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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Burris Cunningham

Research Associate, ProfessorChicago, IL

University of California, Berkeley
Manhattan Project VeteranProject Worker/StaffScientist

Burris Cunningham was a research associate at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory (“Met Lab”) during the Manhattan Project. He also served as Assistant Section Chief of Basic Chemistry and Service in Group C-I Separations Studies and Basic Chemistry of the Heavy Elements, which was led by Glenn T. Seaborg.

Cunningham joined the Met Lab in June 1942. At the Met Lab, he was responsible for characterizing the chemical properties of plutonium. Together, Cunningham and Louis B. Werner were the first to isolate a visible quantity of plutonium on August 20, 1942. 

On September 10, 1942, Cunningham and Werner were also the first to weigh a pure compound of the plutonium. They used their own ultramicrochemistry techniques to purify microgram quantities of cyclotron-produce plutonium. Their final sample weighed 2.77 micrograms. These techniques would be needed for the later large-scale production of plutonium in Hanford, Washington.


Early Years

Burris Bell Cunningham was born on February 16, 1912 in Springer, New Mexico. Before going to the University of Southern California (USC), he briefly worked as Assistant Postmaster of Springer.

Cunningham only stayed at USC for one year before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley in 1931. In 1935, he received his B.S. degree in Chemistry. He stayed at Berkeley for his Ph.D. in Biochemistry, which he earned in 1940. 


Later Years

Cunningham returned to Berkeley in 1946 to work as an assistant professor of chemistry. While working at Berkeley, he and his coworkers became the first to isolate in weighable quantities a variety of heavy synthetic elements: americium, berkelium, californium, einsteinium. They also isolated neptunium and curium. 

Cunningham’s work in the field of ultramicrochemistry led him to become the world’s leading chemical investigator of actinide elements and one of the top inorganic chemists at the time. At Berkeley, he completed his research at the Radiation Laboratory. In 1948, he was promoted to Associate Professor and in 1953, he earned his full professorship.

At the age of fifty-nine, Burris Cunningham died on March 28, 1971 in Berkeley, California.


For more information about Burris Cunningham, please see the following reference:

Burris Cunningham's Timeline
1912 Feb 16th Born in Springer, New Mexico.
1935 Graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.S. in Chemistry.
1940 Received Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley.
19421946 Worked at the Met Lab.
1942 Aug 20th Isolated the first visible quantity of plutonium.
1942 Sep 10th Weighed the first pure compound of plutonium.
1946 Returned to Berkeley to work as an assistant professor of chemistry.
1948 Promoted to Associate Professor at Berkeley.
1953 Promoted to Professor at Berkeley.
1971 Mar 28th At the age of fifty-nine, died in Berkeley, California.

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