The Manhattan Project

Lawrence S. Myers, Jr.'s Interview

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Lawrence Myers was a chemist who worked at the Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project. In his interview, he discusses attending the University of Chicago, where he was invited to begin working on the Manhattan Project conducting experiments on uranium. He later moved to Oak Ridge along with a group of Chicago scientists. His wife joined him thanks to some chemistry coursework she had completed while in Chicago. Following the Project, Myers worked at Argonne National Laboratory before taking a position at the new medical school at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
July 22, 2014
Location of the Interview: 
Maryland
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, and it is Wednesday, July 22, 2014. Today I’m with Lawrence S. Myers, Jr. to talk about his Manhattan Project experience. I would like to start by asking Larry to tell me his full name and spell it please. 

Lawrence Myers: My full name, Lawrence Stanley Myers, Jr. L-A-W-R-E-N-C-E, S-T-A-N-L-E-Y, M-Y-E-R-S. I’m not sure I know how to spell “Junior.” It’s just J-R. 

Kelly: Perfect. Okay, well we always like to know if you could tell me when you were born and where and something about your childhood.

Myers: Well, I’m told that I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, April 29, 1919. That’s quite a few years ago. When I was ten years old, I was taken to New York City, where my father had a job and my mother and father lived. So, the rest of my childhood, we ultimately moved to Chicago. I lived in three different apartment houses around 72nd Street in Chicago.

I was sent to first grade and I flunked it. My mother took me out of it, because I went to the blackboard and started to write with my left hand. And the teacher said “No, you can’t do that. Do it with your right hand,” and I remember crying and screaming, and ultimately my mother just took me out of school.

We then moved to a little town on the Illinois Central Railroad. We called it the IC, and we lived in the town of Flossmoor, Illinois. When we moved there, there were 725 people. My dad built a nice house. 

I grew up there, and by third grade, I got to know my wife-to-be, Janet Vanderwalker. I was a year behind Janet Vanderwalker, because of my flunking first grade. My mother and father put me in a private school, the Stanley School. I made the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade in two years and caught up with Janet. We went to different high schools. I was awkward and clumsy with big feet and all of that, so I stayed away from Janet. I was something of a politician then.

Then came time to go to the University of Chicago, and I heard that Janet was going to Chicago. I picked up the phone and I asked her if she would like a ride to this university, and she said yes. She didn’t know that, but that was her acceptance of the rest of her life as the wife of Larry Myers. Anyway, we got to know each other. That was in 1937. Got married in ’42 on the 13th of June, and we’ve had a wonderful, wonderful life for seventy years.

Kelly: What did you study in college?

Myers: Oh that’s very important, because that is the key to all of the rest of my life. I majored in chemistry, and the particular kind of chemistry I majored in was physical chemistry. The way this played into my life is, I took a night course in physical chemistry with a young professor, George Edward Boyd, whom I really admired and got along with. I had done rather poorly previously in a physical chemistry class. So I decided I’d better get to work. I really did well in that course. I got As and answered all the questions and got 100s on all the exams.

During that time, Jan and I were talking about getting married, but there was a war going on. I guess it was after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Anyway, one day I was in the lowest level of the chemistry lab, and I met my professor with whom I had done well. He said, “Mr. Myers, I am starting a project related to the war. I cannot tell you what it is except it is with uranium, and I would like you to join me.” Then he said, “Do you know Jack Shubert?” No, I didn’t.

I said, “Can I think this over?”

He said, “Of course.”

I went and called my father up. My father was an executive in a big insurance company. We had lunch. He advised me to take the job, which was good advice. So I did. That started my entire career in the Manhattan Engineering District. 

So this was ’42, and I started working in the chemistry department at the University of Chicago. You may have noticed scientists like music, a lot of scientists do. For Janet’s birthday that year, I bought her a portable record player and four sets of records, and sent them to the laboratory where I worked, COD [cash on delivery]. Well, when it was delivered, I was off. My new comrades collected the money, paid for it. When I got there, of course, I paid them back. But we all went over to where Janet was working for the Dean of the Chapel at the University of Chicago, and she found a place in the basement where we played the records. I must say, this chapel at Chicago is more like the cathedral at Notre Dame than any chapel that one would think of. It’s a huge building. 

So we got married on the 23rd. Oh, and we overheard a comment from the head of our draft board in Flossmoor. He was heard to say, “I don’t know what Lawrence is doing, but it must be important,” and he gave me a deferment. Then I worked at the University of Chicago Labs for a while. Our job was setting up and doing analysis of uranium. We went to Boston area, worked at MIT, and at a place called Metal Hydrides, where they made metal. Then I got sent back. 

However, after I got back one day, my boss, Dr. Boyd, came in and said, “We’re going to have to move our work. It’s to a beautiful part of Tennessee. We will move you.” A few days later he came in and said, “Here is a ticket for you. Change trains at Cincinnati – not change trains, but your car will be switched to the L&N Railroad. You will get off at a flag stop, and someone will meet you.” So I did that. He said, “Your wife should apply for a job, and we will move all of your furniture and her.” 

I went to Oak Ridge alone. I lived in a dormitory, and I had a roommate whom I never saw until we were ready to leave the dormitory. The reason was, he worked a different shift, and believe me, we worked hard and long in those days. It’s entirely credible that he and I would not cross paths. So we didn’t. 

Then Janet was given a ticket, and the armed forces moved all of our furniture, which wasn’t very much – put it in boxes. Janet was sent to Knoxville, and I was told, “Go meet your wife. You will have one night, and then reappear to work,” so I did. She came in. She didn’t know anything about what was going on. She had not even been told about the uranium. When she got to Oak Ridge, the first thing that impressed her was the red mud. I suspect other people that have talked to you, talked about the red mud that was in Oak Ridge. She was assigned a room in a separate dormitory, and we lived separately for quite a long time. 

Then, well, we ate breakfast together. The cafeteria had the job of feeding many hundreds, maybe 1,000 people in a brief time, and they were cooking Southern style. Although I was born in the South, I had not had much Southern style cooking. My mother was an excellent cook, but the food in the cafeteria was, let’s say, just bearable. I remember commenting to Janet, “Just eat it. You’ll survive.” So she ate it. 

I got on a bus, took a twenty mile ride to the workplace, and Janet went into some administrative place and signed in. A day or so later, she joined me on the bus, and we went to Oak Ridge. It turned out Janet had had a course in general chemistry and one in organic, so they took her in as a chemist and assigned her to me. 

Kelly: That’s great. 

Myers: Well, she and I did a couple of projects and we wrote up papers on them. The projects were successful, and then we needed someone to determine the amount of radioactivity in certain samples. Janet was assigned to the counting room, which was the only cooled room in X-10. She was comfortable all during the summer while the rest of us sweltered.

There is one thing I would like to go back to that happened at Chicago. I was doing some work called the Shotgun Test, which measured the amount of neutron-absorbing material in uranium. It required several steps. We had a young man performing the chemistry. One day, the results just didn’t make sense. I found out from this young man that he had mixed up the samples. He didn’t know which ones were which, and rather than tell me, he lied and gave us the samples, and they were all wrong. 

With the results I had, I had no alternative but to report the problem to my supervisor. I never saw the young man again. I asked a few weeks later, “What had happened to him?” I was told he was sent to Hanford. At that time, Hanford was practically nothing. I don’t need to give you a geography lesson now, but it was really out in the sticks. 

The reason I’m telling you is people often ask, “How much of a military organization was the Manhattan District?” The fact is, while generally speaking, we all mostly were civilians, there was a military oversight. If you got in trouble in a military way, it was tough. I don’t know what happened to this kid. End of that story. 

Kelly: On that theme, were you approached to sort of spy or report? Were you asked to spy or report on your colleagues who might be—

Myers: No.

Kelly: No. 

Myers: No, but we were all told that we shouldn’t talk about what we were doing. See, at the University of Chicago, I think we were all pretty sympathetic. The Japanese had just bombed us, you know. We were not literally told we were working on a bomb. Our job was to make pure neutron-free material for reactors of which, as you know, there are several in Hanford and a couple in Oak Ridge and one near Chicago. 

Before I went to Oak Ridge, I had a job. I was assigned to a group that was working in the West Stands of the University of Chicago, the athletic field, where their first reactor was. Every day, I would go up and down stairs and see that reactor. 

Kelly: So you were there in and around December 1942, when the first reactor was turned on? 

Myers: Yes I was. I heard about it through the grapevine. 

Kelly: Do you remember, was there a lot of excitement?

Myers: Very few people knew about it; that’s not when the excitement was. There was a time when there was great excitement, but different. 

Kelly: When was that?

Myers: That was, I think, August 6th when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. All of Oak Ridge, it seemed, gathered in a place called Jackson Square and celebrated, because this meant to those people their work had been justified. They had made a real contribution. The war was probably over, and civilizations were changed—saved. It was just a wonderful, wonderful time. 

Kelly: Were you there at Jackson Square?

Myers: Yes. My wife and I were there. 

Kelly: I’ve seen photographs of it and of the big headlines piece, “It’s the Atom,” right? Do you remember those headlines?

Myers: Oh yes. Well that was three or four days later, after Nagasaki.

Kelly: So tell us more. You said you were struck by the racism in Oak Ridge?

Myers: Oh, well, at the University of Chicago, racism was a thing of the past. We simply didn’t accept it, didn’t pay any attention to it. I have, I think, three stories I can tell you. 

One, we had a bus ride of about twenty miles to get from the town center, where we all lived, to X-10. People were working sixteen, eighteen hours a day on the project, so they were tired. The bus had one big long seat in the back, and other seats were spread out. People were trying to get into the back seat so they could lie down and get another twenty minutes of sleep. Otherwise, they would spread out, so that an ordinary seat that could take two people would take only one, and they would spread out.

We did notice there were certain people that stood up even though there were empty seats in the bus. We, mostly from Chicago, were so insensitive that we didn’t make a simple connection between the people and their standing up. We thought, “Well, maybe they just like to stand up.”

Finally, through a quiet set of statements from management, we got the message – using today’s words – “Would you white guys please sit in the front, so the people with darker skin can sit down?” And that solved the problem. 

Another story: at Chicago, I was in a group, George Boyd’s group, which was mainly analytical and separation of impurities. We moved more or less as a group to Oak Ridge, but one man was left out. He was one of these dark-skinned people. He was a brilliant man, and the time came when we needed him for some consultation.

At that time, there were very few cars. Gasoline was rationed, but there was one car in our group. It was Arthur Adamson’s car, and we arranged for our black friend to come down. He was picked up by Adamson in the car, whisked out to a house, and I don’t know for sure which of several houses he stayed in. It may not have been Adamson’s. Then the next morning, we whisked him to the laboratory and escorted him to a private room, and fed him lunch so he didn’t need to go to the cafeteria. Well, the work got done. This man was Ed Russell, and he came to see us later. I think it was when we were living in Davisburg. He brought us a big box of, he called them “pecans.” I call them “pecans,” but he was a great guy. 

The living quarters were segregated too. The black people lived in little 20 x 20 houses. As I remember, they were painted green, and they were brought in on two trucks, prefabs. For a short time after they became available, we were moved from the – I’ve lost the word. Anyway, we were moved into one of these little, we called them “bird cages,” but they were yellow. They were 20 x 20. They had a shower with a metallic surface and a potbelly stove, but our yellow ones were separate from the green ones. 

Kelly: And the separation was all based on race?

Myers: I think it was. 

Kelly: Was there integration of the workforce, or was it separate both living arrangements and working arrangements?

Myers: Well remember, this is 1942, ‘43, ‘44. There were not very many black scientists. There just weren’t any. Ed Russell was a great exception and a marvelous exception. We had another black fellow, Moddie Taylor worked with us in Chicago. He was a chemist. He may have had a degree. I’m not sure. 

Kelly: Now one thing you haven’t told us about is your musical debut, your musical playing with the symphony. 

Myers: Well, it’s a lot bigger than that. When you get a group of scientists, you’re very likely to have a group of people who play musical instruments. 

Oh, I didn’t tell you, but after the yellow houses we were in, we got into a nice two-bedroom cemesto board house, supposed to last seven years. It’s still there and being used. We paid $37 a month for coal, electricity, trash pickup and almost anything. We didn’t have gas. 

Anyway, in this house, we had a small upright piano that we had brought from Chicago. Jan was a viola player, and she and I played a [Georg Philipp] Telemann concerto, arranged for viola. I had a friend, Clinton Larson, who we played a Beethoven sonata, only he couldn’t count and we would sometimes end up several measures apart, but that’s all right. It was great fun. It was the Spring Sonata of Beethoven, and one of the most gorgeous pieces of music ever written. 

Waldo Cohen was an excellent biochemist, and that was his job, but he also played a cello. At some point, he found out that he could arrange for an orchestra. They had a complete orchestra except for a triangle player, and Janet joined the orchestra as a viola player, one of two. As a matter of fact, I think it was Waldo who arranged for Janet on one of her trips to buy a viola that was made especially for her, and that viola is now in northwest Oregon. Anyway, I was, as a pianist, left out completely. So I went to Waldo, who was a good friend, and asked him if I could help in the orchestra. He said, “Can you count to four?”

Well, I thought this over. You know it’s not simple to count to four, but I finally said, “Yes.”

He said, “Good, you can play the triangle and the bass drum.” 

Then our baby came, and I went to Waldo and said, “Waldo, either Janet or I will have to stay with the baby. Which would you prefer?”

Waldo quickly said, “Larry, your baby needs a father.” We laughed, and that was the end of that discussion.

I did know Waldo later, and he is the one who introduced me to DNA and the bases that make up DNA and how to separate them. He also edited a series of books on, I guess, it would be on radiation biology, but he was a brilliant, great man, especially in recognizing my great skill with a triangle. 

Kelly: Why don’t you tell us what you were working on? You mentioned you were at X-10, and you were involved in purification or analysis of the neutron.

Myers: Well, I’m very hesitant, because it so quickly gets complicated. The major final work I did was on the mechanism of ion exchange absorption. We had to consult with mathematicians to get it all solved, and the complications. At very low ionic concentration, you have a diffusion process. At high ionic concentration, you have mass action processes. That just doesn’t go for this.

There is something I would like to talk about. That is: what happens when something horrible happens? How did the neighbors react? Would you mind hearing?

Kelly: No, I’d love to hear it. 

Myers: Our next-door neighbor was a member of the fire department in Oak Ridge, and he had a telephone. Janet had a baby on November 22nd. On the 23rd that telephone rang with a call from my mother, and our neighbor came over and got me out of bed. My mother told me to sit down. So I did. She said, “Janet’s father died last night.”

Well, later that day, I went over to the hospital and told Janet. I said, “Janny, your father died last night.” Now what was left of Janet’s family was four sisters – two in the WAVES, a mother, and an incompetent uncle. So a decision was made that I would go to Chicago to be with them.

There was just an outpouring of help for Janet. She was in the hospital. George Boyd’s wife went to see her. All of the women that we knew went to see her. I thought that was very good response and it tells you a lot about what it was like in Oak Ridge. 

Kelly: So how old were you? I mean, most of the folks were all about the same age. 

Myers: Pretty much so. Boyd was probably not more than five years older than I was, and there were a few older people. 

We had other tragedies. One of the nicest guys got brain cancer and died. Actually, I think the health records of the people among the scientists at Oak Ridge is better than average. 

I should say one thing about the care from our neighbor. They were from the Smoky Mountains, and a friend brought us a fish when Janet was, say, eight months pregnant, something like that. Our neighbor, Mabel Rathbone, ran over, grabbed the fish, and said, “You are not to see the insides of this fish,” and she cleaned it, and brought it over for Janet. 

Kelly: That’s great. So did Janet keep working after the baby came, or who took care of the baby?

Myers: That’s a loaded question. She worked twice as hard after the baby came. Come on. It is hard work having a baby, really hard. After the baby came – see, that was near the end of the war. That was in 1945, I think I said ’45 before. 

David was born November 22, 1945. I was afraid to fly, but Janet talked me into going to fly back to Chicago. It was very pleasant. We had a nurse who took care of the baby, warmed the bottle, fed it, did everything. It wasn’t like today on the airline. I presume you fly occasionally. It just wasn’t like that. This was a wonderful person, personally involved with each passenger, and we got home that way. 

Kelly: Times sure have changed, wow. So after the war, what did you do?

Myers: Well, the influence of the Manhattan Project continued right after the war. I went back to the University of Chicago. I had a year or so to go to get my PhD. I was assigned to the Nobel laureate Harold C. Urey, and spent almost a year calculating for him isotope exchange equilibria constant, using infrared and Raman data to do it. I had a mechanical printer, or a calculator, so this took me a year. I think I could do it in a week now, maybe less. Anyway, I worked for Urey and then I took a job – I was paid. I don’t know who paid me, or how I got the money, but, “Larry, you’ve got a job with Urey. Get to work.” Then I worked with Clyde Hutchison, who was a physical chemist, and starting to do some work on – I’ve lost the word. 

Anyway, he taught me a lesson. I was doing some work in which I needed a glass tube about an inch or so in diameter and this long, and graded from Pyrex to several different special glasses which could stand changes in temperature. It took us a couple of weeks to get the glassblower to make what we needed. He finally made it, and I had it in the lab with Hutchison. He was sitting there, and we had always been taught that if you’re going to move a long piece of glass to hold it up this way. Well, I did, and I crashed into a tube that was going across, and broke it. Hutch looked up, saw what had happened, and went back to work. I went to the glassblower and got a replacement, but there was no yelling, no scolding, no nothing. That’s a good lesson. 

Kelly: That’s good. 

Myers: He must have known how I felt at that moment. I’ll never forget. There was a little crash and pieces of glass tumbling down. It was awful.

Oh, food. Sounds simple. It was horrible. When we first moved into our house, we had to go to Jackson Square to get food at the store. The buses were free so we had a free ride, but you can carry only so much. Finally there was a new store put up that we could walk to, but that was even harder to get the food home. But that’s what we did.

What to do about lunch? Well, I mentioned Jack Schubert earlier. Jack and the two of us and a couple of other people had made a garden around our house, and we planted corn, beans, tomatoes, radishes, and all sorts of things, and they grew very well. For lunch, we used that food, and Jan made bread. That’s because the bread that you could get was, at best, commercial. However, the flour that we could get somehow was not quite normal bread flour, and the bread that she made fell into pieces. Anyway, for a year, Janet made sandwiches for Jack and me and herself. We took them to work, they would fall apart, and we would eat them.

Then Jack managed to finish his thesis, and Janet typed it for him on a manual typewriter with all kinds of complicated equations. I don’t know whether working for Jack or for Dr. [Lothar] Nordheim, the German physicist, was the hardest job she had, but they were both hard jobs, and she did them. 

Janet Myers: That was just part of the life. 

Myers: There were some side businesses. You know, given a bunch of pretty well-trained guys and a pretty decent stockroom, you can take care of a lot of things that you might not otherwise. But in our bathrooms, the sinks had two faucets. Well, there are advantages to having the water come out of one place, because then you can adjust the water temperature. Most of us were pretty fair glassblowers. We got glass tubing out of the stockroom and made little T-shaped glasses and took rubber tubing and connected them to the faucets, and now we had a faucet with hot and cold water coming out of it. 

That was very nice. 

About my career. After working with Hutchison, which I described, a friend of mine that we’d known in Oak Ridge went to Denmark for a sabbatical. He went to the Carlsberg Brewery, I think, for his sabbatical. On the way home, he stopped at our house near Flossmoor, and we had a good time. As he was leaving, he said, “Larry, how’s your job?”

I said, “It’s okay, I have a good job at the Argonne National Lab, but if something better turned up, I would probably consider it.” A few months later, I got a letter from a man at UCLA saying that they were starting a new medical school and would I be interested in being the radiation chemist for the group. Well, I said, “Yes.”

He came to see me and said, “Okay, the job is yours if you want it.” I wondered how the heck did he get – well, it turned out that the man who wrote me had a friend at Los Alamos, and he had asked his friend, and my friend had gone to work at Los Alamos, and they got together and my friend gave his friend my name. So, Ernie Anderson – I owe my whole career to Ernie Anderson going to a beer place.

Then one day on the way home – this again is after. On the way home from a meeting, a man who had gotten his PhD at Notre Dame, was black, came to me out on the plain and said, “You know Larry, I wonder if you would be interested in doing some pulse radiolysis. I have a system, and if you can get some funding, we can do a lot.” So sure enough I got the funding, and a good bit of my career was based on the pulse radiolysis studies that we did in San Diego. So again, it [01:03:00] pays to have friends.

Kelly: So looking back on the Manhattan Project, you would say it had a big influence on your career?

Myers: Oh enormous, both financially and scientifically. 

Kelly: Can you elaborate?

Myers: I feel very good about my career. I’m going to say something I probably shouldn’t, but I’m in “Who’s Who in America,” still, which is sort of nonsense, but they keep putting me in, and I did not get the Nobel Prize. That doesn’t bother me, because I think a lot of Nobel Prizes have gone to the wrong people, including – and I don’t want to elaborate on this – but including some in the DNA area. I feel very satisfied with the achievements, and I won’t complain after 100.