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Oral Histories

Biochemist Waldo E. Cohn, Ph.D.


Short Biography

Recruited for the Metallurgical Laboratory (1943)

Isolating Fission Products at Wartime Oak Ridge

Use of Cyclotron-Produced Radiophosphorus for Ph.D. Research and Cancer Therapy

Push to Find Commercial Uses for Crocker Lab's Radioisotopes (1940s)

Calculating the Toxic Effects of Inhaled Radioisotopes (Mid-1940s)

Oak Ridge Graphite Reactor Becomes a Postwar Source of Radioisotopes

Work With Aebersold to Create the Isotopes Distribution Committee (1946)

General Groves's Relations With the Scientists

Transfer to the Oak Ridge Biology Division (1947)

Adherence to Radiation Standards

Self-Experimentation With Radioactive Tracers

Researcher Knowledge of Radiological Hazard and Informed Consent

Research on Nucleic Acids

Use of Radioactive Isotopes Assessed in Context

Vanderbilt University Studies of Pregnant Women With Radioactive Iron (1945–49)

No Human Subjects Used by Oak Ridge Biology Division

Creating the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra (1944)

Nuclear Energy Policy and Public Opinion

1the U.S. Government's secret project, launched December 28, 1942 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Manhattan Engineer District, to develop the atomic bomb. Headquartered in Washington, the Manhattan Project was the Office of Scientific Research and Development Section on Uranium and was codenamed S-1 (Section One of the Office of Scientific Research and Development).

2an accelerator in which particles move in spiral paths in a constant magnetic field

3 radioactive tags on biomolecules used to study a biological, chemical, or physical system

4"Met Lab," the laboratory set up at the University of Chicago during World War II to lead the secret research and development of controlled nuclear fission under the Manhattan Project

5Led by physicist Enrico Fermi, Met Lab researchers had produced the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction on December 2, 1942. Operating initially at one-half watt, it achieved 200 watts ten days later.

6235U accounts for just 0.7 percent of all natural uranium; it has 143 neutrons in its nucleus, compared with 146 neutrons in the more abundant uranium-238. The slight difference in atomic weight between the 235U and 238U isotopes figured greatly in nuclear physics during the 1930s and 1940s. Uranium-235 could fission with slow neutrons, making a chain reaction possible. What was unknown was whether it could also fission with fast neutrons in a chain-reacting manner, to allow scientists to build an atomic bomb. See F.G. Gosling, The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb (DOE/HR-0096), September 1994.

7Chemist Glenn T. Seaborg had identified plutonium in February 1941. "By May he had proven that plutonium-239 was 1.7 times as likely as uranium-235 to fission. This finding made the Fermi-Szilard experiment more important than ever as it suggested the possibility of producing large amounts of the fissionable plutonium in a uranium pile using plentiful uranium-238 and then separating it chemically. Surely this would be less expensive and simpler than building isotope-separation plants." Source: Gosling, ibid.

8established by an executive order June 28, 1941—six days after German troops invaded the Soviet Union. The OSRD's director reported directly to the President and could invoke the prestige of the White House when dealing with other Federal agencies. The National Defense Research Committee, at the time headed by Harvard President James Conant, became an advisory body responsible for making research and development recommendations to the OSRD.

9a radioactive isotope of hydrogen having an atomic weight of three

10Glenn T. Seaborg, U.S. chemist (born 1912); discovered plutonium in 1940 and played a key role in the discovery of more than half a dozen new elements through the 1950s

11the time required for half the atoms of a radioactive substance to decay

12the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers organization set up to develop the atomic bomb under the ultrasecret Manhattan Project. Originally headquartered in New York, it was moved to Washington, DC, and finally to Oak Ridge in the summer of 1943.

13P. C. Aebersold and W. E. Cohn, Science 103:2685 (1946), pp. 697–705.

14Joseph Hamilton, an M.D., worked at Crocker Laboratory, then the site of a 60-inch cyclotron that he operated to produce radioisotopes in support of research and some medical diagnosis and treatment. Crocker was part of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, later renamed Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. Hamilton is discussed in several transcripts of this series, notably in the interviews with John Gofman (DOE/EH-0457, June 1995) and Earl Miller (DOE/EH-0474, June 1995). Hamilton spent most of his career at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory before dying prematurely of leukemia brought on, colleagues believe, by occupational exposure to radiation.

15Dr. John Lawrence, brother of Ernest O. Lawrence, was Director of the Division of Medical Physics at the University of California, Berkeley. He operated a clinic at Donner Laboratory, where he treated leukemia and polycythemia vera patients with radioactive phosphorus. For a colleague's recollection of Dr. Lawrence's clinic, see in the interview with Dr. John Gofman (DOE/EH-0457, June 1995), the sections "From Research to Laboratory Production of Plutonium," "Medical Treatments With Radioactive Phosphorus (32P)," "Conflict Between University of California San Francisco and Berkeley," "Heparin and Lipoprotein Research With Human Subjects," and "Radiophosphorus Therapy for Polycythemia Vera."

16a radioactive substance that emits electrons or positrons during radioactive decay

17Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts

18at Washington University

19any of several cancers of the bone marrow characterized by an abnormal increase of white blood cells in the tissues, resulting in anemia, increased susceptibility to infection, and impaired blood clotting

20referring, in this context, to the use of radioactive cobalt externally applied for medical treatment, not to a nuclear weapon incorporating cobalt in its design

21a positively charged particle, consisting of two protons and two neutrons, emitted in radioactive decay or nuclear fission; an alpha particle is the nucleus of a helium atom.

22highly penetrating photons of high frequency, usually 1019 Hz or more, emitted by an atomic nucleus

23For the transcript of the interview with Morgan, see DOE/EH-0475, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Health Physicist Karl Z. Morgan, Ph.D. (June 1995).

24an elementary particle found in the nucleus of most atoms and having no electrical charge

25a positively charged particle consisting of a proton and a neutron, equivalent to the nucleus of an atom of deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen having twice the mass of ordinary hydrogen)

26Once atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world knew about the United States' atomic capability and there was no longer a need to maintain strict secrecy about the fission research of the previous years.

27Dr. Paul Aebersold established the administrative system for distribution of radioactive isotopes. After working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Oak Ridge from 1942 to 1946, he served as director of the Atomic Energy Commission's Isotopes Division at Oak Ridge from 1947 to 1957. He retired as the Director of the AEC's Office of Isotopes Development in 1965. Two-and-a-half years later, he committed suicide. For additional information on Dr. Aebersold, see "Safety of the Nuclear Industry" in the interview with Merril Eisenbud (DOE/EH-0456, May 1995); "Remembrances of Personalities" in the interview with Earl Miller (DOE/EH-0474, June 1995); and "Oak Ridge Committees (Isotope Distribution, Human Use, et al.") and "Vanderbilt University Study of Pregnant Women and Iron-59" in the interview with Karl Morgan (DOE/EH-0475, June 1995).

28pronounced "p sh"—a sudden political revolt or uprising

29General Leslie R. Groves, U.S. Army, took command of the Manhattan Engineer District in 1942 and led it to completion of the Manhattan Project.

30the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, predecessor agency to the U.S. Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); established January 1, 1947

31public relations

32J. Robert Oppenheimer, U.S. nuclear physicist (1904–67) who played a principal role in the development of the atomic bomb

33Ames Laboratory in Iowa, a small independent laboratory spun off from the Metallurgical Laboratory in or around 1944

34Colonel Kenneth D. Nichols, U.S. Army, was General Groves's chief aide and troubleshooter for the Manhattan Project.

35any of a group of molecules, either DNA or RNA, that carry genetic information directing all cellular functions

36the process of reciprocal transfer of ions between a solution and a resin or other suitable solid

37a technique for identifying the components of chemical mixtures separated by preferential adsorption on an adsorbent medium

38the act of separating a substance in solid form from a solution

39the process of passing off as a vapor

40separation of two different chemicals by taking advantage of their differing solubilities in organic solvents

41chemical decomposition in which a compound is split into other compounds by reacting with water

42any of a group of molecules that, when linked together, for the building blocks of DNA or RNA

43dosimeters worn routinely to measure accumulated personal exposure to radiation

44J. Newell Stannard, a professor of Radiation Biology and related subjects at the University of Rochester (Rochester, New York)

45Uranium also emits beta particles because its beta-emitting decay products are present.

46an endocrine gland located at the base of the neck and secreting two hormones that regulate the rates of metabolism, growth, and development

47a millionth of a curie

48a thousandth of a curie; one thousand microcuries

49a device for detecting the presence and determining the sign of electric charges by means of electrostatic attraction and repulsion, often between two pieces of gold leaf enclosed in a glass-walled chamber

50Dr. Paul Hahn at Vanderbilt University performed research with radioactive iron and pregnant women. See "Vanderbilt University Study of Pregnant Women and Iron-59" in DOE/EH-0475, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Health Physicist Karl Z. Morgan, Ph.D. (June 1995).

51the branch of pharmacology dealing with the effects, antidotes, detection, etc. of poisons

52ribonucleic acid, associated with control of chemical activities in cells

53Brookhaven National Laboratory, Upton, NY

54In June 1994, the ex-wife of actor and former football player and sports commentator, O.J. Simpson, and a visitor to her home were murdered in Los Angeles, CA. Mr. Simpson was charged with both murders and placed on trial. DNA from blood samples taken at the crime scene and provided by Mr. Simpson were presented as critical evidence in the trial. At this writing (June 1995) no verdict has been rendered and the trial continues.

55deoxyribonucleic acid—a type of nucleic acid, particularly found in cell nuclei, that is the basis for heredity in many organisms. DNA molecules are constructed of a double helix held together by hydrogen bonds.

56separate or divide into component parts

57the cell substance between the cell membrane and the nucleus

58Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies, established in 1946 by the Manhattan Engineer District and operated under a Manhattan Project (and later Atomic Energy Commission) contract. The responsibility of ORINS was to train physicians and researchers in the safe handling of radioisotopes and to develop isotope applications in medicine. Today, the educational and training functions of ORINS are carried out by its successor, Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).

59From 1945 through 1949, Vanderbilt University Hospital conducted studies on iron absorption in pregnant women. Participants in the study were part of a larger nutrition survey conducted by the hospital. In all, 829 normal, healthy, pregnant women ingested radioactive iron-59 in an amount ranging from 1.8 to 120 milligrams. The iron-59 was administered at various times in the gestation period ranging from fewer than 10 to more than 35 weeks. The study showed that iron uptake is related to both dosage level and gestation period. For a more complete discussion and a list of references, see "OT-11: Iron Metabolism in Human Pregnancy as Studied with Iron-59," in Human Radiation Experiments Associated with the U.S. Department of Energy and Its Predecessors (210+ pages), DOE/EH-0491, July 1995.

60Shepherd and Hahn did collaborate for that study, according to Karl Morgan in his interview (DOE/EH-0475).

61Gould Andrews directed the total-body-irradiation facilities at Oak Ridge; Clarence Lushbaugh directed the Low-Exposure-Rate Total Body Irradiator (LETBI) facility. For contrasting views on the medical ethics of those studies, see DOE/EH-0475, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Health Physicist Karl Z. Morgan, Ph.D. (June 1995) and DOE/EH-0453, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Pathologist Clarence Lushbaugh, M.D. (April 1995).

62work on the swing shift (about 4:00 p.m. to midnight) or graveyard shift (about midnight to 8:00 a.m.)

63the "fishing" pole that was used to transfer uranium slugs from the reactor

64members of the U.S. armed forces, especially soldiers

65the part of the earth's crust, waters, and atmosphere that supports life

66the site selected in Nevada as the permanent repository for high-level spent commercial nuclear fuels

67Nuclear waste from Swedish commercial nuclear reactors is encased in special copper-clad glass capsules, which in turn are stored underground in stable granite formations.