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Oral Histories

Health Physicist Karl Z. Morgan, Ph.D.


Short Biography

College and Graduate School in North Carolina; Unintentionally Joining the Manhattan Project in Chicago in 1943

Chosen for the New Field of Health Physics (1943)

Determining Safe Doses for Ionizing Radiation at Chicago (1943)

Developing New Dosimetry Instrumentation

Arrival at Oak Ridge (1943)

Creating a Health Physics Division (1943–44)

Concern for the Radiological Safety of Workers and the Nearby Public

Participation in Human Erythema Dose Studies, Using Phosphorus-32 (1943–44)

Human Research Protocols; Informed Consent

Plutonium Injection Studies at an Oak Ridge Military Hospital (1945)

Oak Ridge Committees (Isotope Distribution, Human Use, et al.)

Studies in Uranium Ingestion, Injection, and Inhalation

Struxness and Bernard Go to a Boston Hospital to Assist in Studies in Radioisotope Injection Toxicity (Mid-'50s)

Criticizes Therapy Practiced at ORNL's Total-Body Irradiation Facilities

Hidden Military Funding to Explore Radiological Warfare During the Cold War

Atmospheric Releases of Short-Lived Isotopes Over Grazing Pastures

Developing a Chemical Dissolving Process to Remove Iodine From the Irradiated Uranium Slugs

Plans Laid for Atmospheric Releases of Radioisotopes

Unintentionally Widespread Dispersion From Phosphorus-32 Atmospheric Releases

Influence of Secrecy in Decisions About Radiation Exposure

Advice for Disposing of Tritium Safety Rebuffed by NRC

Chairing the Public Health Fund (1980–92)

Vanderbilt University Study of Pregnant Women and Iron-59

Difficulty Obtaining Historical Information, Despite Freedom of Information Act

Studies on Nuclear Waste Storage Issues



Oral History of Health Physicist Karl Z. Morgan, Ph.D.

Conducted January 7, 1995

United States Department of Energy
Office of Human Radiation Experiments
June 1995


In December 1993, U.S. Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O'Leary announced her Openness Initiative. As part of this initiative, the Department of Energy undertook an effort to identify and catalog historical documents on radiation experiments that had used human subjects. The Office of Human Radiation Experiments coordinated the Department's search for records about these experiments. An enormous volume of historical records has been located. Many of these records were disorganized; often poorly cataloged, if at all; and scattered across the country in holding areas, archives, and records centers.

The Department has produced a roadmap to the large universe of pertinent information: Human Radiation Experiments: The Department of Energy Roadmap to the Story and the Records (DOE/EH-0445, February 1995). The collected documents are also accessible through the Internet World Wide Web under The passage of time, the state of existing records, and the fact that some decisionmaking processes were never documented in written form, caused the Department to consider other means to supplement the documentary record.

In September 1994, the Office of Human Radiation Experiments, in collaboration with Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, began an oral history project to fulfill this goal. The project involved interviewing researchers and others with firsthand knowledge of either the human radiation experimentation that occurred during the Cold War or the institutional context in which such experimentation took place. The purpose of this project was to enrich the documentary record, provide missing information, and allow the researchers an opportunity to provide their perspective.

Thirty audiotaped interviews were conducted from September 1994 through January 1995. Interviewees were permitted to review the transcripts of their oral histories. Their comments were incorporated into the final version of the transcript if those comments supplemented, clarified, or corrected the contents of the interviews.

The Department of Energy is grateful to the scientists and researchers who agreed to participate in this project, many of whom were pioneers in the development of nuclear medicine.


The opinions expressed by the interviewee are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Department neither endorses nor disagrees with such views. Moreover, the Department of Energy makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of the informa-tion provided by the interviewee.


Karl Z. Morgan was selected for this oral history project because of his research for the Manhattan Project at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago, and his work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The oral history covers Dr. Morgan's work as a pioneer in the field of health physics, his health physics research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and his work since he retired from ORNL.

Short Biography

Dr. Morgan was born in Enochsville, North Carolina on September 27, 1907. He attended Lenoir-Rhyne College (Hickory, North Carolina), received B.S. and M.S. degrees (in Physics and Mathematics) in 1929 and 1930, respectively, from the University of North Carolina, and received his Ph.D. (Cosmic Radiation) in 1934 from Duke University (Durham, North Carolina). He is married and has four grown children.

Dr. Morgan began his career as a physics professor at Lenoir-Rhyne College (1934–1943), where he focused his work on cosmic ray research. In 1943, Dr. Morgan moved to Chicago to become a senior scientist in health physics for the Manhattan Engineer District. The following year, Dr. Morgan went to the newly formed Oak Ridge National Laboratory (formerly Clinton Laboratories) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where he served as Director of Health Physics from 1944 to 1972.

Since joining ORNL, Dr. Morgan has also held the following positions:

  • 1945 to '71—Member, International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP)
  • 1955 to '78—Member, National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP)
  • 1955 to '78—Editor-in-Chief, Health Physics Journal
  • 1960 to '72—Adjunct Professor of Health Physics, Vanderbilt University
  • 1972 to '83—Professor of Health Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology
  • 1983 to '86—Visiting Professor of Health Physics, Appalachian State University (Boone, North Carolina).

Dr. Morgan has published many times on health physics, addressing such topics as the maximum permissible occupational dose of specific isotopes. In addition, Dr. Morgan has researched and published numerous articles dealing with nuclear worker safety issues.

College and Graduate School in North Carolina; Unintentionally Joining the Manhattan Project in Chicago in 1943

CAPUTO:Today is January 7, 1995. My name is Marisa Caputo and I'm here with Michael Yuffee. We are from the Department of Energy's Office of Human Radiation Experiments. We're here today in Indian Springs, Florida, to interview Dr. Karl Morgan about his knowledge of Cold War human radiation experimentation. Dr. Morgan, I was hoping that we could start with where you were born and the year you were born, and then maybe get into your educational background.
MORGAN: I am Karl Ziegler Morgan. I was born in a small village—Enochsville, North Carolina, not far from Charlotte—on September 27, 1907. I spent a good portion of my early life in Raleigh, the later portion in Salisbury, North Carolina. I spent the first two years of college at a small college, Lenoir-Rhyne, in Hickory [North Carolina]. I then went to the University of North Carolina, where I received my B.S. and M.S. in Physics and Mathematics.

I worked about a year with Westinghouse in Philadelphia in 1930. Then I received a fellowship at Duke University, where I received my doctorate in 1934. My major research project there was the study of cosmic radiation. 1 Following my receipt of the Ph.D. degree—this during the Depression—I became chairman of the Physics Department at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory.

While teaching, I did cosmic ray research for about eight years. Research in caverns way underground and high mountains, Mt. Mitchell, Mt. Evans in Colorado, etc.
YUFFEE:Well, after your tenure with Lenoir-Rhyne, you went to the University of Chicago and joined the MED?2
MORGAN: While doing research at Lenoir-Rhyne, with Drs. [Walter] Nielsen and others there, one of the research projects was in Dr. [Arthur] Compton's3 laboratory on top of Mt. Evans [in Colorado]. During the summer I was there, I met Dr. [Jason] Sterns, chairman of the Physics Department at the University of Denver, and by accident, I casually mentioned my desire to find a job out West because I was fond of the mountains. Dr. Sterns was excited, and he said he'd always wanted to come East. So we then planned to change our positions. He was going to take my chairmanship at Lenoir-Rhyne and I was to take his in Denver. We exchanged a rather intensive correspondence, and then suddenly, during the winter of [early] 1943, the correspondence ceased. I heard nothing more from him. I assumed he had lost interest in moving East for some unknown reason.

Then suddenly I had phone calls from Sterns, Compton, and others in Chicago, urging me to come to Chicago because there was an extremely exciting program there that related to my cosmic ray research. For example, I was the only person in the [Southeast] part of the U.S. that had ever built and used cosmic ray [detecting] circuits. That was one of the principal instruments that was to be used in measuring the ionizing radiation.4

Well, I was still peeved with Sterns for not having answered my correspondence. After a few weeks and discussion with [Walter Nielsen and] Lother Nordheim, the theoretical physicist I was working with at Duke, [I made up my mind]. Incidentally, we [(Nordheim, Nielsen, and I)] helped to identify and discover the third particle of matter, the meson.

Nielsen said, "Well, maybe Dr. Compton and Sterns and others are trying to obtain energy from the atom, and maybe they could use that for a weapon." Well, eventually my curiosity got the best of me, and I found myself on the train going to Chicago. People did not go by plane in that period.

Chosen for the New Field of Health Physics (1943)

MORGAN: After my preliminary clearance, I walked into Compton's office, and Dr. Sterns and others were there. Sterns said, "Well, Karl, you'll be in the Health Physics Group." I was very much shocked and started toward the door. I said, "This is a terrible mistake: I've never even heard of health physics." Sterns said, "Hold on, Karl, we'd never heard of it ourselves till a few weeks ago. We have a very difficult problem: We are going to have intense sources of radiation and we believe that it's a problem of physics, primarily, to protect people from this radiation. So we are forming a small group under Dr. E.O. Wollan."

So I calmed down. Dr. Robert [S.] Stone was there; he was the Associate Director for Health under Arthur Compton. Bob said that they were determined, he and Arthur, to do this work safely. He reminded me that the radium dial painters had suffered [serious] consequences with radium. [He said] that [if] they were able to gather together all the radium in the world from physics labs and hospitals—at that time, it would be about two pounds; say, the size of a golf ball. Radium is quite dense, atomic number 226. They were going to build piles (instead of reactors). They called them piles, piles of graphite [and] uranium, primarily in those days, in which the intensity of ionizing radiation would not be equivalent to all of the available radium in the world [(two pounds)], but millions of billions times higher. They were going to surround these monsters with thick concrete, six feet or more, to protect people on the outside, and he and Dr. Compton were determined to do this work safely.
YUFFEE: Had they already told you, at this point, about [Enrico] Fermi and his reactor?
MORGAN: Well, no, I did not know about the Fermi reactor under the athletic stands5 during my first few weeks in Chicago, until my preliminary clearance was completed. Bob Stone went on to emphasize that [Otto] Hahn, [Fritz] Strassmann, [Lise] Meitner, and others in Germany were the first to discover the fission of uranium. [These Germans] had carried on some rather extensive studies, and the Chicago group was confident that Hitler and his associates were hellbent on developing a nuclear weapon, and that we were far behind. Stone and Compton were determined to catch up, if possible; but at the same time, to do the work safe from exposure to radiation.

Determining Safe Doses for Ionizing Radiation at Chicago (1943)

YUFFEE:How did you go about determining what exposure would be safe during your year6 with the MED in Chicago?
MORGAN: Well, I don't know whether we ever determined that it was safe. [I try to address this question in The Angry Genie, a book I'm writing]. We determined what we considered acceptable. During the first months of my stay in Chicago, there were five of us: E.O. Wollan, the head of the group; Herbert Parker, an Englishman who had been working with Simeon Cantrill in Seattle; Carl Gamertsfelder, 7 a young doctoral student from Washington University [in St. Louis]; myself; and a little later, Jim Hart, a DuPont chemist. There were others that joined the group for short periods of time, but these five were the ones that lasted at least until we got to Oak Ridge [Clinton Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee].

Well, how did we determine the [nature of our] problem? We read intensively all the literature related to radiation exposure and consequences. When I say "ionizing radiation," I mean primarily that above about 15 electron-volts. 8 As you know, visible light is on the order of one to three or four electron-volts, and here we were at a level of 15 electron-volts or more, sufficient to ionize, or pull or push electrons out of the atom and produce ion pairs. Our study was to find the effects of this ionizing radiation on man and his environment.

There wasn't much in the literature that was helpful. All we found, essentially, might be listed under the meager information on the speculation that radium dial painters had a higher instance of cancer than would normally be expected. [It resulted from] tipping of the brushes [with their lips], pointing of the brushes they dipped in radium paste when they painted the dials of watches.

The other [main source of information] was a fair amount of data—a few scores of papers—that related to skin erythema.9 The most common unit of ionizing radiation at that time was the erythema dose. Most of the literature was in the medical journals, relating to the problems that dentists and radiologists, primarily, had had when their hands became red and painful, and it was considered to be the same as [the "sunburn"] you get from extensive ultraviolet [radiation] exposure. So, the first period at Chicago was spent in trying to determine what levels would be acceptable for workers and for the public, and in the development of instruments that could be worn on the person of the worker, and that could be carried by surveyors and could be displayed in the environment and working areas.

We had to find out the risks of beta10 and electron radiation relative to x radiation. We had no data on gamma radiation.11 We supposed it would be similar to the equivalent energy of x rays and we had a little information, as I indicated, on alpha [radiation,]12 which was, of course the radium dial studies. We had absolutely no information on the effects of neutrons—fast epithermal or thermal neutrons.

So this was a horrendous task, to try to read all that was available. We attended numerous seminars. We gave some and we listened to many, from others in various departments in the university and those that were working on the Manhattan Project—that was a code name used at the time for our work under Compton.

Developing New Dosimetry Instrumentation

MORGAN: Dr. Wollan spent most of his time developing fiber dosimeters. They're small electrometers with a fiber that moves across the scale proportional to the dose administered to the instrument.

Hart, Parker, and Gamerstfelder spent a good bit of their time on "pencil dosimeters." They are small electrical condensers, air condensers. In physics units [they had a compacity] of one to two [cubic] centimeters.

I spent a major part of my time, in addition to learning what the radiation health problems were, in studying neutron exposure and development of instruments to measure neutron dose.

Dr. Gamerstfelder and I, along with some help from Parker, developed what we called a "chang and eng." [This instrument consisted of] two small cylinders; one was filled with nonhydrogenous13 gas, like argon, and the other with gas like hydrogen or methane [(CH4)]. As you know, neutrons don't produce ionization along their path because they have no charge, and their only ability to cause ionization is when they strike one of the nuclear components—that is, a proton or a neutron or a collection of nuclear particles.

So, with two chambers—one filled with gas containing hydrogen, the other with no hydrogen—and having them under pressure to give a large cross-section, we measured the differential output of these two chambers. I could measure [accurately] the neutron contribution from fast neutrons. Now, these chambers were very effective and very quantitative in their evaluation, so I used them later in some experiments in Oak Ridge.

Well, we developed many other instruments. I was a principal advocate for the use of Geiger counters.14 No one [except a handful of cosmic ray physicists] had ever heard of them before. I later regretted having introduced them without sufficiently warning about their shortcomings. As you may know, in high, intense radiation, the pulses come too close together [and can't be resolved, so the counter reads zero]. [In spite of this], they were, and still are, one of the most, if not the most, commonly used and useful instrument in measuring ionizing radiation, since they are more sensitive than most other devices used [and extremely simple in their operation].
YUFFEE: How did you test these instruments? Were there animal studies? Were there studies with people? Or were you just leaving the instruments exposed to a source to see whether they worked or not?
MORGAN: [While at Chicago,] we did no studies in biology or in the environment. That was left up to other groups at the University. We tested these instruments, with radium sources and [chang and eng and] beryllium sources of neutrons. Then, if we wanted to study epithermal or thermal [neutrons,] we used paraffins15 or something to slow down the neutrons. But, the biggest problem then, and even now, is that of the fast neutrons.

Arrival at Oak Ridge (1943)

MORGAN: Perhaps I can skip a few months, until we reached Oak Ridge.
CAPUTO: You went to Oak Ridge in 1944?
MORGAN: I went to Oak Ridge in 1943, in September. The five of us went there. I left Chicago, of course, taking my family first back to Hickory. I was very cruel: I left my wife with three kids to do the packing and moving, and I caught the train and went to Oak Ridge. You must keep in mind that Hitler was winning the war and time was of the essence to get on with this research. It was after crossing over the [Solway River] Bridge on the bus from Knoxville that I went through the routine of being checked by guards, and then [living] some of our family history [and atomic history].

When I reached the staging area, you might call it—what now is called Oak Ridge—I was assigned a place where I would sleep and told the number of the bus that I would catch to go where I was to work. I was repeatedly cautioned about security and not to wander off the marked roads. A lot of the security, of course, was ridiculous and absurd, because it gave away what we were doing, for one thing. Any physicists would have to be very stupid not to know what they were doing at what was called Y-12 and operated, at that time, by Tennessee Eastman [Company]. You could see all the [large] transformers and power lines going in. There wouldn't be anything else in the world that it could be used for except an electromagnetic separation [plant]. Of course, what would you be separating? They wouldn't be making heavy water there; they were separating 235U from 238U and -234 [as I've explained in Angry Genie].
YUFFEE: Were you at X-10?
MORGAN: I was assigned to X-10. At that time, or shortly after, they called it Clinton Laboratories. Some years later it was dedicated as Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is the present name.
CAPUTO: Why did you decide to go to Oak Ridge from the University of Chicago?
MORGAN: Well, at Chicago, living through part of the winter and a terrible [hot] summer there, [I couldn't wait to get to the cooler, open country]. I still felt like I was a Southerner and wanted to get back to the beautiful South and the mountains. I was working in my laboratory one afternoon when Martin Whittaker came in. He was a former classmate of mine at [University of North] Carolina when I was working on my master's [degree]. I used to help him with some of his mathematical problems that were pretty involved there at Carolina. So, I knew him very well. He startled me by saying, "Karl, how would you like to go south and get a job in the South?"

Well, I almost jumped to the ceiling [with joy] because I was very anxious, I and my family, to get back South. He said that he had been asked by Compton and by others, (I guess by [Leo] Szilard16), to head up a project they were developing in the cornfields of Tennessee, not far from a little town called Clinton. Whittaker said he would like me to join him in that program.

Creating a Health Physics Division (1943–44)

YUFFEE: Did you assume the role of director of the Health Physics Division upon your arrival at Oak Ridge?
MORGAN: When we got to Oak Ridge, Ernie Wollan immediately went into physics and left health physics. Ernie, unfortunately as you know, has long been deceased. The [1994] Nobel prize in Physics was given to one of his students there who he educated and trained in neutron diffraction techniques. Had he lived and were he alive today, he would be the principal recipient of that Nobel prize in Physics. Of course, that has been acknowledged.

Parker, Gamerstfelder, Hart, and I then constituted the original group [of health physicists] at Oak Ridge. Today there are over 35,000 professional health physicists in the world. There at Oak Ridge, Parker was the senior person in group, having been at Chicago prior to my coming. He left [Oak Ridge] later on in 1944. He, Gamertsfelder, and Hart left Oak Ridge and went to Hanford [in Washington State] in late spring and fall of 1944. Then the reins fell on my shoulders to do what I could to see that the pile we had in operation there was operated safely, and that the chemical and other operations were done without risk to employees or members of the public.

Concern for the Radiological Safety of Workers and the Nearby Public

CAPUTO: Do you know what drove that concern for workers' safety and the safety of the surrounding population?
MORGAN: Well, as I indicated earlier, we knew of only two risks. We supposed there might be others, but we knew nothing about them. The two were referred to as the "radiation syndrome," where doses of hundreds or thousands of roentgens17 are received and cause skin erythema. I'll try to use the roentgen unit to be more or less consistent; otherwise I might use five or six others that are in current use. We knew that very large doses of ionizing radiation would be fatal to animals, and presumably to man. [The] thing we knew and were concerned about was skin erythema, which I've discussed. So, our main problem there was to make sure what the radiation levels were. When I say radiation, I mean energy above 15 electron-volts. Our main purpose was to know what the levels of dose were and to provide means of limiting exposure of workers and members of the public to what we thought would be a safe level.
CAPUTO: I was wondering about the concern for worker safety. Was that a legal concern, or was that just a general concern for welfare, or was it driven by public perception?
MORGAN: I can only state with certainty my own impressions and response. I'm sure that people like my friend John Wheeler and Arthur Compton and others at that [higher] level were concerned, not only about the science and engineering, but about the legal problems of exposure. Frankly, I was still a physicist at heart, not a health physicist. My only concern was obtaining knowledge and protecting people. I never at that time—we are now talking about 1943—considered the problem of legal restraints or litigation. Court and lawsuits never crossed my mind; I never even thought of it. To me, the important thing was to get rid of that bastard in Germany, to win the war, and protect the people.

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