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The Life and Work of Charles James
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Aside from his scientific accomplishments, he stood out as a decent, warm, human being. While these traits affected the community around him, they also colored his scientific career 5.

Very early in his life in Durham, he got the nickname "King"—"Charles" or "Charlie" disappeared. Being English was part of the reason. Another was that he had the names of the Stuart kings—two were Charles and two were James. There was also his height, at 6 feet 3 inches. But beyond even that, there was his particular kind of leadership.

His Professional Career
In James' professional career, both teaching and research were important. Some people have felt that teaching was his crowning achievement 6. He was very interested in and sympathetic with his students. He could think as they did. Possibly he remembered battling with the same mysteries of chemistry at age 15. In class, he lectured with great clarity. But while in many or most chemistry courses of the time, experiments were demonstrated by the instructor, he pushed his students into the lab and set them to work. Some of them, in fact, were set to work on his own research. When the concluding paper was written and sent to the journal of the American Chemical Society, he insisted that the students' names should be listed before his own. At the graduate level, students were taught the requirements for research, accuracy and successful results. He was kind, but he always demanded perfection. In fact, his students were so well taught that other institutions came to him to find candidates for their own faculty. Afterward, most of these students acquired great distinction in their own careers.

Of course, it was James' own research that won him his greatest respect and recognition. He was able to do extraordinary things at an institution that was just beginning to grow and was not prepared to give him much support. Nor did he expect it.

There was always the need for equipment, and to a degree he was able to make what he needed, glass blowing being one of his accomplishments. There were no grants, teams or research professors, but he created his own teams of enthusiastic students and teaching faculty, who were rewarded through their participation in important research and through his recognition of their accomplishments.

But the main key in his exciting research was his originality. It was a particular quality of his mind. The methods he used in experiments to get to a solution were unique. These came to be used by many other chemists and were called "the James Method."

Charles James
Inside James Hall

In everything, he was very disciplined and focused on his work and endlessly patient. He would spend many years and go through steps a thousand times to get where he wanted to go. After his death, the newsletter The Nucleus summed up the basis of his successful research: "The record of his scientific life is one in which highly detailed, painstaking and exhaustive studies were coupled with brilliancy design and execution and both were influenced by a most comprehensive grasp of the science which he had made his own." 7

The Rare Earths
For James' career, he chose the elements called the rare earths, officially named lanthanides, for his work. The number of rare earths has varied, but 17 seems to be accepted number. If not always rare, they were so similar that they were very difficult to separate, to see them as elements in a pure form, and to discover their properties. Charles Parsons noted that their discovery was "perhaps the most confusing and complex of any of the elements." 8 There was always the feeling that they had no use in the real world, so most chemists ignored them. But the presumed rareness, the mysteries, the difficult of separating them, the errors and the chaotic development of this group as a whole were the very things that drew Charles James. He sought good methods of identification, worked hard to reach purity, and found rational placement by atomic number.

It had taken about 100 years to identify 15 of the 17 elements. But by the time that James came to Durham, only two remained to be identified. And it was not clear that one of them even existed. These two unknowns now attracted many chemists, and Charles James was among them.

However, his main work for more than 20 years was the whole group of Lanthanides, to fill the gaps and bring them into a rational relationship. By the end of his life, the history and pattern of the rare earths and knowledge about them had been transformed. His 60 papers in the Journal of the American Chemical Society were the evidence. It was his greatest work.

Within that framework, there were many new things he discovered that were impressive in themselves. Foremost among his accomplishments was his method to get a separation of the elements. Here he resorted to fractional precipitation and crystallization. This was laborious, often involving five to 10,000 or more repetitive tests to arrive at the correct answer. His originality rested in his application of these techniques to the rare earths with their particular difficulties. His use of bromates and double magnesiumnitrates for fractional crystallization became known as the James Method, which was considered the best until World War II and the Ion Exchange.

Examples of his many discoveries through these methods can be mentioned. One example was James' separation of ytterbium (70) into two fractions: the second one was element 71 (to be mentioned later). Another rare earth was thulium, which was thought to consist of a mixture of thulium I, thulium II, and thulium III. James established the fact that thulium was a single element. His published papers on these things show that, one step at a time, he transformed the knowledge of the rare earths into a rational, intergrated picture.

He was also the major producer of the material rare earths, acquiring vast quantities of the individual elements, and an enormous collection of all them, the most important in the world. These he supplied to laboratories around the world. After his death, the collection went to the federal government but recently was returned to UNH.

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