John Motley Morehead III: Ten Facts from a Remarkable Life

John Motley Morehead, III (center), from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Image Collection (#P0004), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archive. 
John Motley Morehead, III (center), from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Image Collection (#P0004), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archive.

This Thanksgiving marks the 83rd birthday of one of UNC Chapel Hill’s most recognizable landmarks: the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower. Dedicated right before the UNC-Virginia Thanksgiving Day game in 1931, the Bell Tower has been marking the quarter hour of countless Tar Heels’ lives for over eighty years, becoming a classic symbol of the University.

But the name Morehead can be found not only on the iconic Bell Tower, but across campus–from the Morehead Planetarium to the Morehead-Cain Scholars Program, to the Morehead Laboratories. One of the University’s major benefactors, John Motley Morehead III made a remarkable impact on the campus and its students. Here are ten facts about his life, legacy and work.


  1. John Motley Morehead, III was a third-generation Tar Heel. The Morehead saga begins with the first John Motley Morehead (Morehead III’s grandfather), who graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 1817, and later became North Carolina’s 29th governor. His son, James Turner Morehead, also attended UNC, graduating in 1861. Three decades later the baton was passed to John Motley Morehead III, who graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in Chemistry in 1891, becoming the fourteenth member of his family to graduate as a Tar Heel.
  2. He was an influential chemist. One year after graduating from UNC,  Morehead discovered acetylene gas while working at his father’s aluminum company in Spray, NC. He used this new-found gas as a way to mass-produce calcium carbide, subsequently co-founding one of America’s most influential corporations: Union Carbide. Morehead would go on to work at Union Carbide for 56 years as the company’s chief chemist and construction engineer.
  3. He was heavily involved in WWI. In addition to being an Army major, Morehead III also served on the Interdepartmental Ammonia Committee, the War Industries Board as chief of the Industrial Gases and Gas Products section, and also as secretary to the Explosives Committee. Under his supervision, it is said that the Americans’ supply of toluene–the second “T” in T.N.T–increased ten-fold.
  4. He was once a mayor. Proving to be just as proficient in politics as he was in chemistry, Morehead served as the mayor of Rye, New York from 1925 to 1930.
  5. He served as the United States Minister to Sweden. Cognizant of Morehead’s outstanding scientific work in WWI, former engineer President Herbert Hoover appointed Morehead to the title of Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Sweden in 1930. Adding yet another achievement to his already illustrious resume, Morehead III served as Minister to Sweden for three years, ultimately receiving the gold medal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences from King Gustav V. Morehead was the first non-Swede to ever receive the honor.
  6. The Bell Tower’s current location was not Morehead’s first choice. During the early 1920s, as plans were being made to renovate South Building, Morehead sought to replace South’s belfry with an extravagant Bell Tower if the university agreed to change the building’s name from ‘South’ to ‘Morehead’. Although Morehead’s proposal was denied, the Bell Tower would eventually be completed in 1931 in its current location right outside Kenan Stadium.
  7. Morehead Planetarium, funded by and named for Morehead, has hosted astronauts including Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. Completed in 1949, Morehead built the luxurious Morehead Planetarium as a way to reinvigorate Chapel Hill’s and the South’s thirst for scientific knowledge. Since its construction, the advanced facilities of Morehead Planetarium have been used to train and host an impressive number of NASA astronauts. Famous visitors to the planetarium include Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, John Glenn (pictured below), and the crew of the Apollo 13 mission.

    John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, pictured with his family on the Morehead Planetarium Sundial. From the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Image Collection (#P0004), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archive.
  8. John Motley Morehead III is the creator of one of the nation’s most prestigious scholarships: The Morehead-Cain Scholarship. First handed out in 1951, the Morehead-Cain Scholarship has become one of the most prestigious undergraduate merit-based scholarships in the United States. Notable recipients of the scholarship include three U.S. congressman, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, a Pulitzer-prize winning historian, and an ACC commissioner just to name a few.
  9. The name of Morehead’s grandfather, Governor John Motley Morehead, is inscribed on the Bell Tower’s largest bell. Dedicated in 1931, the Morrison-Patterson Bell Tower included 12 bells (now 14), ranging in weight from 300 to 3,500 pounds. Each bell was inscribed with names from both the Morehead and Patterson families, with Morehead III dedicating the largest bell to his grandfather who was an important influence not just in his own life, but in the life of the university they both called home.
  10. He was affectionately referred to by UNC students as “Uncle Mot.” Despite his adventures around the globe, Morehead  always maintained a close relationship with UNC Chapel Hill and its students. From the familiar peal of the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower, to the peerless altruism of the Morehead-Cain Scholarships, and the scientific advancements of Morehead Planetarium, multiple generations of Tar Heels have been influenced by the life and contributions of John Motley Morehead III.