Henry Eyring

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Henry Eyring, father of Henry B. Eyring, was a scientist in the field of chemical physics. He was born on February 20, 1901, in the prosperous "Mormon" community of Colonia Juarez, Mexico (about 100 miles south of Columbus, New Mexico). He was a third generation Latter-day Saint, his grandparents on both sides having participated in the early migration (1850-60), first to Salt Lake City and then to outlying communities. [1] Latter-day Saint families moved to Mexico during the years of persecution of Utah Latter-day Saints over the doctrine and practice of polygamy.

Henry Eyring's father was a successful cattle rancher, and Eyring became comfortable on horseback at a very young age. However, in 1910, the Mexican revolution began, endangering the Latter-day Saint settlers. Nearly 5,000 Latter-day Saints moved to El Paso, Texas, in 1912 to escape the effects of the war. Most expected the move to be temporary, expecting to move back into their homes in Mexico. Because of this, they had left most of their possessions behind and lived with difficulty in exile. However, they were unable to return, and Eyring's father eked out a living in Texas and Arizona before purchasing a small farm in Pima, Arizona. Gradually, the family's fortunes improved. Eyring had left Mexico the summer after he finished fifth grade. He missed a year of school in El Paso, but then skipped several grades in Arizona. He attended Gila Academy, a church school near Pima, graduating in 1919.

Education and Career

Eyring excelled in mathematics and science, and won a scholarship to the University of Arizona, where he studied mining engineering. He worked at menial jobs and was actually able to send money home to his family. After his junior year, Eyring got some hands-on experience working at a mine. He was exposed to the dangers of mining, observed some serious accidents, and realized that if he were in mining management, he would be sending men into these dangerous situations. He changed his major to metallurgy. He graduated in 1923 with a B.S. in mining engineering. He continued his studies at the University of Arizona and obtained a master's degree in metallurgy in the spring of 1924. He made another turn in his career and returned to the University of Arizona as a chemistry instructor for the academic year 1924-25. "Here his promise as a chemist was recognized by several faculty members and he was encouraged to go on for a Ph.D. He was accepted as a graduate student at Berkeley, where he received his Ph.D. in 1927. His thesis work was under the direction of Professor George F. Gibson and involved a study of the ionization of various gases by alpha particles from polonium, as well as the stopping powers of these gases" (nap.edu).

Eyring became a chemistry instructor at the University of Wisconsin, continuing his work on the interaction of gases with alpha particles. He received a postdoctoral appointment in the laboratory of Farrington Daniels, where he studied the decomposition of N2O5 in various solvents. It was here that he began working in chemical kinetics, a field that was to remain so central to his interests and reputation for the rest of his life. His work with Daniels resulted in the award of a National Research Council fellowship at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin from the summer of 1929 until the summer of 1930. Eyring then returned to Berkley. On the basis of his groundbreaking work in chemistry, Eyring was invited to Princeton and worked with the University for many years. Although he was not promoted to the rank of full professor until 1938, his research activities during this period were intense and it was at this time that his reputation became established. Eyring's ideas and expertise, indeed his genius, was employed in many areas of chemistry, and he authored many papers. (For more detail regarding his work, go to nap.edu.) The Princeton years from 1941 to 1947 resulted in fifty more papers bearing Eyring's name. Eyring was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1945.

In 1946 Eyring was approached by the University of Utah to explore his interest in becoming the dean of its graduate school, with the aim of building a major research activity at the university. The attraction of Salt Lake City was strong. While at Wisconsin Eyring had married Mildred Bennion, also a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ. The marriage had produced three sons, Edward Marcus, born in Oakland in 1931, Henry Bennion born in Princeton in 1933, and Harden Romney born in Princeton in 1936. Mildred especially was concerned about the problems of raising her sons in New Jersey, so far from the center of the Mormon faith. Professor Taylor was unable to convince either Eyring or his wife that it was in Eyring's best interests to remain in Princeton. And so began the final thirty-five years of Eyring's career, in which highly successful activities as an administrator were added to a continuing productive scientific output. In Eyring's Utah years approximately 485 papers appeared bearing his name.

He received the Wolf Prize in Chemistry in 1980 and the National Medal of Science in 1966 for developing the Absolute Rate Theory or Transition state theory of chemical reactions, one of the most important developments of 20th-century chemistry. Several other chemists later received the Nobel prize for work based on it, and his failure to receive the Nobel prize was a matter of surprise to many. Sterling M. McMurrin believed he should have received the Nobel Prize but was not awarded it because of his religion. He was also elected president of the American Chemical Society in 1963 and the Association for the Advancement of Science in 1965 (Wikipedia.org).

Science and the Church

"The Mormon church had assumed a relatively liberal view of the relationship of science to the church, but in 1953 Joseph Fielding Smith, president of the Council of Twelve Apostles, began to express his opinion that the scriptures must be interpreted as literally true on scientific matters. In a number of meetings and writings Eyring tactfully yet forcefully engaged President Smith in the matter. His point is summarized in the following:

'The church is committed to the truth whatever its source and each man is asked to seek it out honestly and prayerfully. It is, of course, another matter to teach as a doctrine of the church something which is manifestly contradictory and to urge it in and out of season. The author has never felt the least constraints in investigating any matter strictly on its merits.'"
"Is there any conflict between science and religion? There is no conflict in the mind of God, but often there is conflict in the minds of men."

His son, President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency, said that his dad taught that science and religion were not mutually exclusive. “He figured God was the Creator, his own science was just a poor approximation of trying to understand what the Lord did. He never found any conflict at all of any kind and we never felt any. ... Dad’s idea was if you live a decent life and have the Holy Ghost and you’re fairly intelligent, you’ll find the truth one way or another.”[2]

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he served as a branch president, district president, and, for over twenty years, a member of the general board of the Deseret Sunday School Union. He wrote three books on the relationship between science and religion (in addition to his many scientific publications): Reflections of a Scientist (1983); The Faith of a Scientist, Bookcraft, Inc. (1967); and Science and your Faith in God, Bookcraft, Inc. (1958).

Eyring's Gifts

Henry Eyring was known for his thoughtfulness and winning personality. He had a fertile imagination, unbounded curiosity, a warm and outgoing personality, a high degree of intellectual talent, the ability to work hard, and a determination to succeed.

President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, years ago shared a delightful and inspiring story about his father, Henry Eyring, a renowned physicist. In later years, his father was a senior stake high councilor with responsibility for the welfare farm. As part of that responsibility, he assigned himself to work on the farm, weeding a field of onions. Nearly 80 at the time, and beset with debilitating pain from bone cancer, he persevered at his task, only to learn at the end of the day that the field he had just weeded had already been sprayed and the weeds would have died anyway.
"Dad just roared," his son related. "He thought it was a great joke on himself." Asked later how he could have taken the matter so pleasantly, he replied to his son, "Hal, I wasn't there for the weeds." (Henry B. Eyring, "Waiting Upon the Lord," a speech given at BYU on Sept. 30, 1990.)
We could draw a number of lessons from this incident, one of which is a quality exhibited by Brother Eyring to which we all might do well to aspire; an appreciation—even an enthusiasm—for labor not only for productive accomplishment but for its capacity to ennoble the soul and strengthen the character (From Church News, Sept. 5, 2009).

Eyring passed away in Salt Lake City, Utah, on December 26, 1981. After the passing of his wife, Mildred, in 1969, he married Winifred Brennan Clark in 1971.