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Louis Hempelmann’s Interview – Part 4

Louis Hempelmann worked as a doctor at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project and was close friends with J. Robert Oppenheimer. In this interview, he discusses the other doctors at Los Alamos and their roles, including his own occasional role as anesthetist. He recalls visiting a radium dial plant in Boston to observe how the company protected its workers from radiation, and how they adopted similar practices at Los Alamos.

Date of Interview:
August 10, 1983
Location of the Interview:


Louis Hempelmann:  I do not think the people who came later were ever as close as the people who were there at the beginning.

Martin Sherwin: Did most of the people who came later, were they junior people? That is, younger? [Enrico] Fermi came later.

Hempelmann: [George] Kistiakowsky came later.

Sherwin: He did? When you say “earlier” and “later,” what dates are you talking about?

Hempelmann: I remember we had a Christmas party in ’43, and he was visiting here, Christmas or New Year, he was visiting Los Alamos. Oppie was tied up with General [Leslie R.] Groves, so Kitty [Oppenheimer] brought him and that was the first time I ever met him. Of course, we were mainly friendly with the other doctors, because three of us—Jim Nolan and a man named Henry Barnett, who was a pediatrician—we were all classmates, you see. Then we got an internist also from Washington University, and [inaudible] Schroeder from Washington University.

Sherwin: So you had quite a few.

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: You were sort of the first one in and you were pulling everybody.

Hempelmann: Yeah, I got all of my friends, but they were very good doctors also.

Sherwin: I certainly never heard anything but compliments for Los Alamos about the medical care. I have heard some reports—do not know whether it was you or one of the other doctors that wrote about the situation in Los Alamos. I wish that I had the foresight to bring some of those reports and trip some memories. But if it was something that you wrote, I will write to you.

Now with these other—what was there, four or a total of five doctors?

Hempelmann: There were five at first and then others came in, younger people mainly. No, there were six. Also the surgeon came from [inaudible].

Sherwin: Can you go through the names and tell me where they are located now, if you know offhamd?

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: Nolan you said is in California.

Hempelmann: L.A.

Sherwin: In Los Angeles.

Hempelmann: Henry Barnett, who was a pediatrician, he is at Albert Einstein, I think.

Sherwin: Oh, in New York. Did he deliver Toni Oppenheimer?

Hempelmann: No, he was a pediatrician.

Sherwin: A pediatrician. He took care of Toni and Peter?

Hempelmann: Yeah. Jim, as I said, was a first-rate obstetrician. A very good doctor. He worked well with his hands. During the early days, I would give anesthesia. Of course, I did not know anything about it. I had never done it before in my life.

Sherwin: Even in medical school, you don’t get a chance to do it?

Hempelmann: We just had a mask.

Sherwin: [Inaudible]

Hempelmann: Yeah, and I was probably the world’s worst anesthetist because I was terrified of giving too much anesthesia. I would also get bored, so I would walk around and watch what they were doing, always to the consternation of the surgeon.

Sherwin: Do you remember the first time in Los Alamos that you acted as the anesthetist?

Hempelmann: Yeah. I think it was with Jim Nolan’s wife, who had the first baby up there. I was supposed to be the obstetrician but in the last minute, he did not trust me. So he had me give the anesthetic.

Sherwin: And that was when?

Hempelmann: Well, it was the first baby. It must have been in May or June.

Sherwin: So he came there very shortly after you got there?

Hempelmann:  He got there even before I did. We both went out in March and got the whole thing straightened out. Then we both went back to St. Louis, he came first.

Sherwin: I see. So we have gone through, let us see, three, Nolan and—

Hempelmann: An internist named Paul Hagemann, who is in St. Louis.

Sherwin: Now?

Hempelmann: Yeah. He was about a little bit older than the rest of us, you see.

Sherwin: Is that H-A-G-E-R-M-A-N?

Hempelmann: No, H-A-G-E-M-A-N-N, I think, Paul.

An eye, ear, nose and throat man named Jack Brooks, who is either in Phoenix or Tulsa, and a surgeon named Alfred Large, who is now in Detroit.

Sherwin: Alfred Large, L-A-R-G-E?

Hempelmann: L A R G E, yes, Large.

Sherwin: Is he still practicing?

Hempelmann: Jim Nolan and Henry Barnett and I were all in the same class. We were about the same age. We were just kids when we went out there, really. I was twenty-nine. Except for the three of us, the three first ones—that is, Brooks, Nolan, and I—the others were all just a little older, I think maybe up to four years. I think Hagemann and Large may have been three or four years older. So we were a pretty young bunch.

Sherwin: But you still were old enough, you weren’t straight out of medical school.

Hempelmann: Oh, no.

Sherwin: You had experience in that, though.

Hempelmann: We were all well-trained in our fields, but the field of radiation biology was almost unknown. Somewhere it could be done. We had an idea of what was going on, but it was pretty primitive.

Sherwin: Did you ever talk to Oppenheimer about any of the problems that you discerned, beside the storm that was wobbling around?

Hempelmann: No, I do not think so. A safety committee gradually evolved, which I must say was not my idea. It was pretty primitive by the standards of today, for example. I think it was not only primitive there, but it was primitive everywhere. For example, when plutonium came in, nobody had worked with plutonium before. So all of the doctors of the Manhattan Project went up to the radium dial painting plant up in Boston to see how they handle their—plutonium and radium are quite similar. They give off the same radiation.

Sherwin: Gamma ray?

Hempelmann: No, alpha particles.

Sherwin: Alpha particles.

Hempelmann: Fortunately, they are chemically quite different, and plutonium is one of the most insoluble substances I know. So all of these people who were exposed to a lot, they did not absorb it from their intestinal tract, or if they breathed it, the particle size was such that not too much stayed down in the lungs.

Sherwin: [Inaudible] plutonium in other words.

Hempelmann: Pardon?

Sherwin: Because if it would have been soluble, it would have dissolved into the blood, and goodbye Charlie.

Hempelmann: Yeah. Had it been radium, I think all of us would have been dead.

Sherwin: Did you realize this, the insolubility of plutonium and therefore an added safety factor working within?

Hempelmann: No, we did not realize it, frankly.

Sherwin: It was just luck.

Hempelmann: Yeah. Strictly luck.

Sherwin: What did you learn up at the Boston plant?

Hempelmann: The precautions that they took to keep the ladies from breathing it.

Sherwin: What precautions did they—

Hempelmann: They had a hood or they worked under hoods, or something like that. They would clean it up and test the contaminated area for actual contamination.

So our procedures were patterned after that. Of course, what the dial painter did was quite a simple operation with minute quantities of radium, whereas our people were doing complex chemical and metallurgical procedures with kilograms.

Sherwin: Now were are the people specifically working with that stuff? For example, the plutonium as it came in, by name, who dealt with it?

Hempelmann: Large groups. The man in charge of the CMR division—chemistry, metallurgy—worked with a young fellow named Joe Kennedy. He was twenty-six years old or something at the time he came over. He took over, and he had worked with [Glenn Seaborg] out in Berkeley. Cyril Smith, he was in charge of metallurgy, but the actual people who worked with him were much lower down on the—

Sherwin: I see. You described earlier just before we went to lunch, when the first order of plutonium came in, came in on this box. Could you just through again—you had describe something that I did not precisely understand about something going up and gamma rays coming through?

Hempelmann: Yeah, that was that RaLa test, so-called. That was just to test how this shell—

Sherwin: The lenses would work.

Hempelmann: Yeah. If you are interested in the procedures, I wrote something—I have got something upstairs I can give you.

Sherwin: Good, yes.

Hempelmann: Actually, a fellow named Wright Langham, L-A-N-G-H-A-M, who was in charge of the biomedical research, I was following up these people under his prodding, but we followed that up with twenty-seven people most heavily exposed to plutonium. In 1971, I had a leave and I went out there and we got all these people to come back and measured everything we could. Langham was killed in this only accident that I know of on the airlines.

Sherwin: Of, when the baggage hit the engine and crashed in Albuquerque.

Hempelmann: He was supposed to write up all the chemical operations which these people had been doing. After he was killed, I had to do it. I must say, I went back in the archives and I really dreaded it very much. I could not find everything that I wanted. Some of the early stuff I had written, and there were the monthly reports of all the divisions. This was fine, I thought, and I think it is reasonably accurate. This gave me a chance to call all the people who were in charge of those operations, you see. That is when I got in touch with people that I had not seen since 1946.

Sherwin: That is interesting.

One backtrack question that I forgot to pursue when we were talking about your party. When did Kitty come out? Can’t remember?

Hempelmann: No. Honestly, I cannot.

Sherwin: No, I know. I did not think that you were not telling me.

Hempelmann: I do not think it was as funny as this Helmholtz girl, who really looked so out of place there. She was ready to step on the train.

Sherwin: I only saw Frank [Oppenheimer] once, and that was in 1970 or ’71 when his museum first opened up. I was teaching at Berkeley. My wife and children and I went over there, and I was just finishing up my dissertation at the time. Of course, I had written a certain amount about Oppenheimer. I was much too embarrassed to say anything to Frank. He walked by, and I instantly knew who he was, because he just looked like Robert Oppenheimer.

Hempelmann: He looked like him, and he sounded like him, but he was much more modest. He would ask questions.

Sherwin: How much planning went into the concerns about the Trinity test?

Hempelmann: An awful lot. We thought that all this stuff would just go up and [inaudible]s get down. About two weeks before—I suppose a month, before the test, two physical chemists figured out that the radioactivity played out in the dust particles that were swept up into this fireball.

Sherwin: And that spread out?

Hempelmann: Yeah. The flight [inaudible] of the dust, they were able to calculate certainly the fallout pattern, and for a while almost all worked stopped, with almost everybody trying to get into it.

Sherwin: What was everybody what doing then?

Hempelmann: Trying to disprove it, which is active pretty much. They did a recalculation and it was not quite as bad.  Joe Hirschfeld.

Sherwin: Joe Hirschfeld was a physical chemist.

Hempelmann: Joe Hirschfelder and John McGee.

Sherwin: Were they young fellows at the time?

Hempelmann: Yeah. The average age up there, I mean, [Enrico] Fermi was an old man, and Oppie.

Sherwin: At the ripe old age of forty.

Hempelmann: That is the reason why it was so important to have a good obstetrician then.

Copyright 2005 Martin J. Sherwin. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of Martin J. Sherwin. Rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.