Hall of Fame Worthy

Dr. William D. Ehmann, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, has been elected to the Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. Bill received a B.S. degree (1952) with honors and an M.S. degree (1954), both in chemistry, from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He went on to receive a Ph.D. degree in radiochemistry in 1957 from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and carried out postdoctoral work (1957-58) at Argonne National Laboratory under a National Research Council/National Science Foundation Fellowship. He joined the Department of Chemistry at UK in 1958 and was a Fulbright Research Scholar (1964-65) at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. In addition, he has held visiting faculty appointments at Arizona State University and Florida State University.

Bill made significant contributions over nearly his entire academic career to the practice of analytical chemistry with neutron activation analysis. His early interests were in developing or improving nuclear methods of elemental analysis and the application of those methods to fundamental research problems in the fields of geochemistry, meteoritics, and lunar chemistry. His early work dealt with measuring trace element abundances in meteorites and relating those data to predictions derived from theories of nucleosynthesis of the elements. His group was among the first to suggest that the element iridium would be an excellent indicator for the presence of extraterrestrial material in terrestrial rocks and sediments—a measurement that is now common.

In 1969, Bill was among those selected by NASA to analyze the first lunar samples, collected during the Apollo 11 mission. The photograph shows Bill, in the background, with one of these prized “moon rocks”.  His group subsequently analyzed samples from all the Apollo lunar missions and also those from several unmanned Russian missions.

Sensing that his expertise in trace element analysis could contribute in other fields, Bill turned to studies of the relationship in brain trace element imbalances to diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), Alzheimer’s disease, and Pick’s disease. His early results made an immediate impact as he showed that eating foods cooked in aluminum pots and pans was not the cause of Alzheimer’s disease. As expected, Bill and his coworkers performed extensive, careful studies showing the localization and concentration of trace elements, including aluminum, in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Moreover, his group was the first to point out an elevation of mercury in the brains of these patients.

Bill has received many awards for his research, including the 1994 Charles Herty Medal from the Georgia Section of the American Chemical Society (ACS) for significant contributions by a chemist in the Southeastern US and the ACS Award now known as the Glenn T. Seaborg Award for Nuclear Chemistry. The Seaborg Award has grown to be recognized internationally as the highest award in the fields of nuclear chemistry and radiochemistry. In 1982, Bill was selected as the Distinguished Scientist in Kentucky by the Kentucky Academy of Science. He is a Fellow of the Meteoritical Society (1962) and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1969).  In 1996, the American Nuclear Society named an award for Bill and, appropriately, he was the first recipient of the William D. Ehmann Award.

Bill has also been recognized by the University as an outstanding educator, scholar, and researcher. He received the Research Award of the Kentucky Alumni Association (1964), was named the A&S Distinguished Professor (1968-69), was elected University Research Professor by the UK Board of Trustees (1977-78), and received the University’s Sturgill Award in 1987 for his outstanding contributions to graduate education.

Bill is the author or coauthor of over two hundred publications in radiochemistry, chemical education, geochemistry, medical, and other journals and coauthored with Prof. Diane Vance, a former student of Bill’s now on the chemistry faculty at Eastern Kentucky University, a highly acclaimed textbook, Radiochemistry and Nuclear Methods of Analysis, which is widely used for introductory radiochemistry courses. He has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry and of the Journal of Trace and Microprobe Techniques. For ten years, Bill was the lead author of the biennial review “Nuclear and Radiochemical Analysis” that appeared in Analytical Chemistry.

While Bill is widely known for his research accomplishments, he has dedicated much effort to teaching and service. Bill particularly enjoyed teaching his radiochemistry course. In fact, the textbook mentioned earlier was a natural outgrowth of the many years he had taught this course. It is interesting that many institutions still use his textbook, although it has not been revised since 1991.

Bill’s service contributions are also noteworthy. During the period 1972-1976, he was the Chair and Director of Graduate Studies of the Chemistry Department at UK. A few years later, he became Associate Dean for Research at UK. All of this was done in addition to his teaching and research, his service on various University committees, international committees, etc.

If Bill were asked what his greatest contributions had been, he would certainly say they are the graduate students (10 M.S. and 25 Ph.D.), postdoctoral scholars (13), visiting scholars (14), and undergraduates (22) he has mentored. One of these, Diane Vance, now on the faculty at EKU, was mentioned earlier and another, Mark Lovell, is a Professor in the UK Department of Chemistry. Many of Bill’s students have gone on to high-level positions in this country and others. He has always been available to young colleagues seeking advice and has greatly influenced many careers.

While Bill formally left the University in 1995, he did not really “retire” but changed the direction of his continuing contributions to the Commonwealth and its citizens. For many years, Nancy, his wife, has run the Meals on Wheels program in Lexington as a volunteer, and Bill has supported her efforts in this program. Also, in pursuit of his long-time interests in cosmochemistry and geochemistry, Bill authored a post-retirement booklet Space Visitors in Kentucky: Meteorites and Meteorite Impact Sites in Kentucky in 2000.

UK and the Commonwealth were fortunate in having Bill as a member of our faculty. He is richly deserving of recognition for his many contributions and of a place in the A&S Hall of Fame.

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