The Life and Work of Charles James
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James's Last Years
After the battle over 61 in 1926, James began a study of uranium, refining it by his method. In 1927, the college (by then a university, as of 1923), awarded him an honorary doctorate in science. This was remarkable, since the university did not give such degrees to active faculty. He was very proud of this honor. This was also the year in which James persuaded the university to build a new building for chemistry, which he helped design. Eric Huddleston was the main architect.
In 1928, he obtained a discarded greenhouse from the university and attached it to a new garage (he had never had a car). The greenhouse would house his plant-growing ambitions. And the construction of the important new chemistry building had begun in the fall. A glowing future was ahead.
But he began to feel ill and suffered increasing stomach pain. In December he entered Deaconness Hospital, where he had surgery for cancer. The surgeons realized that nothing could be done. He died on Dec. 10, 1928, at the age of 48. The doctors, perplexed by the nature of his cancer, requested an autopsy. What it revealed the author does not know. But without question his disease seemed to have been the result of his research, a fate suffered by Marie Curie and others before him. He had worked recently on 61 and on uranium. Both element 61 and uranium in all its forms were radioactive. But it is apparent that, while he had worked on 61 for 14 or 15 years, presumably he had never encountered 61 in its radioactive stage. And his contacts with uranium were seemingly too recent to have produced the consuming cancer that he had developed. There is no answer to this mystery. But it is generally accepted that for many years he had been working with radioactive materials, which had fatal consequences.
Fittingly, on the day of his funeral, the ridge pole of the new chemistry building was put up while the bells for the service were ringing. 14 The building was later named for him.
Still, in connection with his life, there was one more remarkable event to include—one that astounded people and found its way into the Boston newspapers. 15 Because James had died in the winter, the frost prevented his burial in the chosen cemetery lot. The reburial took place in April. A day or two later, a visitor found that suddenly a swarm of bees had appeared on the new grave. The bees belonged to Jesse Helper, two miles away. But these same bees had once belonged to Charles James—as recently as the fall of 1928.
There is an old legend on this subject, both English and American, that someone must tell the bees of their master's death or they will fly away (one view says that they will die). The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a famous poem "Telling the Bees." But no one had told the James-Helper bees. They flew away—but they flew two miles straight to the grave of their former owner and master. ~
Editor's note: On Oct. 29, 1999, the American Chemical Society designated the separation of rare earth elements by Charles James a National Historic Chemical Landmark at UNH. The plaque commemorating the event reads:
Beginning in 1906, in a laboratory in Conant Hall, Charles James (1880-1928) devised novel fractional crystallization techniques for separating rare earth elements, which were widely adopted by other chemists. James used his method to separate large amounts of ytterbium, hitherto considered to be a single element, into two elements now known as ytterbium and lutetium. When the simultaneous isolation of lutetium was published in 1907 by Georges Urbain, James made no public claim for his own pioneering work. Despite his retiring nature, James was internationally recognized as an expert in rare earth chemistry. His highly purified rare earth specimens were in demand by research laboratories throughout the world.
(1) H.P. Norris, letter to Mrs. James, May 7, 1929
(2) Mrs. James, scrapbook
(3) Ritzman, letter to Mrs. Charles James, June, 1929
(4) This comment from Sir William Ramsey was frequently quotes Melvin Smith, "Charles James, the man," in the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society, "the Life and work of Charles James, 1860-1928," p. 18.
(5) Letters to Mrs. James, 1929.
(6) B.S.Hopkins, "Charles James the Chemist," The life and work of Charles James, p. 20.
(7) The Nucleus, the newsletter of the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society, reprinted in one version of the Dedication of the Charles James Hall of Chemistry, no page.
(8) Parsons, "Charles James," Dedication.
(9) Clarence J. Murphy, "Charles James, B. Smith Hopkins, and the Tangled Web of Element 61," Bulletin for the History of Chemistry, Volume 31, Number I (2006), pp. 9-18.
(10) Murphy, p. 9
(11) Murphy, pp. 11-13. The Section: "The Papers on Element 61 of Hopkins and James."
(12) Phone conversation with Clarence Murphy, June 16, 2009. A.F. Daggett "Element 61, Alumnus, December, 1947.
(13) Murphy, p. 14.
(14) Alexander Amell
(15) Boston Herald