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
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
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
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
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."