This article was originally
published in The Beaver
in their August/September 1995 issue.
Reproduced with permission.
Louis Slotin And
'The Invisible Killer'
Page 1 of 3
A young Canadian scientist gave his life
to save his friends when an experiment went wrong
It happened in an instant. A sudden blue glow momentarily
enveloped the room before evaporating. In that moment, as the Geiger
counter clicked wildly, scientist Louis Slotin knew that he had received
a lethal dose of gama and neutron radiation from the core of the
plutonium bomb he was testing. It was 3:20 P.M. on Tuesday, 21 May 1946,
at the secret Omega Site Laboratory in Pajarito Canyon, Los Alamos, New
Slotin had been instructing a colleague, Alvin C. Graves, who was to
replace him at the Omega Site. Also present was S. Allan Kline, a
26-year-old graduate of the University of Chicago, who had been called
over to observe the procedure. Five other colleagues were close by as
Slotin, a Canadian physicist from Winnipeg who had been part of the team
that created the atomic bomb, performed the action that would bring into
close proximity the two halves of a beryllium-coated sphere and convert the
plutonium to a critical state.
With his left thumb wedged into a cavity in the top element, Slotin
had moved the top half of the sphere closer to the stationary lower
portion, a micro-inch at a time. In his right hand was a screwdriver,
which was being used to keep the two spheres from touching. Then, in
that fatal moment, the screwdriver slipped. The halves of the sphere
touched and the plutonium went supercritical.
The chain reaction was stopped when Slotin knocked the spheres apart,
but deadly gamma and neutron radiation had flashed into the room in a
blue blaze caused by the instantaneous ionization of the lab's air
particles. Louis Slotin had been exposed to almost 1,000 rads of
radiation, far more than a lethal dose. Kline, who had been three or
four feet away from Slotin, received between 90 and 100 rads, while
Graves, standing a bit closer, received an estimated 166 rads.
A surge of heat "swept over the observers, felt even by those
some distance from the source," writes Thomas D. Brock, a retired
University of Wisconsin biologist who has done extensive research on
early atomic-era accidents at Los Alamos. "In addition to the blue
glow and heat, Louis Slotin experienced a sour taste in his mouth [and]
an intense burning sensation in his left hand. As soon as Slotin left
the building, he vomited, a common reaction from intense
radiation." Another commentator suggests that it was as though
Slotin had been fully exposed to an exploding atomic bomb at a distance
of 4,800 feet.
There is some small variation in detail about what happened after
Slotin knocked apart the two beryllium spheres, while using his body as
a shield to protect the other men, but the official reports of the seven
survivors, all of which the U.S. government "declassified" in
1985, paint a stark picture of immediate post mishap events.
According to security guard Patrick Cleary:
"After the accident I ran out the East door and down the ramp.
Probably took me about five seconds or so. When I got to the gate, it
was still locked and Mr. Kline, Cieslicki and myself were the only
ones there. Mr. Kline told the M.P. to open the gate. He had some
trouble getting his whistle out of his pocket, but, when he did, he
opened the gates and then blew the whistle. I ran up the hill
approximately 1,000 feet with the others."
Dr. Louis Slotin at work, date and location unknown.
"Pretty soon Dr Slotin and Mr. Young came out. Mr. Young called and
told us to come down to the laboratory again. As soon as we got there
we drew a diagram to figure out approximately where everyone was when
it happened. The only other conversation was that everyone was
wondering who had gotten most of the radiation."
The sketch was used by doctors to determine the amount of radiation to
which each person had been exposed.
After arriving at the Los Alamos hospital Slotin told Alvin Graves:
"I'm sorry I got you into this. I'm afraid I have less than a 50
per cent chance of living. I hope you have better than that."
One of Slotin's close friends at Los Alamos, physicist Philip
Morrison, who "watched him die" and did much of the
post-accident radiation calculations, wrote that "medical and
nursing care were good in fact a bit overwhelming". Nurse Annamae
Dickey came every day, or sometimes twice a day, to take blood samples.
Morrison reported that she "had a hard time concealing her distress
when Louis pressed her for the results of her count."
Many volunteers were ready to donate blood for the transfusions
doctors deemed necessary. Sadly, all efforts to save Slotin were futile.
He died on 30 May after an agonizing sequence of radiation-induced
traumas including severe diarrhea and diminished output of urine,
swollen hands, erythema (redness) on his body, massive blisters on hands
and forearms, paralysis of intestinal activity, gangrene and a total
disintegration of bodily functions. It was a simple case of death from
radiation, similar to what American scientists and medical personnel saw
in Japan among A-bomb victims.
A few days before Slotin's death, Major-General Leslie R. Groves, the
military and administrative head of the Manhattan Project, sent a U.S.
Army DC-3 to Winnipeg to bring Slotin's parents to his bedside. Slotin
had initially sent them a telegram and then, Morrison recalled,
"with a nurse holding the receiver, he telephoned his family to
tell them he had been in an accident, that he would be in hospital for a
time. Since he couldn't visit them, perhaps, he suggested, his parents
would come see him?"
Israel and Sonia Slotin flew home from Santa Fe, New Mexico, with the
casket - which had to include a mandatory metal interline sealer -
containing their son's remains.
Since the Slotins were Orthodox Jews, the U.S. Army arranged for the
aircraft to arrive in Winnipeg before sundown on Friday, the beginning
of the Jewish sabbath. The plane was met at the airport by Louis
Slotin's brother Samuel, members of the family, friends and the
undertaker who transported the body to the Chesed Shel Emes (House of
Truth) Chapel on Main Street. The Winnipeg Tribune ran a photograph of
Slotin's casket being transferred from the plane into a hearse with the
cutline "Hero's Body Home".
Two rather moving stories about Slotin's father are recounted in a 3
June 1946 letter from Philip Morrison, who is now Professor Emeritus of
physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to fellow
physicist Bernard Feld:
"When Mr. Slotin was being driven up here from Albuquerque after
arriving by air, he explained why he had felt it necessary to come and
why he was so much concerned. "Louis was my oldest son and every
father loves his son. But there was more than that; there was respect
for Louis, for a learned man".
On the morning after Louis died, Hageman and I explained to Mr. Slotin
about the need for an autopsy. He told us that it was against the
traditions of the family and that he would be criticized for it when
he returned to Winnipeg; but he gave permission for it now. He said
that Louis had been a scientist all his life, and that when it could
do him no harm, it would be wrong to prevent him adding to knowledge."