A Purdue Chemistry Professor’s encounter with an Atomic Spy
Writer(s): Steve Scherer
Chemistry professor Robert "Bob" A. Benkeser (1920-2017) came to teach at Purdue in 1946. But this story starts nearly a decade earlier in his hometown of Cincinnati.
In the late 1930s, Bob was attending Xavier University, working toward an undergraduate degree in chemistry. He would take the morning bus from his home to the nearby campus.
“I’d get up there about 8:15 or so. Classes started at 8:30,” Benkeser recalled in a 2009 Purdue oral history interview.
Before class, Bob would often converse with a chemistry classmate from Philadelphia. “Harry Gold would be there in a classroom, and I would go in. We’d be alone. We’d chat and I found him a very interesting person. Well educated, obviously,” Benkeser remembered.
On one occasion, knowing that Harry was not planning to head back to Philadelphia for the holiday, Bob invited him to his house for Thanksgiving dinner. “He ate heartily which pleased my mother a great deal,” Benkeser chuckled.
Harry earned his Xavier chemistry degree ahead of Bob in 1940. “I lost track of Harry. I don’t know where he went,” Benkeser explained.
A decade later, Bob’s Purdue teaching career had blossomed into a faculty research position where he was invited to present a paper at the spring 1950 American Chemical Society conference in Philadelphia.
“I was standing in the lobby of the hotel, and I look across the lobby and I saw a fellow there I knew from Xavier back in Cincinnati. I hadn’t seen him for years. It was Harry Gold. I said, ‘Harry, how are you? Do you remember me?’ He said, ‘yes’ and we shook hands,” Benkeser recalled.
Bob explained to Harry that he was en route to present his chemistry paper but didn’t know the location of the hotel for the talk.
“He said, ‘Come on, I’ll walk with you. I know Philadelphia. I’ll walk you over there.’ And I said, ‘alright,’” Benkeser remembered.
When they got to the hotel, Bob suggested that they exchange addresses. “He said, ‘Good idea.’ So, we both write down on separate papers and exchange these papers. So, I go in,” Benkeser said.
After the conference back in West Lafayette, Bob was excited to tell his wife, Abbie, about the chance encounter with Harry.
“I told my wife when I got back from Philadelphia, there was one thing about Harry. He seemed rather sad. He didn’t speak as much as he used to. That was just my observation,” Benkeser said.
A few weeks later in their Ross Ade Drive apartment, Abbie shared a stunning news report with Bob.
“I got out of the shower that morning, and she said, ‘Bob! Bob! Harry Gold was arrested. He’s an atom spy!’” Benkeser remembered.
Bob couldn’t believe it. “I said, ‘No, my gosh.’ There we were just a couple of days ago in Philadelphia exchanging addresses. I’ll bet the FBI was tailing him all along,” Benkeser recalled.
It turns out that Harry Gold was a courier for a number of Soviet spies during the Manhattan Project, including physicist Klaus Fuchs. In fact, Gold had been delivering secret documents to Soviet agents since the mid-1930s and during his time at Xavier University.
“I told the head of the department who was Earl McBee, ‘Boy, I met this guy, Harry Gold. I’m sure the FBI is going to be here to talk to me.’ So sure enough, a few days later, the phone rings. It’s the FBI agent, and he said, ‘I would like to talk to you. Let’s make an appointment,’” Benkeser said.
“I was pretty nervous. I thought, where do I fit into this picture? Well, by the time, after about one or two minutes of the conversation, I was very much at ease because it was clear they weren’t interested in me. They just wanted to know what I knew about Harry Gold,” said Benkeser, recalling his interview with the FBI.
After his arrest, Harry Gold confessed and identified many other people connected to the espionage network. He cooperated and was a government witness in the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage in 1951 and executed in 1953.
In 1951, Gold was sentenced to thirty years in prison for his espionage activities. He was paroled in May 1965, after serving just under half of his sentence.
Gold returned to Philadelphia where he worked as a clinical chemist in the pathology lab of John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital. He died on August 28, 1972, at the age of 61.
Robert Benkeser continued his research at Purdue in the area of organo-silicon chemistry, where he is known for the Benkeser Reduction Reaction used in industrial chemical manufacturing.
He served as chemistry department head from 1974-1978. Bob received numerous awards for excellence in teaching and research during his 43-year career at Purdue. He retired in 1989 and died in West Lafayette on February 14, 2017, at the age of 96.
- 2009 Oral History with Robert A. Benkeser
- Declassified FBI document of Benkeser interview (PDF)
- Entire FBI Rosenberg/Gold document (Benkeser on PDF page 114)