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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

Theodore Petry’s Interview

Ted Petry was recruited for the Manhattan Project after graduating from high school. He worked as a lab assistant at the Chicago Met Lab and witnessed the Chicago Pile-1 going critical for the first time. In this interview, Petry discusses his experience working at the Met Lab, and working under Enrico Fermi. He explains how the crew planed graphite blocks, and worked on the Chicago Pile operations. He reflects back on the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the Chicago Pile-1 and meeting President John F. Kennedy at the White House at the time.

William J. Nicholson’s Interview

William J. Nicholson grew up in Chicago, with a strong interest in aviation and aeronautics. During the Manhattan Project he worked as an assistant at the Met Lab. He then served in the Army Air Force. In this interview, Nicholson discusses his childhood and school years spent in Chicago. He then explains how he joined the Manhattan Project out of high school. He recalls the secrecy of the work, and describes working with and machining uranium and other metals. Nicholson remembers Edward Creutz, Enrico Fermi, Walter Zinn, and other scientists he worked with. He explains why he wanted to leave Manhattan Project work to join the Air Force, and describes flying bombers over Europe and being shot down by the Germans. He ends by discussing his life and career after the war.

Peter Vandervoort’s Interview

Peter Vandervoort is an American astrophysicist and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. In this interview, Vandervoort shares stories about the university’s role in the Manhattan Project. He describes in depth how different buildings on its campus were appropriated for the project. He later discusses his interactions with the university’s distinguished physics faculty members after the war, such as Nobel Prize winner Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who was Vandervoort’s Ph.D. advisor in the 1950s. Vandervoort also talks about the university’s community outreach efforts through the years. He concludes the interview by discussing the contributions of women to physics.

Marvin Wilkening’s Interview (1995)

Marvin Wilkening was a physicist whose work took him through the Grand Circuit of the Manhattan Project: Chicago, Oak Ridge, Hanford, Los Alamos and Trinity. He worked closely with Enrico Fermi and describes his deep respect for Fermi’s intuition. In this interview with a former student, Wilkening discusses his involvement with the Manhattan Project and what his thoughts were when witnessing the Trinity Test. He explains his work during the Trinity Test to estimate what percentage of the fissionable material actually took part in the explosion. He finishes with a discussion of teaching physics.

Roslyn Robinson’s Interview

Roslyn D. Robinson worked as a driver and in the administration office for the Chicago Met Lab. Her husband, Sidney, was an engineer who worked on the Manhattan Project. In this interview, she talks about her early life, as well as her duties in Chicago and the omnipresent emphasis on secrecy. She recalls her husband’s hospitalization and quarantine after a mysterious “spill” in his laboratory at the New Chem Building. She also remembers learning about the project’s true purpose when Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima, her reaction to that event, and how the Project continued to affect their lives after the war.

Gerhart Friedlander’s Interview

German-American chemist Gerhart Friedlander fled Nazi persecution in 1936. He studied at the University of California with Glenn Seaborg, earning his Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry in 1942. The following year, he joined the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and became group leader of the radioactive lanthanum group in the Chemistry Division. After World War II, Friedlander worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory for many years and chaired the Chemistry Department. In this interview, he describes how Seaborg secretly involved him in plutonium work and how his group investigated the implosion method for the plutonium bomb. He also recalls winning a bet with Enrico Fermi.

Isabella Karle’s Interview (2005)

The daughter of Polish immigrants, Isabella Karle had received her Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD degrees in physical chemistry from the University of Michigan by the time she was 22 in 1943. With her husband, Jerome Karle, a fellow student and scientist whom she married in 1942, Isabella became a pioneer in the field of science, starting with her work on the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago in 1943. After the war, Isabella and Jerome began work on crystallography at the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, where they were employed for over sixty years until their retirement in 2009. In this interview, Isabella discusses the career path she took after high school to become a chemist. She also explains how she came to work for the Manhattan Project in 1943, how she met her husband at the University of Michigan, and the successful careers of other scientists she worked with during the Manhattan Project.

Jerome Karle’s Interview

Jerome Karle worked on plutonium chemistry at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory during the Manhattan Project, along with his wife, Isabella. After the war, Jerome and Isabella worked for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory for almost seventy years. Jerome was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1985. In this interview, Karle explains his chemistry work in the Manhattan Project. He recalls his friendship with Glenn Seaborg, and discusses his opinion on dropping the bombs on Japan.

Ralph Lapp’s Interview

Ralph Lapp was completing his PhD in physics at the University of Chicago when he joined the Manhattan Project. After the war, he worked for the War Department and served as a scientific advisor there before leaving the government to start his own firm. Lapp went on to write several books and advocate for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In this interview, he discusses how he stumbled upon Enrico Fermi’s team working under Stagg’s Field in December of 1942, and was hired on the spot to work on the development of the atomic bomb. Lapp recalls witnessing the 1946 Bikini nuclear tests, and discusses the controversy over the Lucky Dragon boat, caught into the fallout of one of 1954 Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test. He examines how nuclear weapons have changed the course of human history.

Frank G. Foote’s and James F. Schumar’s Interview

Frank G. Foote and James F. Schumar were metallurgists who worked on the Manhattan Project. Foote worked in metallurgy at the Metallurgical Lab at the University of Chicago, while Schumar developed procedures for cladding metallic uranium fuel rods with aluminum for Hanford’s B Reactor and Chicago Pile-3. They discuss the challenges of working with uranium metallurgy, from safety issues to the strange properties of uranium metal. They explain their involvement in designing the slugs used in early nuclear reactors. They also explain how they designed a method to extrude and machine uranium.