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.


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.

5 thoughts on “Harry J. Svec: Devoted Chemist and Cyclone

  1. Pingback: CyPix: Glass Blowing in the Chemistry Department | Iowa State University Library Special Collections Department Blog

  2. Irene Maas

    I was Harry Svec’s personal secretary at Iowa State Iniversity for 6 years. He was involved in countless projects in chemistry and research projects. He was very involved with his position with the International Journal of Mass Spectrometry and Ion Physics. He was indeed a very devoted family man. Harry had a great sense of humor. He often got teased because I was a rather young, attractive secretary. I loved Harry like a father. It was an honor to work for this gifted man and know his family. I did, indeed, love his bow ties. It was such an honor to work for such an amazing scientist and teacher.

    • It’s so great to hear from someone who worked with him! Judging by what I learned about him in his collection, he was a remarkable man. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Frank J Preston

    I was a postdoctoral fellow at Ames Lab between 1967 and 1969 and Harry Svec was my boss. Our world was in the basement of the old Chemistry building with no visible blue sky. It was, however, an international community with me from University of Glasgow, Scotland and Masahiko Tsuchiya from University of Tokyo at Bunkyo, a bunch of Iowa natives and a few graduate students from far away places like Pennsylvania. With a resident Professor who had been one of the pioneers in Mass Spectrometry we pretty much built our own equipment with the help of a machinist left over from the Manhattan project days and knowledge scrounged from everyone in the Chemistry and Physics department. Everyone was pretty much on their own and Harry encouraged the experience of near failure as a way to see the light. Not everyone could survive but there were lots of people to help if you asked. Not everyone remembers those halcyon days when there was lots of money for real research but at the end of my visit to Ames after the Moon program ended monies dried up big time and thousand of PhD’s like myself were suddenly unemployed. Harry found me a position back in the UK in an industrial company and several years later tried to convince me ( without success) to consider a University position in Kansas. Much later on the occasion of his retirement in Ames we met again and in a straightforward manner said I was the most manipulative of his Post Docs and no doubt would continue to do well in Management. I am now in my 75th year and cherish the time I spent in Ames with Harry–he taught me a lot by not saying much and letting me nearly fail.

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