Posts with the tag: Karl Herzfeld

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:

The Archivist’s Nook: Scientist Meitner Lights Up Her World

Lise Meitner lighting up in this undated photograph from her younger days before she lit the world with nuclear fission. University Photograph Collection, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Austrian born Lise Meitner (1878-1968), a Jewish convert to Christianity and pioneering woman of science, was a renowned physicist who co-discovered nuclear fission. This discovery made nuclear weapons possible although this was not her intention. She worked for decades with Otto Hahn in Germany at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, including the prewar Nazi period, before fleeing to Sweden in 1938 where she worked at Manne Siegbahn’s laboratory. Many consider her the most significant female scientist of the twentieth century and Albert Einstein called her the German ‘Marie Curie.’ What most people do not know is that she also was a visiting professor in 1946 in Washington, D.C. at The Catholic University of America (CUA), where one of her sisters, who had converted to Catholicism, was married to CUA psychology professor, Rudolph Allers.

While Meitner had refused to work with the U.S. Manhattan Project to develop atomic bombs, she nevertheless feared revenge at the hands of Nazi sympathizers following the end of World War II. She wanted to leave Europe for a time to visit the United States. Accordingly, CUA Rector, Rev. Patrick J. McCormick, in a letter dated November 2, 1945¹ appointed her a visiting professor for the spring semester, February through May 1946, and she accepted in a letter dated November 27, 1945.² After her arrival in Washington, she was honored at a reception in Caldwell Hall on February 10, 1946. She gave a press conference the following day in McMahon Hall, where she was introduced by Karl Herzfeld, head of the CUA Physics Department. Meitner stated she was “happy to have the privilege of joining the science faculty of the Catholic University of America….I look forward to my stay in America for the opportunity it affords me to profit by the outstanding scientific results obtained in this great country.”³

National Catholic News Service Press Release, February 12, 1946. Meitner Reference File, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

On the CUA campus, Meitner gave lectures on nuclear physics on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursdays 5:10 to 6:00 and Fridays, 12:00-1:00, plus conducted a weekly nuclear physics seminar. Collecting several honorary degrees, she also toured and lectured at several other universities, including Brown, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and Wellesley. Speaking at Hopkins on March 21, 1946, she urged American women to make an effort to understand women of other countries, saying “women possess a special aptitude for building international understanding. They control the spiritual and ethical education of future citizens, and how they mold minds and character might decide the future of mankind.”⁴ Before leaving America, she received awards from the National Conference of Christians and Jews and as “Woman of the Year” from the National Press Club, including a dinner with President Harry Truman.

Following her American sojourn, Meitner returned to Sweden where she was active at the Swedish Defense Research Establishment (FOA) and the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, participating in research on Sweden’s first nuclear reactor. In 1947, she became a professor at the University College of Stockholm. She became a Swedish citizen and retired in 1960 to England, where she died in 1968. While the Nobel Committee overlooked her contributions to the discovery of nuclear fission and awarded the 1944 prize to her partner Otto Hahn, she received the Max Planck Medal of the German Physics Society in 1949 and shared the Enrico Fermi Award in 1966. Additionally, named in her honor are craters on the Moon and Venus, a main belt asteroid, and Element 109 (Meitnerium), the heaviest known element in the universe.

Invitation to Meitner Reception, February 10, 1946. Rector/President Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

¹ Letter, McCormick to Meitner, November 2, 1945, Rector/President Records, ACUA.

² Letter, Meitner to Cormich (sic), November 27, 1945, Rector/President Records, ACUA.

³ Press release, CUA, February 11, 1946, Meitner Reference File, ACUA.

⁴ Washington Post, March 21, 1946.