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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Spedding, Frank Harold
(October 22, 1902–December 15, 1984)

–professor of chemistry, physics, and metallurgy and director of the Ames Laboratory, Iowa State University—was born in Hamilton, Ontario, to Howard Leslie Spedding and Mary Ann Elizabeth (Marshall) Spedding. In 1918 the elder Spedding established his photography business in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Two years later Frank Spedding entered the University of Michigan. In 1925 he earned a B.S. in chemical engineering with a major in metallurgy, and the next year he completed work for his M.S. in analytical chemistry. He subsequently was granted a teaching fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley, where he worked with the well-known chemist Gilbert N. Lewis. At Berkeley, Spedding learned about electronic spectroscopy, especially its use in analyzing absorption spectra, and he became intensely interested in rare-earth elements. He completed his Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1929 just when the Great Depression was descending upon the nation. For the next several years, Spedding lived a nomadic life, moving from one poorly paid position to another. Temporary fellowships enabled him to stay at Berkeley doing research until 1934. His study of rare-earth crystal structure earned him the prestigious Langmuir Prize in 1933, which was awarded to outstanding chemists who were younger than 31.

    Meanwhile, Spedding married Ethel Annie MacFarlane in June 1931. They later had a daughter, Elizabeth. After receiving the Langmuir Prize, Spedding earned a Guggenheim travel grant and traveled to Europe in 1934- 1935, which gave him the opportunity to converse with other prominent chemists, such as Max Born in Germany. Back in the United States, he took another short-term position at Cornell University (1935-1937). Fortunately, in the fall of 1937 a physical chemistry position opened at Iowa State College, and Sped- ding negotiated employment as an associate professor with tenure and head of the physical chemistry section of the Chemistry Department.

    Between 1937 and 1941 Spedding turned his attention to the complex task of separating rare earths from each other. His work was interrupted by World War II and the U.S. government's desire to create a nuclear fission bomb with U-235 if the chain reaction challenge could be solved. The University of Chicago became one of the primary research centers for the Manhattan Project. In February 1942 its director, Arthur H. Compton, selected Spedding to organize the chemistry division of the Chicago laboratory. Spedding recruited some of his colleagues at Iowa State to assist him and spent half of each week in Chicago and the other half in Ames. Assisted by Harley A. Wilhelm and I. B. Johns, and with support from the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, Spedding led the Ames Project in creating a successful process for producing pure uranium ingots that would serve as the inner core for the exponential piles of pressed uranium oxide and graphite that became the basis for the nuclear fission chain reactions. During the war, Spedding's group in Ames produced over two million pounds of pure uranium and eventually turned its process over to industry in 1945. For its excellent work, the Ames Project was awarded the Army-Navy E Flag with four stars.

    After the war ended in 1945, the Institute for Atomic Research was set up at Iowa State College, with Spedding as its director. In 1947 the Atomic Energy Commission officially created the Ames Laboratory, again with Spedding at its head. Research at the laboratory focused on nuclear energy, with an emphasis on pure metals and their properties as a defining feature. Over the next 25 years until his retirement in 1972, Spedding devoted the bulk of his research activities to finding methods of purifying individual rare earths, creating pure metals, and determining the physical and chemical properties of the rare-earth metals, alloys, and compounds. During the late 1950s, the Ames Laboratory developed processes for producing yttrium, which was needed for atomic research.

    Over the years, Spedding published more than 250 scientific articles and obtained 22 patents, which were all turned over to the government. One of his major publications was the volume he edited with Adrian H. Daane, The Rare Earths (1961). He also guided 88 graduate students to the successful completion of the Ph.D. Among his many honors was his election in 1952 to the National Academy of Sciences. An active scholar in his retirement years–he authored over 60 publications from 1972 to 1982–Spedding suffered a stroke early in the fall of 1984 and died in December.
Sources Frank Spedding's large collection of personal papers is housed in Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames. An obituary appeared in the New York Times, 12/17/1984. Other useful biographical essays include John D. Corbett, Frank Harold Sped-ding: October 22, 1902–December 15, 1984 (2001); and Harry J. Svec, "Prologue," in Handbook on the Physics and Chemistry of Rare Earths, vol. 11, Two-hundred Year Impact of Rare Earths on Science, ed. Karl A. Schneidner Jr. and LeRoy Eyring (1988), 3–31. Spedding's work is well described in Joanne Abel Gold-man, "Frank Spedding and the Ames Laboratory: The Development of a Science Manager," Annals of Iowa, forthcoming; and Joanne Abel Goldman, "National Science in the Nation's Heartland: The Ames Laboratory and Iowa State University, 1942–1965," Technology and Culture 41 (2000), 435–59.
Contributor: Edward A. Goedeken

Cite as: Goedeken, Edward A. "Spedding, Frank Harold" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 22 November 2014