(April 26, 1919 – March 3, 1998)
Velmer A. Fassel made lasting contributions to the field of spectroscopic chemistry and to the Iowa State Chemistry Department through his inventions and teaching.
Velmer Fassel was born in Frohna, Missouri on April 26, 1919. He received a BA in chemistry from Southeast Missouri State College in 1941 and enrolled that year in graduate school at Iowa State College (ISC, now Iowa State University).
The next year, he became part of the group at Iowa State that discovered a way to purify uranium for the Manhattan Project and was assigned to supervise the analytical spectroscopy laboratory. After the war, the research unit that had done the wartime research became the Ames Laboratory of the Atomic Energy Commission (later a part of the Department of Energy). The first mission of the Ames Laboratory was to develop methods to purify the rare earths and to study their physical and chemical properties. These elements are major fission products in reactors, but little was then known of their properties. The complexity of their spectra presented a formidable problem for their spectroscopic analysis while the similarities of their physical/chemical properties made most other analytical methods impractical. Fassel, with his expertise in spectroscopy, remained active with the Laboratory throughout his career.
In 1947, Fassel was awarded a PhD in physical chemistry and appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry; he was promoted to Associate Professor in 1951, Professor in 1956 and Distinguished Professor in 1976. He remained at Ames until his retirement.
Fassel developed spectroscopic methods and published several papers on the analysis of rare earth mixtures starting in 1948 and continuing through the 1950s. The spectroscopy laboratory during that time routinely analyzed rare earth mixtures and other materials in support of research at the Ames Laboratory and the Chemistry Department. The fact that service analyses were done in the same laboratory that carried out graduate research meant that his students had an understanding of the practical side of analytical chemistry to go with the theory they learned in their course work. Fassel and his students and staff worked with a diversity of spectroscopic methods during this period and later, including infrared, X-ray, and UV-visfluorescence, flame emission and absorption and others, in addition to emission spectroscopy.
During the 1950s, Fassel turned his attention to the spectroscopic determination of the gases oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen in metals. The methods he published were adopted by many other laboratories. His most widely influential research on inductively coupled plasma (ICP) began in the early 1960s and continued until he retired. This converts a sample into atoms and atomic ions which are then identified by either optical spectroscopy or mass spectroscopy (MS) and are used in chemical analysis. The ICP enables the rapid and accurate determination of up to 80 elements in metals, alloys and liquids, such as oil, serum, blood and soils. This determination is accurate down to levels of a few parts per trillion or less. In 1982, this analysis tool identified the poison in the famous Tylenol™ pain medicine crime that caused seven deaths.
ICP spectroscopy works more effectively and consistently than any other method for elemental analysis and has become the standard technique. The ICP was commercialized by several instrument companies and spectrometers designed specifically for use with the ICP are found throughout the world in thousands of laboratories. Many analytical chemists equate emission spectroscopy with this light source. The pioneering work on ICP-MS was also done in Fassel’s laboratory.
Fassel served as Deputy Director of the Ames Laboratory from 1969 to 1983 when he was found to have Parkinson’s disease. For the next five years, he divided his time between Ames and his retirement home in San Diego and continued to consult on inductively coupled plasma (ICP). Before leaving ISU, Fassel began a lecture program, the Fassel Lectures in Analytical Chemistry, which is held every fall at ISU. The program recruits top researchers in various fields of chemistry to give lectures, visit research groups and talk to students. Fassel himself donated nearly half the funding for the program.
Fassel and his colleagues published 225 scientific papers from 1948 until 1996 and they were awarded ten U.S. patents. A reading of his list of publications shows that many co-authors contributed to research on diverse topics. He was much in demand as a speaker and his resume lists 238 invited lectures. He served on numerous U.S. and international scientific committees and task forces, he edited Spectrochimica Acta from 1952 to 1965, and he served on the editorial boards of other important journals. His resume lists fifteen awards he called “major”, as well as 16 “other” honors that were given to him by 1986. At least six important awards were presented later.
A former student said, “Fassel provided an example of the combination of a scientist and a public servant. He was always oriented toward solving some problem,"
Fassel’s accomplishments as an educator were also outstanding. Thirty-nine scientists earned PhD degrees and twenty-eight earned MS degrees under his tutelage. Those who worked with him as students or as colleagues gained a thorough grounding in chemistry and physics. Fassel could be tolerant with his students, but he required that they undertake a rigorous course of studies and that their research achieve the highest standards. He insisted on numerous revisions of manuscripts to bring them up to his high principles. The delay in getting manuscripts out to journals was not liked by the students, but his attention to detail is what maintained the quality that marked his publications.
His many awards included Honorary Membership in the Society for Applied Spectroscopy (1982), the Society for Applied Spectroscopy Gold Medal (New York Section, 1964), the Lester Strock Award (New England Section, 1986), the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh Award (1969), the Chicago Section Award (1967) the Fisher Award, the Chemical Instruction Award, the Spectrochemical Analysis Award, the Chemical Instrumentation Award, the Iowa Award from the American Chemical Society and the Governor's Science Medal.
Professor Velmer A. Fassel died at age 71 at his San Diego home on March 3, 1998, after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. He is interred with his wife, Mary Katschke Fassel (1920-2010), in the Iowa State University Cemetery.
The admiration, respect, and devotion Fassel earned were evidenced by the remarkable speed with which the news of his death spread by word of mouth at the annual Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy and by electronic messages. His influence will remain far into the future.
Marvin Margoshes, in Society for Applied Spectroscopy’s Applied Spectroscopy Journal, Volume 52, Number 5, 1998, obtained from docslide.com
Iowa State Daily, “Chemistry professor remembered for contributions to ISU and chemistry field” by Michelle Murken (Daily Staff Writer), Apr. 1, 1998
ISU Chemistry Department history website: https://link.las.iastate.edu/2015/05/28/then-and-now-chemistry/