Pioneering NRL Physicist had Tuskegee Ties


02/23/2012 10:00 EST - 20-12r
Contact: Daniel Parry, (202) 767-2541


The U.S. Navy's interest in superconductivity began shortly after World War II when programs at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) began exploring the science of superconducting materials for the Navy's technology programs.

In 1948, NRL hired Dr. Henry to build a high magnetic field laboratory and purchased one of the first commercially sold Collins helium liquefaction facilities. Dr. Warren Henry performing research at cryogenic temperatures in NRL's high magnetic field facility. (U.S. Naval Research Laboratory)

Around the same time, a highly inspired and motivated postdoctoral scientist, Dr. Warren Elliot Henry, had been seeking to continue research in cryogenics and magnetism.

Growing up on a peanut farm in Evergreen, Ala., where George Washington Carver did much of his research on alternative crops, Henry had already been exposed to the intrigue and complexities of science, and it didn't end there. Born to Nelson and Mattie McDanel Henry, both graduates of the Tuskegee Institute and teachers at a local school, Henry would often have to spend hours in the back of the classroom while his parents worked, and before age four had taught himself to read.

Attending the Lomax-Hannon Church School, Henry never received any formal science education until the 12th grade when he left home to attend the Alabama State Normal School — a residential school with a curriculum designed to train elementary school teachers. Seeing no science courses on his schedule, Henry's mother gave him a chemistry text from college and encouraged him to enroll in a science course. Henry consumed the course content, reading the entire text in two weeks and so impressing his chemistry teacher he was invited to stay as a laboratory assistant at the school.

Taking on the dual responsibilities to work and attend school, Henry enrolled to his parents alma mater, Tuskegee Institute, where he took liberal arts courses in English, modern languages, mathematics, physics, and chemistry, spending his summers on the school's experimental farm conducting research. Graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree, Henry had accumulated enough credits for three majors: mathematics, French and English.

After graduating, Henry took a position as a teacher and principal at a segregated school in rural Atmore, Ala. In his third year at Atmore, Henry received a scholarship to attend a summer program at Atlanta University to further extend his education in science. Again excelling in his studies, Henry received a tuition scholarship to attend graduate school at Atlanta, and again, continued to work to pay for school — teaching at nearby Spelman College, the historically black college for women and at Morehouse College, the historically black college for men in Atlanta, Ga.

Receiving a Master of Science degree in organic chemistry in 1937, Henry continued to pursue his interest in research and toured several laboratories in cities throughout the northeast. The following summer, Henry decided to enroll in an advanced chemistry course at the University of Chicago where again, after witnessing his vigor for science and knowledge, was asked by his professor if he had thought about pursuing a doctoral degree. That fall, through the encouragement of his professor and after gathering enough funding for tuition, Henry enrolled at the university as a doctorate student after being the only applicant in a class of five to pass both the German and French qualifying examinations. Continuing to work several jobs to fund his studies, Henry earned a doctorate in physical chemistry in 1941.

Henry said of the experience, "The University of Chicago was, for me, an academic paradise. There were giants in chemistry, physics and mathematics." Among those were, T.F. Young, James Franck, Arthur Holly Compton, Morris Selig Kharasch and Rudolph Carnap to name a few. While a student, Henry invented a device that measured minute temperature changes resulting from chemical reactions and his dissertation concerned the testing of his own invention. In his dissertation Henry placed the temperature detector directly in the midst of the reaction and was able to measure changes as small as one ten-millionth of a degree.

Returning to Tuskegee, Henry took a position as an assistant professor of chemistry. Because of his broad program of studies at Chicago the Institute qualified him to teach physics, asking him to teach special physics courses to the young men who were training to be Army Air Corps officers. These young men ultimately formed the 99th Pursuit Squadron and became world famous as the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.

During the war and a break from teaching, Henry visited fellow University of Chicago alumni, Persa Raymond Bell at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Radiation Laboratory. Bell had shown Henry the type of research being conducted to contribute to the war effort, and asked if he would like to work there. Shortly after, Henry was recruited by MIT in 1943 to undertake a crucial project for the U.S. Navy.

Classified as top-secret, Henry worked to develop video amplifiers that were used in portable radar systems on warships. The amplifiers, capable of detecting and tracking targets like German submarines, filtered and strengthened radar signals and were considered 'faster than anything else at the time.'

After a three-year tenure at MIT, Henry returned to the University of Chicago to work on a post-doctoral fellowship in the Institute for the Study of Metals, working with a research group on superconductivity. At this time, the military began experimenting with jet aircraft and were experiencing crashes due to metal fatigue. Using information from his doctoral research on minute temperature changes, and testing sample spars made of various metal alloys, Henry was able to isolate which alloy would last the longest and just how long it would last.

Throughout his career Henry often returned to teaching. With no other job offers following the war, he joined the faculty at Morehouse College in 1947 as a professor and became the acting chairman of the physics department. Henry believed that because of the rapid advances in the sciences, students and scientists must keep up with those advances. When students in his special tutoring class for physics complained of it being too hard, Henry replied, "hard work is the price of being a scientist." All of the students graduated with a bachelor's in physics and almost all continued on to receive graduate degrees.

Living by his own mantra to keep abreast of scientific advancements, and wanting to further his own research in low temperature physics, Henry began searching for laboratories with low-temperature equipment. Ending his search at Rutgers University, Henry thought he had finalized an agreement to use the school's laboratory, however, before arriving at the New Jersey campus was told the equipment would not be available. Dismayed, Henry dismissed the reaction by correlating the incident to being 'the same as when the University said Paul Robeson's voice was not good enough for him to sing in the school's choir.'

Still attempting to obtain funding for his research, Henry on his way to New York, stopped in Washington, D.C., to speak with Lawson McKenzie, an acquaintance at the Office of Naval Research and head of the physics branch, to express his disappointment. McKenzie suggested Henry 'go out' to the Naval Research Laboratory and ask to use their low temperature equipment.

Initially being told that the NRL equipment was for use by employees only, McKenzie told Henry, "that is wonderful ... go back and tell them to hire you." When Henry reached New York he received a telegram from NRL saying he was hired for two months. At the end of two months, Richard Dolecek, head of the Cryogenics Branch at NRL's Electricity Division asked Henry to stay, and in 1948, he moved to Washington D.C., to work with several other scientists examining the practical uses of superconductors. Henry stayed for 12 years, first as a physicist, then as a supervisory physicist exploring magnetic properties of materials at extremely low temperatures, a field known as cryomagnetism. Keeping pace with what seemed to be a tradition with Henry, he also took a nighttime teaching position at nearby Howard University, teaching physics.

NRL hired Henry to build a high magnetic field laboratory, similar to the Francis Bitter design — a circular metal plate design known to produce the strongest man-made magnetic fields in the world — and bought one of the first commercially sold Collins helium liquefaction facilities — a process developed by Samuel Collins for commercially liquefying helium. Experimental work on low temperature techniques and instrumentation, and both theoretical and experimental research on magnetic and superconducting properties of materials at low temperatures were investigated.

With Henry's laboratory up and running, the Cryogenics Branch acquired Robert Hein, a physicist specializing in superconductivity, to begin studies on superconducting materials at temperatures below 1 Kelvin, or nearly 457 Fahrenheit degrees below zero. The availability of Henry's high magnetic field facility, liquid helium and ultralow temperature facility and instrumentation, and an interacting group of scientists, made the cryogenic group at NRL one of the strongest low temperature physics groups in the world.

In 1960, Henry took a position at Lockheed Missile and Space Company in California, and served as the senior staff engineer designing electronic missile guidance tools, submarine detection systems and a device for measuring magnetic fields in outer space. He returned to Washington, D.C. in 1968 as a professor in Howard University's Physics Department and its School of Engineering.

While he formally retired in 1977, Henry continued to devote his time to research and toward encouraging and helping youths and new generations of scientists achieve their full potential. He traveled world wide giving talks and presentations and worked for years with the Minorities Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, established in 1975 by the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences.

Henry received many awards and accommodations throughout his career, not surprisingly one of those included the 'Outstanding Educator in America Award' in both 1974 and 1975. He had written or contributed to hundreds of scientific articles and he co-authored the 1934 book, Procedures in Elementary Qualitative Chemical Analysis. Henry was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and his work continues to be cited in textbooks and scientific journals today

Having made significant contributions to the fields of radar technology, physical properties and materials physics and education, Dr. Warren Henry, at age 92, passed Oct. 31, 2001. One of three African Americans to earn a doctorate in science from the University of Chicago in 1941, this former student and colleague of George Washington Carver plowed through every obstacle and paved the way for black scientists in later generations.



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