Atomic bomb scientists among early victims

Physicist Eugene Gardner, right, at work with fellow scientist C.M.G. Lattes in 1948. Mr. Gardner died two years later at age 37 of beryllium disease, spending his last months inside an oxygen tent.
Physicist Eugene Gardner, right, at work with fellow scientist C.M.G. Lattes in 1948. Mr. Gardner died two years later at age 37 of beryllium disease, spending his last months inside an oxygen tent.

Factory workers aren't the only ones who have developed beryllium disease. Numerous scientists have contracted the illness, some of whom handled beryllium while working on the top secret Manhattan Project.

Among those who have died: Dr. Herbert Anderson, a physicist who was instrumental in developing the world's first atomic bomb.

"In his last years he couldn't do anything without an oxygen tank strapped to his back," recalls Dr. Theodore Puck, a longtime friend and cancer researcher.

Dr. Anderson's widow, Betsy, recalls how steroids extended his life but caused his bones to become painfully brittle.

"By the time he died, you could break his fingers by shaking his hand."

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Yet Dr. Anderson continued his research work -- even while bedridden -- until his death in 1988. His wife says he never regretted working with beryllium nor viewed the disease as an obstacle.

"He felt it was unfortunate it had happened, but he looked at it as science, as one more discovery."

Many of America's top scientists were exposed to beryllium dust during the Manhattan Project, the $2 billion effort during World War II to create the bomb.

Because of the metal's special properties, tons of it were shipped to top secret government locations, such as Los Alamos, N.M. There, scientists sawed, drilled, and ground it -- creating deadly dust as they did.

This was before the hazards of beryllium were fully understood, and so few wore respirators.

Dr. Anderson's widow recalls how her husband used to grind beryllium like flour. "He used to sit there and pound it with a mortar and pestle and breathe in the particles."

So like the factory workers in the big beryllium plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania, scientists and research assistants also developed beryllium disease.

At least 19 cases were reported at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, government records show. Other cases occurred at Los Alamos, the University of Chicago, and the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus.

In all, more than 50 people developed beryllium disease while working on the bomb and other early government projects.

Victims include physicist Eugene Gardner, co-discoverer of the first man-made mesons, particles with masses between electrons and protons.

Dr. Gardner died in 1950 at age 37, spending the last few months of his life in an oxygen tent, a microscope at bedside so he could continue his research.

Beryllium victim Dr. Anderson was a close associate of Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Along with about 40 other scientists, Dr. Anderson helped Fermi produce the first nuclear chain reaction, performed in a squash court at University of Chicago's Stagg Field in 1942.

It wasn't until several years later, while playing tennis, that Dr. Anderson noticed his health was failing. "He was gasping, gasping, and finally couldn't get through a game," his widow says.

Dr. Anderson, then about 35 years old , was diagnosed with beryllium disease and put on a strict regimen of steroids. They helped, but his lungs continued to deteriorate.

"He had this awful, scary feeling that he was drowning slowly," Ms. Anderson recalls.

He tried to stay fit by swimming and convinced the federal government to build him a one-lane, indoor pool at his New Mexico home.

"This wasn't the result of a lawsuit," Ms. Anderson says, "but him saying to them: 'I've been an important part of your program. Don't you think this would be the honorable thing to do?' "

Despite his disease, Dr. Anderson continued to work with beryllium, which was important in his experiments in particle physics. His wife even embroidered beryllium's atomic symbol on the back of a shirt for his birthday.

She says he only had one regret involving beryllium -- the time he accidentally sliced off the end of his finger. He calmly picked it up and drove to the hospital, only to have the doctor ask him if he would donate it to science instead of having it sewn back on. The doctor wanted to check it for beryllium deposits.

Dr. Anderson agreed. The doctor ran the finger through numerous tests but found no beryllium.

"This he regretted -- losing the end of his finger on an experiment he didn't think was very good," she says.

Dr. Anderson died at age 74. During his final days, he worked from his bed on a cancer-related paper.

"I felt privileged to go through his death," says Ms. Anderson, a physics research technician. "He was absolutely courageous and absolutely rational and ready for what came next. Ever the scientist -- explaining what was happening and what he felt."