Posted by: Whitney | July 25, 2014

Harry J. Svec: Devoted Chemist and Cyclone

Forty-two years of involvement with Iowa State University is impressive in itself, but add in the fact that those years included work on the Manhattan Project, being a founding editor of a scientific journal, being the namesake of scientific reference material, extensive research and awards for that research, and an ever present bow tie, and those 42 years become even more remarkable. Dr. Henry J. Svec did just that, all while getting married and being father to nine children. He must have had excellent time management skills!

Harry J. Svec, 1975

Harry J. Svec, 1975. RS 13/6/53, box 19, folder 36

Svec was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1918. After graduating magna cum laude from John Carroll University, he went to graduate school at Iowa State College (University) in 1941, where he studied chemistry. During this time, he became the glassblower for the Chemistry Department, creating diffusion pumps and other items for research. Two of these diffusion pumps are included in the collection.

diffpump

Glass mercury diffusion pump made by Svec, 1941. Artifact 2003-203.002

Before long, the US entered World War II, and Svec was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project under Dr. Frank Spedding. Information on the Manhattan Project at Iowa State can be found in previous blog posts here and here. After that project, Svec was appointed to the Ames Laboratory/Institute for Atomic Research and earned his Ph.D. in 1950, at which point he gained faculty status. He served as Chemistry Department faculty until his retirement in 1983, when he was granted Professor Emeritus status.

Over the course of his career, Svec taught classes, conducted and published research, and was actively involved in professional organizations, such as the American Society for Mass Spectrometry. He was a Fellow of what is now the Royal Society of Chemistry, and was a founding editor of the International Journal of Mass Spectrometry and Ion Physics (now the International Journal of Mass Spectrometry). Mass spectrometry was his main area of study, and in fact Svec was an early contributor to the field of laser mass spectrometry. He even built the first mass spectrometers at Iowa State, components of which are included in the artifact collection. Mass spectrometer blueprints are also included in his collection in a map case folder.

add something here

Left: main components of a mass spectrometer, undated; Right: a complete mass spectrometer, undated. RS 13/6/53, box 10, folder 17

After his retirement in 1983, Svec finished writing a history on Iowa State University’s Chemistry Department, which was published by that department in 2006. He also received the American Chemical Society’s Zimmerman Award for Environmental Science in 1984 for his work in developing the resin extraction and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) methods for removing organic pollutants in water. He certainly had a productive career, of which anyone would be proud.

All of this and much more information can be found in his collection, the Harry J. Svec Papers, RS 13/6/53. Be sure to check out the artifacts too, including an early twentieth century Christian Becker Chainomatic two-pan balance not unlike these (top of the page, with dials). Curious about the Ames Laboratory or the Chemistry Department in general? Come see our collections on them! We’ll be happy to help.


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  1. […] the heels of my last post, I’d like to share this photo found on our Flickr […]


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