Born in Columbia, South Carolina on June 19, 1913, Edwin Roberts Russell was an African American chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project in World War II which produced the first atomic bombs and initiated the Nuclear Era. The middle child of Nathan and Mary Russell, Edwin had one older brother, Nathan and three sisters, Henrietta, Marguerite, and Vivian.
Russell earned his B.S. degree in 1935 from Benedict College, an Historically Black College and University (HBCU) located in Columbia, South Carolina. Russell continued his education at Howard University where he earned an M.S. degree in chemistry in 1937. Russell worked as an instructor in the Chemistry Department at Howard University from 1936 to 1942 before entering the University of Chicago to pursue a Ph.D. in surface chemistry.
Edwin Russell arrived at the moment the University became the center for Manhattan Project research. For the next five years (1942-1947), Russell worked as a chemist on the top secret Project at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory. Russell became one of the scientists directly involved in the production of atomic energy. His efforts focused on isolating plutonium from uranium, a painstakingly slow process which was necessary to build the atomic bomb. Other African American scientists who worked with Russell at the Chicago laboratory included Harold Delaney, Moddie Taylor, Jasper Brown Jeffries, and Benjamin F. Scott. Russell later obtained eleven U.S. patents including two focused on the processes of isolating plutonium from uranium (U.S. Patent 2,855,629, Oct. 7, 1958; U.S. Patent 2,992,249, July 11, 1961).
After World War II, Russell served as Chair and Professor of the Division of Science at Allen University in Columbia South Carolina from 1947 to 1953. He then was employed as a Research Chemist at E.I. DuPont’s Savannah River Nuclear Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina from 1953 to 1976. While working at DuPont, Russell focused on a number of projects including the treatment of radioactive waste and wrote several classified publications in the field of nuclear energy. He also served as a contributing editor to the National Nuclear Energy Series. Russell retired from the DuPont Nuclear Laboratory in 1976.
Edwin Russell was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the American Chemical Society (ACS). In 1974, he received an honorary doctorate from Benedict College. He married Dorothy (Nance) Russell. The couple had a daughter, Vivian Eleanor Russell Baker.
Edwin Roberts Russell died on Easter Sunday, April 7, 1996 in Columbia, South Carolina. He was 82. Shortly after his death, the South Carolina Legislature honored his memory by introducing a resolution which celebrated his achievements and stated that Edwin Roberts Russell was “one of South Carolina’s ablest and most distinguished leaders.”