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Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Biography
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Restrictions
  • Related Materials
  • Processing Information

  • Descriptive Summary

    Languages: English
    Contributing Institution: Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego
    9500 Gilman Drive
    La Jolla 92093-0175
    Title: Harold Clayton Urey Papers
    Identifier/Call Number: MSS 0044
    Physical Description: 90.3 Linear feet (157 archives boxes, 34 flat boxes, 5 card file boxes, 1 carton, and 9 art bin items)
    Date (inclusive): 1924-1981 (bulk 1958-1978)
    Abstract: Papers of Harold Clayton Urey, Nobel Prize-winning chemist who contributed to significant advances in the fields of physical chemistry, geochemistry, lunar science, and astrochemistry. He received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1934 for his discovery of deuterium, and made key scientific contributions to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. The papers span the years 1929 to 1981 and contain significant correspondence with Urey's fellow scientists, including Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Edward Teller.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    Papers of Harold Clayton Urey, Nobel Prize-winning chemist who contributed to significant advances in the fields of physical chemistry, geochemistry, lunar science, and astrochemistry. He received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1934 for his discovery of deuterium, and made key scientific contributions to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. The papers span the years 1929 to 1981 and contain significant correspondence with Urey's fellow scientists, including Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Edward Teller, though the bulk of correspondence and writings date from the period 1958 to 1978, Urey's years at UC San Diego. The papers also contain a comprehensive collection of Urey's writings, including publications and speeches, and records of Urey's efforts in support of nuclear arms control and global cooperation. The collection does not contain significant materials relating to Urey's wartime work on the atomic bomb, records of his activities at Johns Hopkins and Columbia Universities, or documentation of his personal life.


    Harold Clayton Urey was a scientist of considerable scope whose discovery of deuterium helped him win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1934. Urey also made fundamental contributions to the production of the atomic bomb through his development of the isotope separation processes for the Manhattan Project. In the period following World War II, Urey played an active part in advocating nuclear arms control, in promoting space exploration and in the development of the newly created campus of the University of California, San Diego.
    Born in Walkerton, Indiana, on April 29, 1893, Harold Urey was the son of Samuel Clayton and Cora Rebecca (Reinohl) Urey. His early schooling took place in rural Indiana. After graduating from high school he taught in country schools in Indiana and Montana for three years. In 1914 he entered Montana State University where he majored in zoology and minored in chemistry. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1917 and worked as an industrial chemist in Philadelphia until the end of World War I. He then returned to Montana as an instructor in the department of chemistry, where he remained for two years before pursuing a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley.
    At Berkeley Urey studied thermodynamics and worked with Gilbert N. Lewis. Urey's doctoral research dealt with the rotational contributions to the heat capacities and entropies of gases, a subject not well understood at the time. He was able to form calculations which led directly to the present methods of calculating thermodynamic functions from spectroscopic data.
    In 1923 Urey attended the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen. There he studied under Niels Bohr, who was conducting seminal work in the theory of atomic structure. During this period Urey became involved in the international development of atomic and molecular physical science, and he made the acquaintance of prominent scientists of the time, including Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli and Georg von Hevesy. Also in Europe Urey met Albert Einstein, who became a life-long friend.
    Dr. Urey returned to the United States in 1924, and for the next five years he served as Associate in Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University. From 1929 to 1934 he held the position of Associate Professor of Chemistry at Columbia University. His research during these years was principally devoted to experimental and theoretical work in spectroscopy and quantum mechanics. At this time he collaborated with A.E. Ruark in writing Atoms, Molecules and Quanta, one of the earliest books on quantum mechanics. This work eventually became one of the standard texts on the subject.
    On a visit to Seattle, Dr. Urey met Frieda Daum, a bacteriologist working in a doctor's office. Ms. Daum's sister had been a friend of Urey's at Montana. Married in 1926, Frieda and Harold Urey had four children: Gertrude Elizabeth, Frieda Rebecca, Mary Alice, and John Clayton.
    In 1931 Dr. Urey announced that he, together with George M. Murphy and Ferdinand G. Brickwedde, had discovered the existence of heavy water, in which the molecules consist of an atom of oxygen and two atoms of heavy hydrogen or deuterium. The identification of deuterium has been called one of the foremost achievements of modern science and has had a significant effect on research in physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. As the discoverer of this isotope, Urey was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1934. His Nobel Prize address, delivered on February 14, 1935, was entitled, "Some Thermodynamic Properties of Hydrogen and Deuterium."
    Urey became the first editor of the Journal of Chemical Physics in 1933. The American Institute of Physics published this journal in response to the developing interest in sub-atomic and molecular spectroscopy and structure. Urey remained editor until 1941, establishing the journal as a leader in the newly created field of chemical physics.
    For the next decade, Dr. Urey occupied himself with the experimental and theoretical aspects of isotopic chemistry, and he soon became the leading authority on the subject. In 1934 he was appointed to the position of Professor of Chemistry at Columbia University, and from 1939 to 1942 he was the executive officer of the Chemistry Department at Columbia. Urey's scientific work became increasingly concerned with the separation of isotopes. In 1940 the United States government recruited him to serve as director of the program, established at Columbia, for separation of uranium isotopes and deuterium oxide production.
    During World War II, Dr. Urey applied his work in uranium isotope separation to the development of the atomic bomb. The U.S. Army assumed responsibility for atomic weapons development -- eventually called the Manhattan Project -- and General Leslie Groves served as overall director of the effort. Dr. Urey was appointed to the position of Director of War Research for the Special Alloy Materials (SAM) Laboratories at Columbia, where he worked on the uranium separation problem. He also served as one of three program chiefs in the Manhattan Project. Although awarded the Congressional Medal of Merit for his contributions, Urey's concern for the destructive consequences of atomic weapons, and his aversion to secret work, prompted him to leave the project.
    In response to the U.S. use of atomic bombs against Japan, Dr. Urey joined Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, and other scientists to form the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists. This organization dedicated itself to enunciating the ethical and moral problems involved in the use of atomic weapons. Urey also joined with physicist Leo Szilard to oppose the U.S. military's administration of atomic power and to advocate limitations in the use of the atomic bomb.
    In 1945 Urey joined the faculty of the University of Chicago and contributed his efforts to the establishment of the Institute of Nuclear Studies, together with Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Joseph Mayer, Maria Goeppert Mayer, and others. At Chicago, Urey focused his attention on geochemistry and the problems of the cosmos. His work on the measurement of the paleotemperatures of ancient oceans is considered one of the great developments of the earth sciences. This work involved a wide scope of disciplines ranging from Urey's early biological interests to his studies of isotopic fractionation and the history of the earth. While at Chicago, Urey wrote The Planets: Their Origin and Development, in which he constructed the first systematic and detailed chronology of the origin of the earth, the moon, the meteorites, and the solar system.
    Urey participated in Operation Crossroads in 1946. This was a major atomic bomb test carried out by the U.S. government at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. As a scientific observer, Urey joined other prominent scientists, including Roger Revelle, future director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
    In 1952 the trials of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell attracted Dr. Urey's attention. The Rosenbergs, accused of atomic espionage and given a highly publicized and controversial trial, were eventually sentenced to death. Sobell, tried as a co-conspirator, was given a long prison sentence. These cases became causes celebres during in the Postwar era. Reading the trial documents, Dr. Urey seriously questioned whether the Rosenbergs and Sobell had received justice from the U.S. courts. He publicly expressed his concern, urging clemency in letters to President Truman, the trial judge and the New York Times. Urey's efforts brought him a flood of mail, some critical, some hateful, some favorable. Among the favorable responses was a letter from Albert Einstein, who wrote to Urey: "Your intervention in the Rosenberg case has been one of my most heartening experiences in the human sphere." This letter is filed with Einstein correspondence, box 29 of the papers.
    In 1958 Urey accepted a position at the University of California's Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. Scripps director Roger Revelle was engaged in establishing a general campus of the University in La Jolla, soon to become the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Revelle had urged Urey to take the Scripps post, and Urey provided valuable assistance in developing the new campus. Many of Urey's Chicago colleagues also moved to UCSD, including Maria Mayer and Joseph Mayer. Leo Szilard came to La Jolla as a fellow of the newly established Salk Institute.
    At UCSD Urey formed the nucleus of the chemistry program, which later become a leading center in the field of cosmochemistry. As Professor of Chemistry-at-Large, he continued to teach and conduct active research on the campus. His studies extended over a broad range of interests, including the geophysics of the solid earth, geochemistry, the chronology of meteorites and the solar system, and the origin of meteorites. In 1966 the University of California Board of Regents voted to name UCSD's first academic building (formerly "Building B") "Harold and Frieda Urey Hall" in honor of both Dr. Urey and his wife Frieda. In 1970 Harold Urey was honored with a newly created title: University Professor. He became a Professor Emeritus in 1972.
    Continuing his efforts on behalf of nuclear arms control, Urey became a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group with 2,300 members including seven Nobel laureates. In 1975 the organization petitioned President Gerald Ford to decrease the production of nuclear power plants. Urey himself was concerned with the safety of nuclear power and the need for a national plan to dispose of nuclear wastes. He feared that the global expansion of nuclear generating facilities could cause the spread of nuclear weapons.
    Urey took an active interest in the United States space program, particularly the Ranger and Apollo moon missions. He chaired the University of California's Statewide Advisory Committee on Space Science from 1959 to 1961. Associated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), he served as consultant to the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board and was a member of the Planetology Committee. He personally analyzed samples of moon rock obtained by the moon missions.
    Urey received numerous honors in addition to the Nobel Prize. He was awarded more than 20 honorary doctorates, over a dozen medals, and was a member or fellow of nearly 30 societies and academies. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the National Medal of Science. Urey's bibliography of scientific publications exceeds 200 titles.
    Harold Urey died in his La Jolla home in 1981.

    Publication Rights

    Publication rights are held by the creator of the collection.

    Preferred Citation

    Harold Clayton Urey Papers, MSS 44. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired 1982, 2014.


    Letters of recommendation and evaluations are restricted until 2031 in accordance with federal and state laws. Original audiovisual materials are restricted, and user copies may be requested. A selection of artifacts, such as awards and medals, are restricted and permission to consult these items is required from the director of Special Collections & Archives.

    Related Materials

    Researchers interested in Urey's Columbia University and Manhattan Project work should contact the National Archives and Records Administration or the U.S. Department of Energy. Manhattan Project records relating to Urey can be found in the National Archives' Military Records Branch, Record Group 77, file 201, "Urey, Harold C.," with additional letters found in the "general decimal series."

    Processing Information

    When originally received by the UC San Diego Library, the file folders in the Urey papers were organized in several arbitrary alphabetical sequences. Names of individuals were interfiled with titles of subjects and titles of written works. The bulk of the correspondence was filed together as miscellany. When the collection was reorganized in 1989, much of the correspondence was segregated into the series CORRESPONDENCE. Cross-reference sheets were provided when letters were removed from subject files.

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    Nuclear nonproliferation
    Nuclear arms control
    Moon -- Photographs from space
    Photographic prints -- 20th century
    Chemistry, Physical and theoretical
    Revelle, Roger, 1909-1991 -- Correspondence
    McElroy, William David, 1917-1999 -- Correspondence
    Kerr, Clark, 1911-2003 -- Correspondence
    Oppenheimer, J. Robert, 1904-1967 -- Correspondence
    Rosenberg, Ethel, 1915-1953 -- Archives
    Mayer, Joseph Edward, 1904- -- Correspondence
    Rosenberg, Julius, 1918-1953 -- Archives
    Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists -- Archives
    Union of Concerned Scientists -- Archives
    University of California, San Diego -- History -- Archives
    Teller, Edward, 1908-2003 -- Correspondence
    Urey, Harold Clayton, 1893-1981 -- Archives
    Marcuse, Herbert, 1898-1979 -- Correspondence
    University of California, San Diego. Department of Chemistry -- Archives
    Pauling, Linus, 1901-1994 -- Correspondence
    University of California, San Diego -- Faculty -- Archives
    Szilard, Leo -- Correspondence
    Einstein, Albert, 1879-1955 -- Correspondence
    Bohr, Niels, 1885-1962 -- Correspondence
    Franck, James, 1882-1964 -- Correspondence
    Fermi, Enrico, 1901-1954 -- Correspondence
    Lunar Orbiter (Artificial satellite) -- Archives