SPRINGFIELD – Enrico Fermi and James Watson – geniuses who explored the power of the atom and the building blocks of life – were voted the top scientists in state history by participants in the Illinois Top 200 project.
Working at the University of Chicago, Fermi led construction of the world’s first nuclear reactor. He went on to play a vital role in the Manhattan Project, which built the first atomic bomb. These achievements came after he had already won a Nobel prize for other research.
Watson, who grew up in Illinois, was part of the team that figured out the shape of DNA molecules, which carry the genetic code for all living organisms. The discovery has been called a turning point in understanding life. He, too, received a Nobel.
The top five also includes R. Buckminster Fuller, an architect and theorist who taught at Southern Illinois University; Percy Lavon Julian, who pioneered large-scale synthesis of medicines from plants; and Andrew Moyer, a key figure in discovering how to produce penicillin in large amounts.
The Top 200 project lets Illinoisans vote every two weeks on the state’s most inspiring leaders, greatest inventions, top businesses and much more. By the state’s bicentennial on Dec. 3, voters will have chosen 10 favorites in 20 different categories – the Illinois Top 200.
Voting in the next category, top athletes, is underway at www.IllinoisTop200.com. The nominees include Michael Jordan, Ken Norton, Bonnie Blair, Dick Butkus and Jim Thome.
Here are the top 10 Illinois scientists chosen in online voting:
- Enrico Fermi – Fermi left Italy for the United States in 1939. He developed the world’s first nuclear reactor, played a key role in the Manhattan Project, and continued doing important research at the University of Chicago for years.
- James Watson –Watson and his partners discovered that DNA molecules were shaped like two snakes twisting around each other. Understanding this “double helix” yielded ground-breaking insights into the genetic code
- R. Buckminster Fuller – Fuller is most famous for developing the geodesic dome, including a huge version at the 1967 world’s fair in Montreal. He was awarded 28 U.S. patents and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- Percy Lavon Julian – Working in the Chicago area, Julian developed large-scale synthesis of substances like cortisone and progesterone. He was the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.
- Andrew Moyer – When Moyer and other scientists at a Peoria agriculture lab studied penicillin, they found a strong new strain and learned how to make it grow. Suddenly large amounts were available, just in time for World War II.
- Leon Lederman – A Nobel Prize-winner for research on neutrinos, Lederman was the longtime director of the Fermi National Acceleration Laboratory in Batavia. He founded the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.
- John Bardeen – Bardeen, a professor for almost 40 years at the University of Illinois, is the only person to win the Nobel Prize in Physics twice: first for helping invent the transistor, then for research into superconductivity.
- Nick Holonyak – Born in Zeigler and educated at the University of Illinois, Holonyak invented the first diode that produced light in the visible spectrum, paving the way for LED lights. He is in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
- Allene Jeanes – Working in Peoria, Jeanes discovered a way to produce dextran, which could temporarily replace lost blood. Her team also discovered xanthan gum, an ingredient in everything from ice cream to toothpaste.
- Francine Patterson –Patterson is an animal psychologist known for teaching sign language to a gorilla named Koko. She is president of The Gorilla Foundation and has written several books about her work with Koko.
The nominees who did not make the top 10 were Marvin Camras, a pioneer in audio recording; aviation pioneer Octave Chanute; nuclear physicist Arthur Compton; code expert William Friedman; astronomer George Hale; mathematician Olive Hazlett; cancer researcher Charles Huggins; physicist Robert Millikan; chemist Lewis Sarett; and Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto.
The Illinois Top 200 is a joint initiative of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, The (Springfield) State Journal-Register and the Illinois Bicentennial Commission.
Future categories include trailblazing women, unforgettable moments and leaders. Everyone is invited to suggest possible nominees in each category by using the hashtag #ILtop200 on social media.
The presidential library and museum uses a combination of rigorous scholarship and high-tech showmanship to immerse visitors in Lincoln’s life and times. Visitors can see ghosts come to life on stage, watch TV coverage of the 1860 Presidential election, roam through the Lincoln White House, experience booming cannons in a Civil War battle and come face to face with priceless original Lincoln artifacts.
The library holds an unparalleled collection of Lincoln books, documents, photographs, artifacts and art, as well as some 12 million items pertaining to all aspects of Illinois history.