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September 23, 2002
Volume 80, Number 38
CENEAR 80 38 pp. 93-98
ISSN 0009-2347

Centenarian Ray Crist, still in the lab, is making key contributions to bioremediation research


In 1924, Ray H. Crist published his first research paper, a study on photochemical reactions of alkali halides in acetophenone, in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Earlier this year, Crist's most recent paper, a study of metal-ion uptake by lignin, appeared in Environmental Science & Technology.



Crist, now 102, is a visiting professor of environmental science at Messiah College, Grantham, Pa. His research career spanning 80 years is an amazing accomplishment, and he was honored for his longevity last week in Washington, D.C., by being named America's Oldest Worker, an annual national award sponsored by the nonprofit organization Experience Works. But his age, Crist will humbly tell you, is a less interesting part of his impressive life story.

Born on March 8, 1900, Crist grew up on a 40-acre farm near Grantham, a few miles south of Harrisburg. Farm life taught Crist the value of hard work and gave him a respect for nature, he says, which has fed a lifelong drive to work with his hands and to be diligent in approaching research problems.

"When you are on a farm and work with the animals, the plants, the soil, you are an integral part of what life is," Crist observes. "It has given me a continuous curiosity about things, a sense of respect and wonderment. So throughout my life, I have just kept on living, wondering, and trying to understand the nature of things."

After graduating from high school in 1916, Crist attended Dickinson College in nearby Carlisle, Pa., receiving a B.S. degree in 1920. He spent a year teaching chemistry, physics, and biology at Williamsport Dickinson Seminary--now Lycoming College--before he began graduate school at Columbia University. There, he set to work with chemistry professor J. Livingston R. Morgan on photochemical decomposition of salts under varying conditions. One of the major studies included potassium persulfate (K2S2O8), which was the basis of his thesis work [J. Am. Chem. Soc., 49, 16, 338, and 960 (1927)].

"Throughout my life, I have just kept on living, wondering, and trying to understand the nature of things."

AFTER RECEIVING a Ph.D. degree from Columbia in 1926, Crist joined the faculty there. In 1928, he took a postdoctoral position in the lab of Max Bodenstein, one of the principal developers of chemical kinetics, at Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry, in Berlin.

A memorable experience early in Crist's career was teaching a photochemistry course at Columbia. The first time he taught the course, in 1929, it was audited by Harold C. Urey, a Columbia chemistry professor who was credited in 1931 with the discovery of deuterium and awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1934. One of the students in that first semester was George Wald, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1967 for work on the photochemical processes involved in vision.

At Columbia, Crist conducted research on photochemistry and gas-phase reaction kinetics. He served as an associate editor for the Journal of Chemical Physics and wrote a general chemistry lab textbook. Crist also worked closely with Urey on several projects during the 1930s.

Urey was involved with the early work on developing a nuclear weapon shortly after uranium fission had been discovered in the late 1930s, Crist remembers. In the summer of 1940, Urey asked Crist to determine the vapor pressure and triple point of UF6, the compound that later would be used to separate the fissionable 235U isotope from 238U.

When the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear weapon formally began a year later, Crist says, Urey was named director of the project's Columbia University division. Crist was selected to lead part of the project that focused on the large-scale separation of deuterium from hydrogen. At the time, deuterium was potentially to be used to control the velocity of neutrons to help sustain a nuclear chain reaction.


KEY PLAYERS Crist (standing, second from right) was one of the lead scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. Others included Edward Teller (standing, far left), Urey (seated, second from left), and Fermi (seated, second from right). COURTESY OF THE LIVING CENTURY/STEVEN LATHAM

LATER, CRIST DIRECTED the uranium isotope separation chemistry that involved preparing a porous nickel alloy as a diffusion barrier. In 1945, once the primary goal of developing a bomb was realized, Crist took over for Urey as the Columbia division's director and managed the project through to its completion a year later.

Several times the research teams ran into what seemed to be dead ends, Crist says, but the ingenuity of a few workers at critical times allowed the work to proceed. The pressure to be successful was incredible, he adds. "Those accomplishments ended up changing the world. The way it happened was just phenomenal," he says.

As the war was winding down, it became clear that the government projects at Columbia would be drastically curtailed, Crist notes. He could have stayed on as a faculty member at Columbia, but he had never been comfortable living in a large city. At the time, he had three young children--his son Robert and twin sons Henry and DeLanson (Lance)--and was not happy about raising them in New York. Robert is now a professor of literature and translation at the University of Athens, in Greece; Henry is a pathologist at Carlisle Hospital; and Lance is chemistry research professor emeritus at Georgetown University.

Crist had an option to take a position at one of the new research institutes being established at the University of Chicago by Urey, Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi, and other leaders of the Manhattan Project. In the end, however, Crist chose to become a research director at Union Carbide--one of the key wartime government contractors--and moved with his family to Charleston, W.Va., in 1946.

At Carbide, Crist worked on several projects, including a coal hydrogenation effort geared toward using coal instead of natural gas as the raw material base for Carbide's aliphatic chemicals business. The researchers under Crist's direction developed a 300-ton-per-day pilot plant that operated for 12 years. However, the discovery of large oil fields in Saudi Arabia led to low oil prices, he relates, causing Carbide to terminate its coal project.

In 1959, Crist became director of the new Carbide Research Institute in Tarrytown, N.Y., which conducted basic research for all of Union Carbide's divisions. In establishing the mission of the lab, Crist concluded that one cannot "plan" research per se, but should create an interactive atmosphere and anticipate that real successes will come when researchers are left to pursue their ideas and develop their creativity on their own. Crist directed the lab until he retired in 1963 to pursue a goal involving science education.

"There was a growing national concern that science for the liberal arts student was poorly served by university science departments," Crist recalls. "I took it as a mission to help liberal arts students become socially responsible and to understand how they might help control the impact of the technological revolution on society and the environment." The majority of the nation's leaders were humanities-educated students who needed to have a better understanding of science, he believed, with a particular emphasis on the idea that the environment must be protected.

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GATHERING NO MOSS Crist collects algae in a pond at Messiah College for experiments on metal-ion uptake by plants. In the lab (from left), Martin, Ray Crist, and Lance Crist discuss the latest developments in the project to use lignin as a basis for bioremediation.

CRIST RETURNED to Dickinson College as a faculty member, where he supervised student projects in environmental chemistry and taught courses in chemistry and in the history of science. "I taught freshman chemistry by spending two days a week on chemistry, and the third day I discussed science's implications in society and in industry, where it had produced radical changes. I found that a course for nonscience majors in the history of science provided an understanding of life, along with literature, philosophy, and religion."

Some of Crist's ideas were featured in an education article in C&EN at the time (C&EN, Oct. 26, 1964, page 60). He remained at Dickinson until 1970, when he reached the then mandatory retirement age of 70.

Crist's most recent career move was to return to his high school alma mater, now Messiah College, a four-year liberal arts college. Crist started out teaching courses and helping to develop the college's degree program in environmental science. He eventually stopped teaching but continued to work with students on research projects. In the past few years, he has been working alone in the lab.

He stresses that all of his work has been possible through the generous support of Messiah College, where he has worked for $1.00 per year for the past 32 years. During this time, Crist has studied the role of cadmium in increasing the blood pressure of rats, lead displacing copper and zinc from rat brain enzymes, formation of nitrous oxide from ammonium nitrate fertilizer in soil that in turn contributes to upper atmosphere ozone depletion, rate of proton transport through red blood cell membranes, and copper uptake by algae.

The algae study turned into a continuing program on the chemical mechanisms of how biosorbents as diverse as algae, peat moss, and plant roots take up metal ions--a surface chemistry study, Crist says. He and his colleagues noted that metal uptake by algae was accompanied by proton release and lowering of pH [Environ. Sci. Technol., 15, 1212 (1981)]. Protons associated with the numerous acid functional groups in living plant and animal tissues readily exchange with the metal ions, Crist believes. Previously, metal uptake was thought to be a simple adsorption phenomenon, he says.

"For that paper, I received 150 reprint requests," he notes. The work has led to 20 additional publications during the past 25 years--about half of Crist's career publications--along with presentations at national and international conferences.

"Crist's work on the interaction of metals and protons with algae, the nature of bonding between metallic ions and algal cell walls, and the ion-exchange basis for biosorption of heavy metals by plants and plant material represent a major contribution to our understanding of the specific ion-exchange mechanism of metal contaminant removal," stated Guy R. Lanza, editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Phytoremediation, in a recent commentary [Int. J. Phytorem., 4, (2002)].

Current experiments in Crist's lab involve lignin, a polymer that helps provide rigidity in the cell walls of woody plants. Lignin is a by-product removed from wood pulp during the papermaking process, but Crist and others have been looking at lignin as a medium for bioremediation [Environ. Sci. Technol., 36, 1485 (2002)].

Crist has developed lignin-based plastic chips by mixing lignin with dimethylformamide and using heat to drive off the residual solvent. The porous dried material readily takes up lead, cadmium, and other metals, and he envisions this could lead to a low-cost remediation step to remove toxic metals from water. Last November, Crist and Messiah College applied for a provisional patent on the process.

In recent years, retinal degeneration has left Crist with no vision in his right eye and only minor peripheral vision in his left eye. He also has a pacemaker and wears hearing aids, yet he still manages to live alone and do his own yard work, including shoveling snow. He had to stop driving at age 87, but other faculty members or friends drive him to campus, where he continues to work 40-hour weeks year-round. In the lab, Crist is still able to "stumble around," as he says. With his sharp memory, he does so seemingly with ease.

CRIST CONDUCTS all of his own experimental work and writes first drafts of research papers. Messiah chemistry colleague J. Robert Martin, a retired DuPont researcher who now manages the college's instrumentation, among other duties, is next door and helps out if Crist needs anything. Lance Crist helps do literature searches, prepares final manuscripts, and gives presentations at meetings.

"All these people allow me to do my own research in the laboratory," Crist gratefully acknowledges. Messiah history of science professor Edward B. Davis believes that Crist is probably the oldest active scientist in history and the oldest scientist to ever publish a research paper.

Has any one experience stood out for Crist during his life? He says no. "They are all just the sum of what I have been." His happiest moment in life, he says, was marrying his wife, Dorothy, who died in 1962 after a heart attack.

Ray Crist has witnessed essentially the entire modern era of science and technology, ranging from his days on the farm using a horse as the power source, to his participation in the development of nuclear weapons and energy, to his current career as an environmental scientist. One of his lingering concerns is energy.

"Science and technology have brought us to a place where energy is now a major concern. We ought to be figuring out how to better use the solar energy of today instead of the solar energy stored in plants long ago."

Although modest, Crist is proud of his achievements in promoting the advancement of science, the value of science education, and the importance of protecting the environment. He is a remarkable example of the nature of the human spirit, a man with genuine enthusiasm.


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

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