From the Manhattan Project to the nuclear age,
Avon native enjoyed front-row seat to history
MONMOUTH, Ill. — When Jack Powell entered Monmouth College in the fall of 1939, the war in Europe seemed very far away. Little did he suspect that less than four years later he would be drafted into the Manhattan Project, which would develop the atomic bomb and ultimately bring an end to World War II.
Powell, a native of Avon, spent his entire career as a chemist at Iowa State University and its famed Ames Laboratory, where he conducted groundbreaking work on the separation of rare-earth elements for use in nuclear research and industrial applications. It was not only a distinguished career, but also an unlikely one.
“I came from a small town, where our high school didn’t even offer chemistry,” Powell told me in 2008. “I had an interest in engineering and physics, but it wasn’t until I took a freshman chemistry course at Monmouth under Professor (William) Haldeman that I started to become fascinated with that subject.”
It was another deficiency at Avon High School that led Powell to Monmouth College in the first place. “There was no football program until my sophomore year, when it was revived under Marvin Kelsey, a Monmouth College graduate,” he said. Kelsey, who also coached Powell in basketball and track, would take his athletes to football games on the Monmouth College campus. It was through Kelsey’s influence that Powell and two of his classmates decided to enroll there.
Like a number of Monmouth College students at the end of the Great Depression, Powell needed a job to pay for college, and he was one of several athletes employed at the Monmouth headquarters of Illinois Bankers Life, through an informal arrangement between athletic director Ivan Cahoon and the president of the company. Shortly after his freshman football season, however, a scandal over the arrangement broke, and in order to keep his job, Powell was forced to drop athletics. It would prove to be a propitious experience.
After having his interest in chemistry sparked by Haldeman, Powell began studying organic chemistry under Professor Garrett Thiessen, and, with more time on his hands since he was no longer playing sports, agreed to become Thiessen’s lab assistant. “Thiessen and I were kindred souls,” Powell said. “We became very close.”
A man of many interests, Thiessen was fascinated by firearms and explosives, and Powell helped him develop demonstrations he could take around and show to civic groups. One of these involved the use of the explosive tetryl to shoot air pellets into a block of wood. “On New Year’s Day in 1942, Thiessen and I were in the main lecture room and he was trying to figure out a way to demonstrate this,” Powell recalled. “He had a short section of a gun barrel with a spark plug in the back of it. I had made up a batch of tetrol and he put a little in the device with some gun cotton. He loaded a .22-caliber bullet and we ducked down under the desk, when it went off with a hell of a bang.
“I can still see Thiessen coming up there looking sheepish,” he said. “It blew the spark plug out of the back and went up and hit the ceiling. For years, Thiessen told a story about that scar in the ceiling.”
Although it was Professor Haldeman who was renowned for pushing his chemistry students to earn graduate degrees, Haldeman did not own a car, so Thiessen drove Powell and other chemistry majors to visit graduate schools at the end of their junior year. “Thiessen had gotten his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa,” Powell said, “but I had my sights on Iowa State, because I wanted to study under Henry Gilman, who wrote the definitive two-volume text on organic chemistry.”
Following America’s entrance into the war, Monmouth College allowed male students to pursue an accelerated course in order to graduate early, so Powell earned his degree in December 1942 and enrolled at Iowa State, where he had been awarded a scholarship. He did not get to work under Gilman, however, but instead got assigned to Ralph Hixon in plant chemistry. With the wartime shortage of meat, Hixon was working on ways to derive amino acids from wheat flour for use in food supplements. Powell became adept in chromatography techniques, as the starch had to be removed from the flour, leaving the gluten, which was then hydrolyzed.
In the spring of 1943, with the draft board nipping at his heels, Powell applied to the Air Force for pilot training, but was turned away because of hearing problems. But his chance to serve his country would soon surface.
Midway through the spring term, Powell was recruited by Dr. Frank Spedding for a new top-secret project involving the purification of uranium. “Back at Monmouth, I had read in a physics journal about Einstein’s special theory of relativity and learned that you could get energy from the fission of uranium,” he said. “We had also heard rumors that Germany was working on a bomb using this technology, so it didn’t take much to deduce why the government might need pure uranium.”
Spedding had been tapped by the Manhattan Project to create a chemistry division for the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, where Enrico Fermi was working to perfect a method to produce an atomic chain reaction. At the same time, he was heading a project at Iowa State to produce two tons of pure metallic uranium to be used in the reactor at Chicago’s Stagg Field. “Every Friday night, Spedding would board a Pullman car in Ames and they’d meet him the next morning in Chicago,” Powell recalled.
To work on the project, all of Spedding’s students had to get FBI clearance, an exhaustive process that took about a month. “I wasn’t allowed to talk about it to anyone, not even my fiancée; not even after she became my wife,” he said.
Uranium ore had long been available in an impure form from the Belgian Congo and the Canadian arctic, but purifying it, which was essential to creating a successful chain reaction, had proved elusive. Spedding devised a method of uranium extraction that cut the cost from $1,000 per pound to less than $10 per pound. The government then asked Spedding to produce all the uranium he could, so he set up a production plant in a tarpaper-covered shed at Iowa State, where coeds formerly practiced archery. Before the war was over, the Ames Project would produce 1,000 tons of pure uranium.
Meanwhile, Powell, whose job involved analyzing the uranium for impurities, traveled to Monmouth in 1944, where he married his college sweetheart, a Monmouth girl named Darlene Dixon. College president James Harper Grier performed the ceremony at the family home, while the wife of music professor Glenn Shaver played the harp.
“I didn’t have a car,” Powell reminisced, “so we went downtown and caught a Trailways bus and went up to Davenport and had our honeymoon, then caught a train to Des Moines and a bus up to Ames. And we lived in a one-room basement apartment for a year. My wife got pregnant and the landlord didn’t allow children. So we moved out into a little house.”
The Manhattan Project required a constant supply of rare-earth metals in gram quantities and larger, and in 1944 Ames researchers developed an ion exchange process that made this possible. Following the successful nuclear chain reaction in Chicago, the project’s focus had switched to Oak Ridge and Powell’s job became making volatile compounds out of uranium for use at the Tennessee laboratory.
After peace was declared in 1945, an Institute for Atomic Research was established at Iowa State, with Spedding as its director. Powell continued his work in optimizing the separation process for earth metals. Particularly successful was the production of pure yttrium.
“This was a very useful metal in many ways,” Powell explained. “The Air Force was trying to build a nuclear bomber, powered with a nuclear reactor. They were going to use yttrium as the metal because it doesn’t absorb neutrons.” Six thousand pounds of the material was produced and sent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The project was abandoned, however, after the U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down in 1960.
With so much yttrium left over, the lighting industry started using the element in fluorescent lights, while companies like Sylvania developed color TV picture tubes utilizing the distinctive red glow it produced. Rare-earth elements have proven useful in a surprising number of products, Powell said. Even the ubiquitous refrigerator magnet was developed from the metal neodymium.
As industry gradually took over the production of rare-earth materials, Powell began devoting half his time to the classroom, teaching inorganic chemistry and freshman chemistry. “I enjoyed it, but I don’t think they enjoyed me,” he quipped. “I made it very intensive and demanding. In later years, however, many students came back and told me how much easier chemistry became for them as a result.”
Each year, 1,400 engineering students entered Iowa State, and they were all required to take a chemistry course. “I would have 280 students in each of two lectures, and we had to develop ways of teaching chemistry quickly,” Powell said. “I had the job of reading and evaluating new textbooks to see which ones covered the material most efficiently, and I developed a one-semester chemistry course they still teach to engineers.”
Following his retirement in 1986, Powell remained busy in both industry and academia. He consulted with the phosphate industry in Florida to extract radioactive elements from fertilizers; he served on an ad hoc government committee on isotope separation; and he traveled to Indonesia, where he taught faculty in Jakarta how to teach inorganic chemistry. He wrote a series of lectures that were translated into Indonesian.
Powell died in 2011, just shy of his 90th birthday.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.