When we examine the periodic table, with its 118 elements, we may not be aware of the fact that not all of these elements occur naturally and we somehow take them for granted. The elements from atomic numbers 1 (Hydrogen) through 118 (Oganesson) have been discovered or synthesized. The first 94 elements all occur naturally but elements 95 to 118 have only been synthesized in laboratories or nuclear reactors.
Many of the elements, from 95 to 118, are named after famous physicists or chemists, and some by places or laboratories where they have been synthesized. The following names are a few examples of these elements; Curium, Rutherfordium, Mendelevium, Fermium, Nobelium, Einsteinium, Borium, Meitnerium and Oganesson.
We can also imagine that throughout history, that the scientists have mostly been white males. However, not all great scientists are males and certainly not all of them are white. One of the most important scientists in the field of nuclear chemistry and the synthesis of new elements, is James Andrew Harris. Harris was the first African-American to contribute to the discovery of new elements.
Harris was an important member of the research team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that led to the discovery of two unknown elements – element 104, Rutherfordium (1969) and element 105, Dubnium (1970).
Harris was born on March 26, 1932 in Waco, Texas, and was raised by his mother after his parents divorced. He left Waco and attended high school in Oakland, California, but returned to Texas to study chemistry at Huston-Tillotson College in Austin. Harris earned his B.S. degree in chemistry in 1953 and after serving in the military, faced difficulty finding a job as a black scholar because of the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation.
Eventually, in 1955, James Andrew Harris was employed by Tracerlab, a commercial research lab in Richmond, California. Five years later, he accepted a position at the Lawrence Radiation Lab (which would later be renamed the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, today commonly referred to as the Berkeley Laboratory), a facility of the Department of Energy operated by the University of California.
Harris worked in the Heavy Isotopes Production Group where his job was to design and purify targets that would be used to discover elements 104 and 105. The purification process is extremely difficult and requires precision. Harris was praised by his colleagues for the high quality and precision of his work.
There are some controversies regarding the discovery of Rutherfordium and Dubnium. Two research teams, one based in the US, the other in the former USSR, simultaneously worked on isolating the two elements, so there is a dispute over which team actually was first to do so. To ease the dispute, element 104 was given the name suggested by the US research team, Rutherfordium (named after the influential British physicist) and element 105 was given the name Dubnium (named after the city where the USSR team worked).
Harris continued to work at the Berkeley Laboratory until his retirement in 1988 and tirelessly devoted much of his time to recruiting and supporting young African-American scientists and engineers. Harris also collaborated with elementary school students to popularize science especially in communities that were less represented and with less financial support, to foster an interest in science in children. These efforts  earned him numerous awards from civic and professional organizations, including the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers.
Harris died after a brief illness on December 12, 2000, at the age of 68.
This text was produced with the support of the United States Embassy in BiH as part of the “U.S. Scientists Who Changed the World” project and we thank the US Embassy.


Written by Jelena Kalinić, translated by Jonas Helgason



Jelena Kalinić, MA in comparative literature and graduate biologist, science journalist and science communicator, has a WHO infodemic manager certificate and Health metrics Study design & Evidence based medicine training. Winner of the 2020 EurekaAlert (AAAS) Fellowship for Science Journalists. Short-runner, second place in the selection for European Science journalist of the year for 2022.