James Van Allen was born in Mount Pleasant, Iowa on September 7, 1914. A brilliant student, he graduated as valedictorian of Mount Pleasant Public High School in 1931 and went on to attend Iowa Wesleyan College where he received his Bachelor of Science degree, summa cum laud, in 1935. He then enrolled at the University of Iowa where he received an M.S. in solid state physics in 1936 and a Ph.D. in nuclear physics in 1939.
Following school, Van Allen accepted employment with the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, where he studied photodisintegration.
In April 1942 Van Allen joined the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of Johns Hopkins University where he worked to develop a rugged vacuum tube and to continue his work on proximity fuzes. Later in 1942, he entered the Navy, serving in the South Pacific Fleet as an assistant gunnery officer to field test and complete operational requirements for the proximity fuzes.
After the war, Van Allen returned to civilian life and began working in high altitude research, first for the Applied Physics Laboratory where he organized and directed a team at Johns Hopkins University to conduct high-altitude experiments, using V-2 rockets captured from the Germans. In 1951, James Van Allen became head of the physics department at the University of Iowa.
Van Allen¹s career took an important turn in 1955 when he and several other American scientists developed proposals for the launch of a scientific satellite as part of the research program conducted during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-1958.
After the success of the Soviet Union with Sputnik 1, Van Allen¹s Explorer spacecraft was approved for launch on a Redstone rocket. It flew on 31 January 1958, and returned enormously important scientific data about the radiation belts circling the Earth. Van Allen became a celebrity because of the success of that mission, and he went on to other important scientific projects in space. In one way or another, Van Allen was involved in the first four Explorer probes, the first Pioneers, several Mariner efforts, and the orbiting geophysical observatory.
James A. Van Allen retired from the University of Iowa in 1985 to become Carver Professor of Physics, Emeritus, after having served as the head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy from 1951. He died of heart failure at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City on August 9, 2006.