Manhattan Project and Chemistry alumnus remembered for decades of invention and teaching


Ralph Tekel

A Purdue Chemistrty alumnus, noted scientist and organic chemistry professor at La Salle University, Dr. Ralph Tekel, 94, passed away Oct. 8 in Philadelphia after a bout with recurring pneumonia. Tekel earned his PhD from Purdue in 1949 soon after helping produce work that went on to be used in the Manhattan Project.

According to daugher Billie Elias, Tekel often spoke fondly oh his years in West Lafayette. Below is an obituary she wrote for her late father:

Dr. Ralph Tekel, one of the last people alive to have worked on the Manhattan Project, was born in 1920 on Manhattan's Lower East Side, to immigrant parents. After his family moved to the Bronx, he attended the rapid advance program at Prospect Jr. High School, where his general science teacher sparked his interest in chemistry and suggested he take the city-wide test to qualify for entry to the prestigious (then all-male) Stuyvesant High School.

After Stuyvesant, he attended Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, continuing to live at home and studying at the kitchen table. Until graduate school, Tekel never had girls in his classes. He worked his way through college waiting tables at hotels in the Catskills and blowing glass for use in laboratories during his summer vacations. 

As a researcher at the Pediatric Research Laboratories at Jewish Hospital in Brooklyn, he received two patents in 1946 and 1950 for his work in x-ray contrast media.

Dr. Ralph Tekel at Purdue
Dr. Ralph Tekel at Purdue in 1949. He had just received his PhD.

During graduate school, he unwittingly became part of the top secret Manhattan Project. His group at Purdue, led by Dr. Henry Hass, was known as "Project 220." They had been engaged in preparing freon-like materials called fluorocarbons. Not until after World War II did they learn that these were used to separate U²³⁵F₆ and U²³⁸F₆ isotopes.

The product the team sought, perfluoroheptane, had the right properties of a refrigerant used in the process of separation. Some aspects of this process were still secret in 1999 when Tekel recorded some personal notes. He felt that 90 percent of the atomic bomb scientists were against dropping the bomb.

In 1949 he was awarded a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Purdue University; his thesis was on the preparation of certain fluorinated alkanes and their derivatives. 

After settling in Philadelphia, Tekel worked in chemical development for the pharmaceutical industry for various companies, including Wyeth Laboratories and National Drugs. He was involved in the production of synthetic steroids, antibiotics and psychoactive drugs.

From 1965 until his retirement in 1985, Dr. Tekel was a professor of Organic Chemistry at La Salle College (now La Salle University). In addition, he served on La Salle's recommendations panel for medical school applicants and he and his wife Lillian endowed a scholarship there.

His first two marriages ended in divorce; in 1960, Tekel married for the third time to Lillian Toll Stevens. Her experience in World War II as an Army nurse and First Lieutenant in the Persian Gulf Service Command had taken her around the world. After their marriage, they began a lifelong quest together to visit all seven continents, initially visiting Iran, Iraq and other places where she had been stationed. Further travels took the couple to India, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea, the Galapagos Islands, Zimbabwe, Russia, China, and Antarctica.

From his mid-teens, Tekel had a serious interest in photography, first using a German Voigtlander Brilliant, later using Hasselblad, Leica, 4x5 view camera and Nikon. He was a member of several local and international camera clubs, winning numerous awards. He was ultimately able to use his knowledge of chemistry to print archival pigment prints and Cibachrome prints in his own darkroom. 

Dr. Tekel is survived by his wife Lillian, daughters Linda (and John Beelitz) and Billie (and Barry Elias), step-daughters Debbie and Cindy Stevens, and grandchildren Darren and Shawn Beelitz and Blake Elias. A step-son, Arthur Stevens, predeceased him.

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