First Person: Manson Benedict

Manson Benedict (left), Alexander Zucker, and Gerald Tape, part of a scientific delegation boarding Air Force One, 1963. Seaborg Collection, CHF Collections.

Sometimes the path to becoming a chemist isn’t straightforward. Though Manson Benedict would later play a pivotal role in the Manhattan Project, serve on the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and win the National Medal of Science, the Great Depression made him question his decision to study physical chemistry. This crisis sent Benedict on a journey starting with the philosophical greats and ending at a West Coast fruit farm.

Benedict had received a bachelor’s degree in physical chemistry at Cornell University in 1928, and after a year working as an industrial chemist, he left the field. Benedict made his way to the University of Chicago in 1930 to pursue social sciences instead of chemistry. At the time, Benedict wondered if great thinkers could help the nation recover from the ongoing Depression. As he recounted in his oral history:

I knew that the world was in an economic depression. I became very dissatisfied with my own lack of a liberal education at Cornell, which was obviously not going to help me deal with the serious problems of the world, so I decided that I'd use my savings from my year's employment…to go back to school and round out my own liberal education.

While Benedict devoured works on economic theory, philosophy, and politics, he realized that perhaps this path wasn’t for him. He remembered: “I was really at loose ends at the University of Chicago because I found that I wasn't adept at the social sciences at all. I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life.”

A friend he had met while at University of Chicago recommended a summer job to clear his head:

Since I didn't know what I wanted to do, and wasn't particularly adept at the social sciences, why didn't I just take the summer off and do some non-mental work that might enable me to get my act together again? His parents ran a family fruit farm on the Columbia River in central Washington state, and they needed summer help.

His time there was definitively different from the usual life of a graduate student or chemist in the lab. Benedict recalled, “We worked six days a week and on Sunday we rested, read, or swam. I learned how to harness and drive a team of horses, crank and drive a Model-T Ford, run a sprayer, and pick and pack fruit without bruising it.”

While Benedict was toying with the idea of pursuing economics, the opportunity to “get [his] wits back together again” in Washington brought his attention back to physical chemistry. In 1931 Benedict traveled to M.I.T. to pursue his Ph.D., and the rest of his career, as they say, is history.

Sarah Hunter-Lascoskie is a program associate in oral history at CHF. First Person, which highlights one of CHF's over 400 oral histories, appears the third Tuesday of every month.

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Posted In: History

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