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Louis P. Slotin

1910 - 1946

Web Master's Note:  This article on the life and death of Louis P. Slotin is reprinted here with permission of the author, Martin Zeilig.   In addition, Louis Slotin's accident and subsequent death formed the basis for the fictional character "Michael Merriman" who was featured in the movie "Fat Man and Little Boy".

 

This article was originally published in The Beaver in their August/September 1995 issue.
Reproduced with permission.

Louis Slotin And
'The Invisible Killer'

Page 2 of 3

A young Canadian scientist gave his life
to save his friends when an experiment went wrong

By Martin Zeilig

 

The funeral took place on Sunday 2 June 1946, a warm, breezy, partially overcast afternoon. Almost 3,000 people gathered on shady Scotia Street outside the Slotin family's home. They heard Rabbi S. Frank describe Louis as "one of the most brilliant scholars ever to come out of this city."

Rabbi Frank also quoted from a letter, written just before Slotin's death, by Major-General Groves which thanked the 35-year-old scientist for his "bravery and quick action which saved the lives of seven co-workers."

Louis Slotin's story has been told before in various forms, including a 1955 novel, The Accident by Dexter Masters. (Bibliographic note: Masters, Dexter. The accident. New York: Knopf, 1955. 406 p. Title may be available at New Mexico libraries.) His fatal mishap was portrayed in a graphic scene in the 1989 Hollywood movie Fat Man and Little Boy, with Paul Newman somewhat miscast as the gruff, heavy-set Major-General Groves.

The oldest of three children, Slotin was born on 1 December 1910. His Yiddish-speaking parents had escaped the pogroms of Czarist Russia. Louis grew up in the energetic, East-European melange of Winnipeg's North End.

As a boy, the bespectacled Louis Slotin demonstrated a love of knowledge. He also possessed a compelling desire to succeed. Louis was an exceptional student. He attended Machray Elementary School and St. John's Technical High School. Slotin was a wiry, wavy haired youth of 16 when he entered the University of Manitoba.

"Louis had an extreme intensity that enabled him to study long hours," his younger brother Sam Slotin recalled in a 1990 interview. "Louis used to make me play bridge with his friends, so that he could study instead. He liked to read inside our backyard gazebo?"

Slotin won the Gold Medal in chemistry and physics. In 1933, he received his Master of Science degree from the university. One of his mentors helped him obtain a travelling fellowship. Thus, in October 1933 Slotin was able to continue with advanced scientific studies under Professor A.J. Allmand at King's College, London, England.

Slotin was awarded a London University doctorate in bio-chemistry in July 1936. He won a prize for his thesis, which bore the title "An Investigation into the Intermediate Formation of Unstable Molecules During some Chemical Reactions". Subsequently, Slotin spent six months as "special investigator" for the Great Southern Railway in Dublin, Ireland, testing the Drumm alkaline battery.

Much of the mystique surrounding Louis Slotin arose during his London period. In his moral and political history of the atomic scientists, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, author Robert Jungt writes: "Ever since his earliest youth [Slotin] had gone in search of fighting, excitement, and adventure. He had volunteered for service in the Spanish Civil War, more for the sake of the thrill of it than on political grounds."

Sam Slotin later stressed during an interview with this writer that "Louis went on a walking tour in Spain. He did not take part in the war". Barbara Moon, in a 1961 Maclean's article, paints a picture of a young man with an impish sense of humour:

    "[Slotin] regularly amused himself with the gullible by planting false clues to an imaginary and stylish past. Many of his friends came to believe, for example, that he had fought with the Loyalists in Spain and flown with the RAF and this seemed to please some strain of romance in him."

Undeniable were Slotin's accomplishments as an amateur fighter. He learned to box at Winnipeg's YMCA. Those skills supposedly earned the 130-pounder the King's College amateur bantam-weight boxing championship. Sam recalled Louis joking: "All I ever received for it was a black eye."

In 1937, the newly-titled Dr. Slotin was unsuccessful in obtaining a job with Canada's National Research Council. It has been suggested that bureaucratic anti-semitism may have played a part in the NRC's decision not to hire him. Like many before him, Slotin looked south.

Later in 1937 Slotin was appointed a "Research Associate" at the University of Chicago, working on an atom-smashing cyclotron. Unfortunately, the project was poorly financed, forcing Slotin to literally work for "nothing" during a two year period. Regular contributions from his father, who was head of a Winnipeg livestock agency, helped Slotin stave off poverty.

Louis Slotin played a vital role in the construction of that first atom-smasher in the Midwest. In a letter to Slotin's parents his former Chicago colleague Henry W. Newson wrote:

    It was hard and often disappointing work. We did the machine shop work, the wiring, the plumbing and even broke up some concrete ourselves. We finally got the thing working in the fall of '38. During most of that year Louis worked on the oscillator circuits (a job like a big radio transmitter).
    During '39 and '40 Louis collaborated with Prof. Evans, now head of the Bio-Chemistry department. Louis made radio-carbon on the cyclotron which was fed to pigeons. The pigeon was killed later and the liver measured. All of the pigeon but the liver was biproduct [sic] and Louis frequently offered them to us for table purposes. However, I don't think he ever had any takers.

Slotin flourished in that hectic environment. He contributed to a number of papers in radiobiology before beginning to work in the Metallurgical Laboratory of the Manhattan District project when it was centralized in Chicago in 1942.

According to a 1962 University of Chicago document: "He was present on December 2, 1942, when the group of 'Met Lab' [Metallurgical Laboratoryj scientists working under the late Enrico Fermi achieved man's first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in a pile of graphite and uranium under the West Stands of Stagg Field." Newson's recollection, however, is that he and Slotin were absent when the experiment took place.

A February 1941 Winnipeg Free Press article, headlined "New Cancer Machine is Demonstrated", states, in part, that Slotin's work with the 80-ton University of Chicago cyclotron was "some officials of the university declare, more valuable in some ways than radium itself in the scientific study of cancer."

Slotin's scientific expertise ensured eventual ensnarement by the U.S. government's "A-Bomb Program" dragnet. In December 1944 he arrived in Los Alamos, New Mexico, headquarters of the Manhattan Project to work in the bomb physics group of R.F. Bacher. Slotin had already spent time in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, site of another part of the project, working with the German-Jewish physicist Eugen Wigner on the problem of plutonium production.

(Wigner and fellow physicist Leo Szilard, one of the first to deduce that an uranium chain reaction could lead to an atomic bomb, met with Albert Einstein on Long Island in July 1939. They were seeking to enlist the great man's support in alerting the U.S. Government to Hitler's possible plans to build an atomic bomb. That informal meeting began a process which eventually led to the launching of a multi-billion dollar A bomb program code-named the Manhattan Project.)

It was while working at Oak Ridge that Slotin's substantial scientific and personal bravado were brazenly demonstrated during one bizarre incident. In July 1993 retired health physicist Dr K.Z. Morgan, one of Slotin's Oak Ridge colleagues, recalled the exploit during a telephone interview with this writer:

    "It was Friday afternoon and Louis wanted to shut down the reactor to make adjustments to an experiment at the bottom of the tank of water which was used to absorb radiation. We said that was impossible, and we planned to shut down the reactor that weekend."

    When we came back on Monday morning, I found that Louis had stripped down to his shorts, dived into the tank and made the adjustments under water I was appalled that anyone would take such risks. It shows what kind of person he was. He was like a cowboy - but a good experimental scientist."

Despite denouncing Los Alamos as "a disorganized mess" Slotin, notes H.W. Newson, "went to work with the same energy he always showed and was soon enjoying himself." He quickly developed an "unrivalled reputation at assembling [the] critical firing mechanism for the atomic bomb."



Slotin soon became a master practitioner of the dangerous bomb "assembling" skill. In fact, as a 1986 Toronto Star story on Slotin notes "... he had put together the core of the first atomic bomb detonated (code named 'Trinity') by the U.S. Army in the New Mexico desert on 16 July 1945." One of Slotin's most prized possessions was a scribbled receipt he received upon delivering the "Trinity" atomic bomb to army personnel. It represented the "culmination of the whole $2 billion effort" of the Manhattan Project. For his efforts, Slotin had been dubbed the "chief armourer of the United States."

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