The Archivist’s Nook: Atomic Age Catholics

Rev. William McDonald, Rector, blessing the nuclear reactor in 1957.

“Saturday: Atomic Reactor Demonstration, Tour of National Shrine, Open House Library Science……11:30 & 12:45”

-Homecoming ’58 Schedule, Tower, November 14, 1958

In the fall of 1957, an AGN-201 nuclear training reactor was installed on the Catholic University campus. Originally located in the Nuclear Training Laboratory of the campus Power Plant, this reactor was a compact unit standing nine feet tall and weighing 12 tons. Capable of producing 100 milliwatts of energy – only enough to light a single Christmas tree bulb! – the unit was not intended for powering campus offices but providing a controlled model to train budding nuclear engineers, power plant operators, and faculty researchers. For over 20 years, the reactor was at the heart of a close relationship between the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the University. But why Catholic University and why a nuclear reactor?

Dr. Talbott demonstrating the “Atom Smasher,” 1941.

To understand this partnership, one must understand the fears and hopes of the post-war Atomic Age. While there were fears about the destructive potential of nuclear technology, scientific and political leaders also recognized its awesome potential for good. Advancements in nuclear monitoring and reactor development, declassification of technics, and concern over losing scientific ground to the Soviet Union provided the impetus for Congress to pass the Atomic Energy Acts of 1954 and 1955. These Acts authorized the AEC to provide grant monies to engineering schools for nuclear equipment, ranging from reactors for training power plant operators to biomedical equipment to study radiation’s effects on cancer cells. Catholic University, with its centrality in the nation’s capital and having previously established a nuclear science and engineering program under the joint guidance of the Department of Physics and School of Engineering in 1956, was well-placed to apply for a grant.

With a storied history of aviation innovation with the first experimental wind tunnel in the United States, by the early 1940s, the Physics Department was one of only two Catholic institutions in the United States to possess an “atom smasher.” Maintained by Herzfeld and Talbott, this “smasher” was an apparatus that produced high electrical voltage to charge particles.

Sr. Mary Dolores, C.F.M., a PhD candidate in Biology, and M.S. candidate Donald B. Pribor (right), work with AEC-provided equipment to study the effect of ultrasonics and radio-isotopes on retarding the growth of cancer cells in mice. Dr. Braungart (left) supervises. 1960.

Receiving over $123,000 to acquire the reactor, this became the first of many AEC grants the University would receive in the coming decades. Among the many projects funded by this program was a radioactive isotope laboratory, under the auspices of the Department of Biology, specializing in retarding cancer growth cells in mice. Physics was also provided additional funds to continue the neutrino research of Dr. Clyde Cowan, who had co-discovered the neutrino in 1956. Dr. Cowan joined the Department in 1958. Numerous scientific luminaries were associated with the grant program, including: Drs. Francis Leo Talbott, Karl Herzeld and Clyde Cowan of Physics; Dean Donald Marlowe of Engineering; and Dr. Dale C. Braungart of Biology.

The reactor was relocated several times during its tenure, residing in the Power Plant, McGivney Hall (then known as Keane Hall), and Pangborn Hall. McGivney was even originally constructed in 1958 to serve as a center for physics research, with its deep basement levels providing reduced background interference for the experiments to be conducted. But by the late 1970s, some of the initial public optimism of the Atomic Age had waned following the aftermath of the Three Mile nuclear incident and continuing fears of nuclear war. Although the reactor had been inactive for several years at that point, concerns were raised about its continued presence on campus. By the early 1990s, it was fully decommissioned and removed from campus.

Vestiges of the Atomic Age on campus, 2017.

While this partnership with the AEC thankfully resulted in no giant lizards stomping across the Brookland neighborhood, it did inspire a generation of innovative research and budding engineers, a legacy that continues in the sciences on campus today, whether through the Vitreous State Laboratory’s research into safe nuclear storage or partnerships with NASA.

In addition, the Archives holds the papers of Dr. Clyde Cowan: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/cowan.cfm

The Archivist’s Nook: Farewell and Thanks for All the Files!

“To Build a Stronger Union of Oil Workers”, from the CIO collection, 1950

This week’s post is guest authored by Marielle Gage, a recent CUA graduate in Library Science.

Two years ago, I walked into the American Catholic Research Center and University Archives as a student worker. I thought I would like the job — I knew one of my new coworkers from class, and had approved of John Shepherd’s fine collection of New England Patriots’ memorabilia — but I was surprised by how much. At the time, I was finishing my Master’s in History, and was assuming I would continue on to the PhD. But unexpected circumstances, and my new job, made me reconsider, and this last year has seen me finish a second Master’s, this one in Library and Information Science, and searching for a position in the field of archives rather than academia.

More than once, I’ve been asked, “What is it you do at an archives, anyway?” Normally, I explain what an archive is, and that answers their curiosity, but sometimes I get a follow-up: “Okay, so that’s the use of an archive, but why do you do all day? Just wait for researchers?” That question is actually harder to answer than you might expect, not because there isn’t anything to respond with, but because there’s just so much, it’s hard to describe a “typical” day. There isn’t one, really.

Take just this last month, as I finish my time at ACUA. I’ve processed a collection, including moving files into acid-free boxes and folders and giving everything labels, as well as fully organizing it, coded the Electronic Archival Description for it (using html), created a preliminary listing for another collection, scanned images for independent researchers and CUA staff, updated records, introduced researchers to our archives and rules, pulled boxes, created PDFs of hundreds of pages of original documents, taken phone calls, compiled a list of previous commencement speakers by reviewing old commencement handouts, moved artwork from our stacks to the vault, and more. Sometimes I arrive at the archives not sure what I’m going to work on that day; and even if I think I do, that could change with a phone call from the Registrar or some other university office, or with the arrival of an unexpected researcher. In my two years here, I have very few memories of being idle or without anything to do, even for twenty minutes.

Marvel’s “Mother Teresa of Calcutta”, from the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa collection, 1984

Even more than keeping me busy and out of the proverbial pool halls, my work at ACUA has been incredibly rewarding. Contrary to any stereotypes of librarian-type students, I am very much a people person, and take great satisfaction in helping people along their way: especially if they are seeking information and knowledge. I wish sometimes I had the ability to read the final version of every researcher’s book or article assigned by their investigations here, and it makes my day when we are able to provide something above and beyond the expectations of our visitors. That’s not really to our credit, necessarily: our records really are amazing. Not just highly informative — such as our various labor collections or the USCCB files — by sometimes really fun; we have, for example, a copy of a comic book Marvel produced about Mother Teresa. Even if it is simply her biography (and not, as I was hoping, a team-up with The Incredible Hulk to defeat Professor Poverty) it’s still a delightful record of the cultural impact she had even during her lifetime. There’s dozens of more items and collections I could talk about, but that’s not the point here.

Really, the point is to thank Dr. Meagher, Dr. Mazzenga, Mr. Shepherd, Shane MacDonald, and everyone else at the Archives for such a wonderful opportunity. They took a chance on a bookish girl, knee-high to a grasshopper even in her twenties, and trusted that she would be an asset to their community. I hope I have paid back that trust at least partially, but truly I owe all of them a debt I may never be able to repay. I very much doubt I ever would have sought that second Master’s, or sought a career in this field, if I hadn’t worked here. Now, as I move on to (hopefully), bigger and better things, I’d like to take this final chance to wish them all the very best. So here’s to you, ACUA: may your donors be plentiful and your HVACs never leak.