DOE Openness: Human Radiation Experiments: Roadmap to the Project
HUMAN RADIATION STUDIES:
College and Graduate School in North Carolina; Unintentionally Joining the Manhattan Project in Chicago in 1943
|CAPUTO:||Today is January 7, 1995. My name is Marisa Caputo and I'm here with Michael Yuffee. We are from the Department of Energy's Office of Human Radiation Experiments. We're here today in Indian Springs, Florida, to interview Dr. Karl Morgan about his knowledge of Cold War human radiation experimentation. Dr. Morgan, I was hoping that we could start with where you were born and the year you were born, and then maybe get into your educational background.||MORGAN:|| I am Karl Ziegler Morgan. I was born in a small villageEnochsville,
North Carolina, not far from Charlotteon September 27, 1907. I spent a
good portion of my early life in Raleigh, the later portion in Salisbury, North
Carolina. I spent the first two years of college at a small college,
Lenoir-Rhyne, in Hickory [North Carolina]. I then went to the University of
North Carolina, where I received my B.S. and M.S. in Physics and Mathematics.
I worked about a year with Westinghouse in Philadelphia in 1930. Then I received a fellowship at Duke University, where I received my doctorate in 1934. My major research project there was the study of cosmic radiation. 1 Following my receipt of the Ph.D. degreethis during the DepressionI became chairman of the Physics Department at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory.
While teaching, I did cosmic ray research for about eight years. Research in caverns way underground and high mountains, Mt. Mitchell, Mt. Evans in Colorado, etc.
|YUFFEE:||Well, after your tenure with Lenoir-Rhyne, you went to the University of Chicago and joined the MED?2||MORGAN:|| While doing research at Lenoir-Rhyne, with Drs. [Walter]
Nielsen and others there, one of the research projects was in Dr. [Arthur]
Compton's3 laboratory on top of Mt. Evans [in Colorado]. During the
summer I was there, I met Dr. [Jason] Sterns, chairman of the Physics Department
at the University of Denver, and by accident, I casually mentioned my desire to
find a job out West because I was fond of the mountains. Dr. Sterns was excited,
and he said he'd always wanted to come East. So we then planned to change our
positions. He was going to take my chairmanship at Lenoir-Rhyne and I was to
take his in Denver. We exchanged a rather intensive correspondence, and then
suddenly, during the winter of [early] 1943, the correspondence ceased. I heard
nothing more from him. I assumed he had lost interest in moving East for some
Then suddenly I had phone calls from Sterns, Compton, and others in Chicago, urging me to come to Chicago because there was an extremely exciting program there that related to my cosmic ray research. For example, I was the only person in the [Southeast] part of the U.S. that had ever built and used cosmic ray [detecting] circuits. That was one of the principal instruments that was to be used in measuring the ionizing radiation.4
Well, I was still peeved with Sterns for not having answered my correspondence. After a few weeks and discussion with [Walter Nielsen and] Lother Nordheim, the theoretical physicist I was working with at Duke, [I made up my mind]. Incidentally, we [(Nordheim, Nielsen, and I)] helped to identify and discover the third particle of matter, the meson.
Nielsen said, "Well, maybe Dr. Compton and Sterns and others are trying to obtain energy from the atom, and maybe they could use that for a weapon." Well, eventually my curiosity got the best of me, and I found myself on the train going to Chicago. People did not go by plane in that period.
Chosen for the New Field of Health Physics (1943)
|MORGAN:|| After my preliminary clearance, I walked into Compton's
office, and Dr. Sterns and others were there. Sterns said, "Well, Karl,
you'll be in the Health Physics Group." I was very much shocked and started
toward the door. I said, "This is a terrible mistake: I've never even heard
of health physics." Sterns said, "Hold on, Karl, we'd never heard of
it ourselves till a few weeks ago. We have a very difficult problem: We are
going to have intense sources of radiation and we believe that it's a problem of
physics, primarily, to protect people from this radiation. So we are forming a
small group under Dr. E.O. Wollan."
So I calmed down. Dr. Robert [S.] Stone was there; he was the Associate Director for Health under Arthur Compton. Bob said that they were determined, he and Arthur, to do this work safely. He reminded me that the radium dial painters had suffered [serious] consequences with radium. [He said] that [if] they were able to gather together all the radium in the world from physics labs and hospitalsat that time, it would be about two pounds; say, the size of a golf ball. Radium is quite dense, atomic number 226. They were going to build piles (instead of reactors). They called them piles, piles of graphite [and] uranium, primarily in those days, in which the intensity of ionizing radiation would not be equivalent to all of the available radium in the world [(two pounds)], but millions of billions times higher. They were going to surround these monsters with thick concrete, six feet or more, to protect people on the outside, and he and Dr. Compton were determined to do this work safely.
|YUFFEE:||Had they already told you, at this point, about [Enrico] Fermi and his reactor?||MORGAN:||Well, no, I did not know about the Fermi reactor under the athletic stands5 during my first few weeks in Chicago, until my preliminary clearance was completed. Bob Stone went on to emphasize that [Otto] Hahn, [Fritz] Strassmann, [Lise] Meitner, and others in Germany were the first to discover the fission of uranium. [These Germans] had carried on some rather extensive studies, and the Chicago group was confident that Hitler and his associates were hellbent on developing a nuclear weapon, and that we were far behind. Stone and Compton were determined to catch up, if possible; but at the same time, to do the work safe from exposure to radiation.|
Determining Safe Doses for Ionizing Radiation at Chicago (1943)
|YUFFEE:||How did you go about determining what exposure would be safe during your year6 with the MED in Chicago?||MORGAN:|| Well, I don't know whether we ever determined that it was
safe. [I try to address this question in The Angry Genie, a book I'm
writing]. We determined what we considered acceptable. During the first months
of my stay in Chicago, there were five of us: E.O. Wollan, the head of the
group; Herbert Parker, an Englishman who had been working with Simeon Cantrill
in Seattle; Carl Gamertsfelder, 7 a young doctoral student from Washington
University [in St. Louis]; myself; and a little later, Jim Hart, a DuPont
chemist. There were others that joined the group for short periods of time, but
these five were the ones that lasted at least until we got to Oak Ridge [Clinton
Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee].
Well, how did we determine the [nature of our] problem? We read intensively all the literature related to radiation exposure and consequences. When I say "ionizing radiation," I mean primarily that above about 15 electron-volts. 8 As you know, visible light is on the order of one to three or four electron-volts, and here we were at a level of 15 electron-volts or more, sufficient to ionize, or pull or push electrons out of the atom and produce ion pairs. Our study was to find the effects of this ionizing radiation on man and his environment.
There wasn't much in the literature that was helpful. All we found, essentially, might be listed under the meager information on the speculation that radium dial painters had a higher instance of cancer than would normally be expected. [It resulted from] tipping of the brushes [with their lips], pointing of the brushes they dipped in radium paste when they painted the dials of watches.
The other [main source of information] was a fair amount of dataa few scores of papersthat related to skin erythema.9 The most common unit of ionizing radiation at that time was the erythema dose. Most of the literature was in the medical journals, relating to the problems that dentists and radiologists, primarily, had had when their hands became red and painful, and it was considered to be the same as [the "sunburn"] you get from extensive ultraviolet [radiation] exposure. So, the first period at Chicago was spent in trying to determine what levels would be acceptable for workers and for the public, and in the development of instruments that could be worn on the person of the worker, and that could be carried by surveyors and could be displayed in the environment and working areas.
We had to find out the risks of beta10 and electron radiation relative to x radiation. We had no data on gamma radiation.11 We supposed it would be similar to the equivalent energy of x rays and we had a little information, as I indicated, on alpha [radiation,]12 which was, of course the radium dial studies. We had absolutely no information on the effects of neutronsfast epithermal or thermal neutrons.
So this was a horrendous task, to try to read all that was available. We attended numerous seminars. We gave some and we listened to many, from others in various departments in the university and those that were working on the Manhattan Projectthat was a code name used at the time for our work under Compton.
Developing New Dosimetry Instrumentation
|MORGAN:|| Dr. Wollan spent most of his time developing fiber
dosimeters. They're small electrometers with a fiber that moves across the scale
proportional to the dose administered to the instrument.
Hart, Parker, and Gamerstfelder spent a good bit of their time on "pencil dosimeters." They are small electrical condensers, air condensers. In physics units [they had a compacity] of one to two [cubic] centimeters.
I spent a major part of my time, in addition to learning what the radiation health problems were, in studying neutron exposure and development of instruments to measure neutron dose.
Dr. Gamerstfelder and I, along with some help from Parker, developed what we called a "chang and eng." [This instrument consisted of] two small cylinders; one was filled with nonhydrogenous13 gas, like argon, and the other with gas like hydrogen or methane [(CH4)]. As you know, neutrons don't produce ionization along their path because they have no charge, and their only ability to cause ionization is when they strike one of the nuclear componentsthat is, a proton or a neutron or a collection of nuclear particles.
So, with two chambersone filled with gas containing hydrogen, the other with no hydrogenand having them under pressure to give a large cross-section, we measured the differential output of these two chambers. I could measure [accurately] the neutron contribution from fast neutrons. Now, these chambers were very effective and very quantitative in their evaluation, so I used them later in some experiments in Oak Ridge.
Well, we developed many other instruments. I was a principal advocate for the use of Geiger counters.14 No one [except a handful of cosmic ray physicists] had ever heard of them before. I later regretted having introduced them without sufficiently warning about their shortcomings. As you may know, in high, intense radiation, the pulses come too close together [and can't be resolved, so the counter reads zero]. [In spite of this], they were, and still are, one of the most, if not the most, commonly used and useful instrument in measuring ionizing radiation, since they are more sensitive than most other devices used [and extremely simple in their operation].
|YUFFEE:||How did you test these instruments? Were there animal studies? Were there studies with people? Or were you just leaving the instruments exposed to a source to see whether they worked or not?||MORGAN:||[While at Chicago,] we did no studies in biology or in the environment. That was left up to other groups at the University. We tested these instruments, with radium sources and [chang and eng and] beryllium sources of neutrons. Then, if we wanted to study epithermal or thermal [neutrons,] we used paraffins15 or something to slow down the neutrons. But, the biggest problem then, and even now, is that of the fast neutrons.|
Arrival at Oak Ridge (1943)
|MORGAN:||Perhaps I can skip a few months, until we reached Oak Ridge.||CAPUTO:||You went to Oak Ridge in 1944?||MORGAN:|| I went to Oak Ridge in 1943, in September. The five of us
went there. I left Chicago, of course, taking my family first back to Hickory. I
was very cruel: I left my wife with three kids to do the packing and moving, and
I caught the train and went to Oak Ridge. You must keep in mind that Hitler was
winning the war and time was of the essence to get on with this research. It was
after crossing over the [Solway River] Bridge on the bus from Knoxville that I
went through the routine of being checked by guards, and then [living] some of
our family history [and atomic history].
When I reached the staging area, you might call itwhat now is called Oak RidgeI was assigned a place where I would sleep and told the number of the bus that I would catch to go where I was to work. I was repeatedly cautioned about security and not to wander off the marked roads. A lot of the security, of course, was ridiculous and absurd, because it gave away what we were doing, for one thing. Any physicists would have to be very stupid not to know what they were doing at what was called Y-12 and operated, at that time, by Tennessee Eastman [Company]. You could see all the [large] transformers and power lines going in. There wouldn't be anything else in the world that it could be used for except an electromagnetic separation [plant]. Of course, what would you be separating? They wouldn't be making heavy water there; they were separating 235U from 238U and -234 [as I've explained in Angry Genie].
|YUFFEE:||Were you at X-10?||MORGAN:||I was assigned to X-10. At that time, or shortly after, they called it Clinton Laboratories. Some years later it was dedicated as Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is the present name.||CAPUTO:||Why did you decide to go to Oak Ridge from the University of Chicago?||MORGAN:|| Well, at Chicago, living through part of the winter and a
terrible [hot] summer there, [I couldn't wait to get to the cooler, open
country]. I still felt like I was a Southerner and wanted to get back to the
beautiful South and the mountains. I was working in my laboratory one afternoon
when Martin Whittaker came in. He was a former classmate of mine at [University
of North] Carolina when I was working on my master's [degree]. I used to help
him with some of his mathematical problems that were pretty involved there at
Carolina. So, I knew him very well. He startled me by saying, "Karl, how
would you like to go south and get a job in the South?"
Well, I almost jumped to the ceiling [with joy] because I was very anxious, I and my family, to get back South. He said that he had been asked by Compton and by others, (I guess by [Leo] Szilard16), to head up a project they were developing in the cornfields of Tennessee, not far from a little town called Clinton. Whittaker said he would like me to join him in that program.
Creating a Health Physics Division (194344)
|YUFFEE:||Did you assume the role of director of the Health Physics Division upon your arrival at Oak Ridge?||MORGAN:|| When we got to Oak Ridge, Ernie Wollan immediately went into
physics and left health physics. Ernie, unfortunately as you know, has long been
deceased. The  Nobel prize in Physics was given to one of his students
there who he educated and trained in neutron diffraction techniques. Had he
lived and were he alive today, he would be the principal recipient of that Nobel
prize in Physics. Of course, that has been acknowledged.
Parker, Gamerstfelder, Hart, and I then constituted the original group [of health physicists] at Oak Ridge. Today there are over 35,000 professional health physicists in the world. There at Oak Ridge, Parker was the senior person in group, having been at Chicago prior to my coming. He left [Oak Ridge] later on in 1944. He, Gamertsfelder, and Hart left Oak Ridge and went to Hanford [in Washington State] in late spring and fall of 1944. Then the reins fell on my shoulders to do what I could to see that the pile we had in operation there was operated safely, and that the chemical and other operations were done without risk to employees or members of the public.
Concern for the Radiological Safety of Workers and the Nearby Public
|CAPUTO:||Do you know what drove that concern for workers' safety and the safety of the surrounding population?||MORGAN:||Well, as I indicated earlier, we knew of only two risks. We supposed there might be others, but we knew nothing about them. The two were referred to as the "radiation syndrome," where doses of hundreds or thousands of roentgens17 are received and cause skin erythema. I'll try to use the roentgen unit to be more or less consistent; otherwise I might use five or six others that are in current use. We knew that very large doses of ionizing radiation would be fatal to animals, and presumably to man. [The] thing we knew and were concerned about was skin erythema, which I've discussed. So, our main problem there was to make sure what the radiation levels were. When I say radiation, I mean energy above 15 electron-volts. Our main purpose was to know what the levels of dose were and to provide means of limiting exposure of workers and members of the public to what we thought would be a safe level.||CAPUTO:||I was wondering about the concern for worker safety. Was that a legal concern, or was that just a general concern for welfare, or was it driven by public perception?||MORGAN:||I can only state with certainty my own impressions and response. I'm sure that people like my friend John Wheeler and Arthur Compton and others at that [higher] level were concerned, not only about the science and engineering, but about the legal problems of exposure. Frankly, I was still a physicist at heart, not a health physicist. My only concern was obtaining knowledge and protecting people. I never at that timewe are now talking about 1943considered the problem of legal restraints or litigation. Court and lawsuits never crossed my mind; I never even thought of it. To me, the important thing was to get rid of that bastard in Germany, to win the war, and protect the people.|