Photo of Harry George Drickamer

Harry George Drickamer

  • National Medal of Science
  • Engineering

For his discovery of the pressure tuning of electronic energy levels as a way to obtain new and unique information on the electronic structure of solids.

Not every world-renowned scientist has the makings of a professional athlete, but such was the case with Harry George Drickamer, who in the 1930s briefly played in the Cleveland Indians’ minor league farm system before trading in his cleats for a microscope. Well, sort of — he went to Vanderbilt University on a football scholarship before an injury sidelined him.

Thankfully, Drickamer was destined for a longer-lasting legacy. His research on the use of pressure in studying the molecular and electronic properties of matter led to a cascade of scientific breakthroughs. Specifically, he is known for pioneering the method of pressure tuning spectroscopy, which uses compression on the fixed outer orbit of an atom’s electrons, where the atom’s physical and chemical properties are concentrated, to experiment with properties of matter. Drickamer’s research was eventually used to test a number of chemical theories, and to engineer materials such as catalysts, lasers, polymers and semiconductors. The method opened the floodgates on the basic understanding of the atom and solidified Drickamer’s stance as legend at the University of Illinois, where he taught for 56 years.

By Lauren Clason