Lyman James Briggs (May 7, 1874 – March 25, 1963) was an American engineer, physicist and administrator. He was a distinguished director of the National Bureau of Standards during the Great Depression and chairman of the Uranium Committee before America entered the Second World War. The Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University is named in his honor.
Briggs was born on a farm in Assyria, Michigan, near Battle Creek. He was the eldest of two brothers in a family that descended from Clement Briggs, who arrived in America in 1621 on the Fortune (Plymouth Colony ship), the first ship to follow the Mayflower. He grew up in an outdoor life with duties to attend such as would be found on an active farm in the late 19th century. He went to the
Hailing from humble farming origins, Lyman Briggs entered Michigan Agricultural College at the age of 15. Without any secondary education prior to testing into the university, few would believe that Briggs would become one of the nation’s leading multi-disciplinary scientists. Briggs went on to graduate with a degree in agriculture, but soon discovered a passion for physics.
These core interests lead Briggs to the forefront of innovation in many scientific fields. While leading the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Physics Laboratory, Briggs founded the science of soil physics, a discipline based on his extensive background in ecology, biology and physics.
Eventually, Briggs’ expertise in physics placed him on the government’s radar. In October 1939, shortly after the discovery of uranium fission, he was called upon to lead a covert operation called the Uranium Committee. President Franklin Roosevelt entrusted Briggs with discovering the potential for atomic power. Despite personal adversity and a lack of funding, Briggs’ research went on to become the foundation of the Manhattan Project. In recognition of his contributions to the war effort, Briggs was awarded the Medal of Merit by President Truman in 1945.
Having lived a life full of discovery and never ending quest for answers, it is no surprise that Michigan State University named a college in his honor, a fitting tribute for a man who accomplished so much.
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