Selenium: The Story of Orville A. Beath

Wyoming has often given rise to great ideas and new research, and one such man that succeeded in a major discovery, alongside a team of researchers, was Orville A. Beath. Orville A. Beath was born in Wisconsin in 1884, where he would obtain his degrees, a B. A. and M.A. in chemistry. He met his wife, Katherine H. Shepard, in 1912, and they had one daughter, Mary Elizabeth. Mrs. Katherine Beath sadly passed in 1949. Mary Beath would later become a teacher of the Arts and Fine Arts in Tucson, Arizona.

old family portrait of man and woman standing

Photo of Orville A. Beath and Katherine H. Shepard, Box 38, Folder 1 of 2, Orville A. Beath Papers, Collection Number 400096, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Orville A. Beath was a professor of Chemistry at the University of Wyoming from 1914-1964. He and a team, which included Irene Rosenfeld, Carl S. Gilbert and Harold F. Eppson, researched seleniferous vegetation among other poisonous plants.[1] The work that Professor Beath and his associates would come to find about selenium would impact the next decades because of the precedence set by Beath and the team. In O. A. Beath’s book, The Story of Selenium in Wyoming, the foreword, written by Geologist, J. David Love, explains that Beath’s “two greatest contributions were the recognition of the geologic distribution of selenium in rocks and in the soils derived from them, and the role of converter plants that made selenium available to otherwise harmless plants.”[2]

canoe in foreground on lake in front of mountains

Glass Plate Negative of Scenic View, Box 27, Orville A. Beath Papers, Collection Number 400096, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

mountainous area with aspen trees and snow

Glass Plate Negative of Larkspur, Box 25, Orville A. Beath Papers, Collection Number 400096, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Beath’s daughter, Mary E. Beath, donated most of the collection to the American Heritage Center upon her death in the late 1990s. She dedicated much of her time with friends, family, and the acquaintances that her father had made through his work.

Between Orville Beath and his daughter Mary, they contributed a number of photographs, slides, and films to the collection. Much of the visual media in this collection is related to the work that Beath did with selenium and other poisonous plants. The other half of the visual materials is dedicated to family photos and home videos that include Beath’s cabin and their slight obsession with the privy and their local squirrels. The inside joke about the privy seems to be concerning that there was more than likely not a bathroom inside of the Beath cabin, therefore a privy, or better known as an outhouse, was built in order to suffice the need.

cabin and outhouse surrounded by aspens

Photograph of Beath’s Cabin and Privy, Box 30, Orville A. Beath Papers, Collection Number 05104, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming. Photograph of “The Privy”, Box 38, Orville A. Beath Papers, Collection Number 400096, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In the pictures below, Mary Beath is standing in the doorway, with a smile on her face, of this finished product: the privy.

mary-beath-and-the-privy

Photograph of Mary Beath and The Privy, Box 38, Orville A. Beath Papers, Collection Number 400096, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The photo below also include that of a squirrel; squirrels are often found in the visual materials belonging to the Beath collection and seem to be of some interest to the Beath’s and their fascination with and respect of nature.

squirrel on a tree stump

Photograph of squirrel, Box 30, Orville A. Beath Papers, Collection Number 400096, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

To learn more about Orville A. Beath and his work on selenium, see the Orville A. Beath papers at the American Heritage Center.

[1] Orville A. Beath Papers, Collection Number 400096, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

[2] The Story of Selenium in Wyoming, Box 6, Folder 5, Orville A. Beath Papers, Collection Number 400096, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Blog contribution by MaKayla Garnica, William D. Carlson Endowment Intern

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1 Response to Selenium: The Story of Orville A. Beath

  1. Dan Nelson says:

    I had the pleasure of meeting Mary a few times through our mutual friend, Jane Love, David’s wife. Very pleased to see this post.

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