Manhattan Project - Part 4

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Vannevar Bush, the head of the civilian Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), asked President Franklin Roosevelt to assign the large-scale operations connected with the quickly growing nuclear weapons project to the military. Roosevelt chose the Army to work with the OSRD in building production plants. The Army Corps of Engineers selected Col. James Marshall to oversee the construction of factories to separate uranium isotopes and manufacture plutonium for the bomb.

OSRD scientists had explored several methods to produce plutonium and separate uranium-235 from uranium, but none of the processes was ready for production - only microscopic amounts had been prepared.

Only one method - electromagnetic separation, which had been developed by Ernest Lawrence at the University of California Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley - seemed promising for large-scale production. But scientists could not stop studying other potential methods of producing fissionable materials, because it was so expensive and because it was unlikely that it alone could produce enough material before the war was over.

Marshall and his deputy, Col. Kenneth Nichols, had to struggle to understand both the processes and the scientists with whom they had to work. Thrust suddenly into the new field of nuclear physics, they felt unable to distinguish between technical and personal preferences. Although they decided that a site near Knoxville, Tenn., would be suitable for the first production plant, they didn't know how large the site had to be and so put off its acquisition. There were other problems, too.

Because of its experimental nature, the nuclear weapons work could not compete with the Army's more-urgent tasks for top-priority ratings. The selection of scientists' work and production-plant construction often were delayed by Marshall's inability to get the critical materials, such as steel, that also were needed in other military productions.

Even selecting a name for the new Army project was difficult. The title chosen by Gen. Brehon Somervell, "Development of Substitute Materials," was objectionable because it seemed to reveal too much.

The Manhattan District

In the summer of 1942, Col. Leslie Groves was deputy to the chief of construction for the Army Corps of Engineers and had overseen construction of The Pentagon, the world's largest office building. Hoping for an overseas command, Groves objected when Somervell appointed him to take charge of the weapons project. His objections were overruled and Groves resigned himself to leading a project he thought had little chance of succeeding.

The first thing he did was rechristen the project The Manhattan District. The name evolved from the Corps of Engineers practice of naming districts after its headquarters' city (Marshall's headquarters were in New York City). At the same time, Groves was promoted to brigadier general, which gave him the rank thought necessary to deal with the senior scientists in the project.

In August 1942, the Manhattan Engineer District was created by the government to meet the goal of producing an atomic weapon under the pressure of ongoing global war. Its central mission became known as the Manhattan Project. Under the direction of Brigadier General Leslie Groves of the Army Corps of Engineers, who recently had supervised the construction of the Pentagon, secret atomic energy communities were created almost overnight in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and in Hanford, Washington, to house the workers and gigantic new machinery needed to produce the bomb. The weapon itself would be built at the Los Alamos laboratory, under the direction of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Plucked from campuses around the country, medical researchers came face to face with the need to understand and control the effect upon the thousands of people, doctors included, of radioactive materials being produced in previously unimaginable quantities.

In November 1942 General Groves, through the intermediation of an Eastman Kodak official, paid a call on University of Rochester radiologist Stafford Warren. Rochester, like MIT and Berkeley, was another locale where radiation research had brought together physicists and physicians.

"They wanted to know what I was doing in radiation. So I discussed the cancer work and some of the other things," Warren told an interviewer in the 1960s. Then "[w]e got upstairs and they looked in the closet and they closed the transom and they looked out the window. . . . Then they closed and locked the door and said, 'Sit down.'"

Soon thereafter, Dr. Warren was made a colonel in the U.S. Army and the medical director of the Manhattan Project. As his deputy, Warren called on Dr. Hymer Friedell, a radiologist who had worked with Dr. Stone in California. Dr. Stone himself had meanwhile moved to the University of Chicago, where he would play a key role in Manhattan Project-related medical research.

Initially, researchers knew little or nothing about the health effects of the basic bomb components, uranium, plutonium, and polonium. But, as a secret history written in 1946 stated, they knew the tale of the radium dial painters:

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