began his education at Pumptown Country School, but after two years transferred to the larger, though unaccredited, Elliston Independent School, from which he graduated as the co-valedictorian in 1919. There he excelled both academically and athletically, and both would remain important parts of his life. He played baseball, football, and basketball, and the latter sport would serve him well. When he led his school to victory in the regional finals, he caught the attention of a Drake University coach, who recruited him to play college basketball while attending Drake, thus providing Wilhelm with the financial assistance he needed to continue his education.

At Drake, Wilhelm’s athletic and intellectual abilities blossomed. He played basketball during all four years there and served as Captain of the team during his senior year, when he led Drake to victory as he had in Elliston. Academically, he excelled as well. His outstanding ability in mathematics and the physical sciences surprised many because of his limited exposure to the subjects. Nevertheless he graduated in 1923 with a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics. His personal life apparently thrived as well; Wilhelm married Orpha Lutton the same week he graduated from Drake University.

Over the next four years he held a variety of positions teaching science and coaching athletics in several schools. In the fall of 1927, he accepted a graduate assistantship in chemistry at Iowa State College (ISC, now University) and pursued graduate education. In December 1931, Wilhelm completed his PhD in chemistry on spectrographic analysis of sulphides and continued at Iowa State as a temporary instructor. For the next several years he remained in this capacity and broadened his research interests to include other aspects of metallurgy. In 1940, Iowa State hired Wilhelm as an assistant professor.

Early in 1942, Nobel laureate Arthur H. Compton sought the assistance of Wilhelm’s senior colleague, Frank Spedding, on the secret project that he was organizing in Chicago, which would become a part of the Manhattan Project. Spedding agreed to join the project, but in the interest of time, insisted that he carry out his research on the Iowa State campus where he had already assembled personnel and equipment. Spedding recruited Wilhelm to join the project and on February 21, Wilhelm signed an oath of secrecy and became the Associate Director of the program. While Wilhelm directed the work at Iowa State, Spedding commuted between Chicago and Ames to coordinate the work between the two facilities. At Iowa State, the scientists developed a method of purifying uranium while considerably reducing its cost. This proved critical to the work underway in Chicago and ultimately, the success of the Manhattan project. By the war’s end this group at Iowa State purified two hundred tons of uranium. The United States government recognized this contribution with the award of the Army-Navy E flag, for excellence in production. Wilhelm oversaw the effort to transfer this process, the Ames Process, to the private sector, and the laboratory’s research focus transitioned to the purification and production of thorium and the separation and study of the rare earths.1

The federal contracts that supported this work continued at ISC after World War II ended and to manage these contracts, the Iowa State Board of Education established the Institute of Atomic Research in 1945. The following year, Congress created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to continue to funnel money into atomic research and in the years that followed, the AEC established numerous laboratories to execute this objective. In 1947, they founded the Ames Laboratory upon the foundation of the wartime laboratory located on the Iowa State campus. Spedding became the Director of both the Institute of Atomic Research and the Ames Laboratory and he appointed Wilhelm Associate Director of each.

Much of Wilhelm’s work in this capacity involved outreach. He traveled extensively recruiting students to attend graduate school while they worked at the laboratory. In addition he served on both state and national committees. He was a delegate representing the US State Department to consult on atomic energy issues in Europe and in South America. Locally, Wilhelm sat on the State committee that developed a curriculum to educate students in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools as well as the general adult population about atomic energy.

In addition to this outreach work, Wilhelm maintained an active research program leading one of the two Metallurgy groups of the Ames Laboratory while continuing professorial responsibilities at Iowa State. At this time, ISC did not have a metallurgy department but instead covered this subject within the Department of Chemistry. Wilhelm sought to change this. In 1951, as a preliminary step, he championed the development of a graduate metallurgical program in the Chemistry Department; in 1954, he became the chairman of this program. In 1962, Metallurgy became an independent department—its core faculty plucked from the Department of Chemistry. Neither Spedding nor Wilhelm had to choose department loyalty, they held joint appointments within the departments of chemistry and metallurgy until their retirements. Wilhelm’s research and administrative duties left little time for conventional classroom teaching, however, he did continue to mentor graduate students until his retirement in 1970. Earlier, at the age of 65, ISC policy mandated that he retire from his administrative responsibilities at the Ames Laboratory.

Harley Wilhelm died on October 7, 1995 in the Story City Memorial Hospital. He was survived by his daughters, Lorna Livingston, Gretchen Wilhelm and Myrna Elliott, and his son, Max Wilhelm. His wife Orpha Lutton Wilhelm died previously in 1991.

Numerous accolades recognized Wilhelm’s accomplishments. He received the 1949 Iowa State Alumni Merit Award for advancing human welfare, the 1954 gold Medal of the Iowa Section of the American Chemical Society for his research achievements, the 1959 Drake University Alumni Distinguished Service Award, an honorary LLD degree from Drake University in 1961, the 1962 William Hunt Eisenman Award for advancements in metallurgy, and a Faculty Citation Award in 1967 from Iowa State for his long exceptional career. In 1968 Drake University awarded him the “Double D” award for athletes who significantly contributed to fields other than sports.

Selected Sources

Goldman, Joanne Abel. “National Science in the Nation’s Heartland: The Ames Laboratory and Iowa State University, 192-1965.” Technology and Culture, 41, no. 3 (July 2000):435-459.

Wilhelm, Harley. “Wilhelm Recalls the Early Days,” Ames Lab Changing Scene 6, no. 8 (August 1980): n.p.

Voices of the Manhattan Project, website.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?