Photo of Jesse W. Beams

Jesse W. Beams

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences

For sustained and ingenious contributions to the scientific development of high-speed centrifuges, a family of devices that are now widely applied in the physical and biological sciences, in medicine, and in engineering scale isotope-separation.

Unlike many great scientists, early access to scholarly material is hardly attributable to the achievements of Jesse W. Beams. Raised in rural Kansas, Beams – the son of two pioneer settlers – received his early education in a one-room schoolhouse where extracurricular activities included husking corn and milking cows. On the farm, Beams used a centrifuge cream separator, which – when spun – uses “centrifugal force” to separate the cream from the skimmed milk.

While researching at University of Virginia, Beams realized the same tenant of mechanics could be applied in tasks that could change from testing material strengths to isolating uranium isotopes for nuclear purposes. To achieve this, the traditional centrifuge – capable of rotating a few thousand times per minute – needed more power.

Using rotors enclosed in high vacuums to eliminate friction, Beams converted the centrifuge into the “ultracentrifuge,” capable of rotating about 100 million times per minute.