Oral History Transcript — Dr. H. William Koch
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Interview with Dr. H. William Koch
H. William Koch; March 10, 1987
ABSTRACT: Youth and college education in Queens, New York; graduate studies and research work with Donald Kerst at the University of Illinois, 1941; Pd.D. in nuclear fission, 1944. Contract work during World War II for NDRC, Woolwich Arsenal in England; subcontract work on photo fission threshold for the Manhattan Project (Enrico Fermi); involvement in medical betatron work (Philip Morrison). Postwar transitions at the University of Illinois. Work at National Bureau of Standards as Director for the Betatron Laboratory and, from 1962, as Director of the Radiation Physics Division after Lauriston Taylorís retirement. Work on radiation processing and food rpeservation. Directorship of Standards; his goal for AIP, its independence. Discussion of the scientific information explosions and the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant (Elmer Hutchisson) Manpower Statistics (the Bromley Report); long-range planning committees (Frederick Seitz); effects of Internal Revenue Service audit; 1977/78; classification of physics documents (Philip Morse, Thomas Lauritsen); information as a saleable commodity (Germany, England); electronic information systems (PINET and PIMAIL); translation of Russian journals. Also, major events in reorganization; move to Woodbury and that facilityís later expansion, computerization of publishing activities, relationship between governing boards and Member Societies. Attracting new societies, AIPís early (pioneer) ventures: Manpower Statistics, history and education programs, and public relations. Series ends with a brief discussion of the career of Marshak Cleveland: his work in radiation treatment, founding his own company (Radiation Dynamics), and his new venture in Colorado. Also prominently mentioned are: Alan Astin, Edward U. Condon, Michael Danos, Ugo Fano, Evans Hayward, Raymond Hayward, Wheeler Loomis, Harold Wyckoff; and the American Physical Society.
Koch:Now, the man that I'm going to be associated with [in Colorado] — did I mention that at all the last time?
Aaserud:No, not on the tape.
Koch:Well, let's talk about that for a little bit. It does deal with the future, but it also relates to your question. Marshall Cleland is a man who got his PhD in about 1950 from Washington University in St. Louis. I hired him at the Bureau of Standards in about 1950. I was picking up, you see, any young bright guy that I came across; I would identify him. Jim Leiss was another one, Sam Penner was another one. They were fresh PhDs — Leiss and Penner came from Illinois, Cleland came from Washington University — and he came and he worked for about a year with us. But Cleland was very ambitious and he wanted to make money. He had an idea of an electron machine. He designed it, I guess partly while he was working at the Bureau of Standards. He then left to found a company that is located out here on Long Island called Radiation Dynamics. In fact, if you drive along the access road to the Long Island Expressway, there's still a sign that says "Radiation Dynamics." The organization is still there, although Cleland is no longer with them. Radiation Dynamics built about 150 high power, low energy machines. The machines that he built went up to 10 million volts, and they had maybe 10 kilowatts in the beam, so they were reasonably powerful machines that could be used either for electron irradiation of products, or hitting a high Z — high atomic number — target. You could then produce x-rays that then would do the processing of the material. 150 of these machines were built, and spread all around the world. He was bought out by Firestone, who had visions of using electron machines of this sort not only for treatment of sewage, but also for vulcanizing rubber tires and polymerizing plastics.The nice thing about these radiation beams is that you can sterilize medical devices, vulcanize rubber, and polymerize plastics without raising the temperature of the product significantly. And you can also direct the energy right where you want with great efficiency. So it is far superior to cobalt 60 gamma rays or cesium gamma rays that come from spent fuel elements, and that emitted in all directions and in a continuous fashion. And it also then avoids the issue, the confrontation with the people who are against reactors. Hopefully, the people that are against reactors — if they realize that electron and x-ray machines are available for use — will no longer oppose the processing of foods and then feeding to people, if there are no health risks. The nuclear-reactor activists are a very organized effort. They go around and upset meetings that deal in any way with irradiation of material, all because of their opposition to reactors. Now, there are still issues and problems connected with radiation that are neither the radioactivity problem or the relation to nuclear reactor problem. There's the production of certain carcinogens in foods, or the production of free radicals that can, depending upon the material, last for seconds or minutes or weeks. Free radicals tend to die out. They're very interactive. But they can produce certain materials that are unknown and that do concern people about the health hazards involved in foods. The question, however, always comes up of the magnitude. Is the magnitude really high enough to be of concern? People really have not done sufficient research on that. But the more people get used to the processing of fruits and vegetables at the low doses that are permitted now, the more they'll get comfortable with this process. If they see that certain fruits and vegetables are not available by any other technique, or if they're much less expensive, or that they have avoided the chemical dosing of fruits and vegetables to prevent their discoloration or what have you, they'll look at the relative risks, and decide that maybe radiation processing has some real virtue. Now, the big field that is presently going on — using the same techniques, the same technology, the same radiation sources — is the processing of medical devices. Now, you have pacemakers. You have hip joints. You have surgical sutures that are installed in the body. But you're not having this material that the populace is subjected to, as in the case of foods; you're working with one patient at a time, and the risks to that patient are not very large. It's a one shot deal, in other words; whereas with foods, if you day in and day out eat certain vegetables that have been treated with radiation, there conceivably could be a problem there. But this man Cleland, getting back to him, he set up this company on Long Island. Radiation Dynamics was bought out by Firestone. Then they in turn were bought out by Monsanto. The management at Monsanto decided to go in different directions, and Cleland was bought out. He then worked for High Voltage Engineering Company in Burlington, Massachusetts. After a year there, they decided against investments of interest to Cleland, so Cleland then moved out to Colorado. It so happens that he's moving out — he has moved out, been there for two or three years — to a neighboring town to the one that I'll be moving to. It's actually Littleton, and he lives in Englewood, which is the next town, but we'll live very close to one another. He went out there and is working for a company that is called CH2M Hill. The CH2 stands for names of people. C is the initial of the last name of one person, H is the initial of another one, H is the initial of a third one, and M is the initial of a fourth one. They absorbed a company called Hill Manufacturing Company, and that Hill refused to be absorbed to make it CH3M. This is a large engineering company that has some 3000 employees. They have responsibility for doing the engineering design of waste dumps — superfund expenditures, billions of dollars from the Rockies to the West Coast; that's their territory. And that company agreed to hire Cleland to work on radiation sources for processing of materials. They organized a new company called IOTECH, Inc. that built a cesium plant right next door to a company that makes various medical devices. Thus you can see trucks going from the medical device company into the cesium plant. Then they treat product boxes and bring them right back to the supplier. Well, after having built that facility, the CH2M Hill Company has now decided that they no longer want to invest in facilities. They want to concentrate on design work for others and avoid investing their money in fixed facilities. Therefore they've told Cleland that any things that he's worked on during his two years in their employ, he can utilize. In fact they will help him get his new company started, and the new company will focus on electron and x-ray beams, and not use of cesium or cobalt.
Aaserud:That's for food processing exclusively?
Koch:No, for everything, including medical devices. So that's what Cleland is starting there. He has asked me to join his company — be on the board of directors. How that develops, it's hard to say. But it would be of great interest to me, because of my personal relationship to Cleland. I've followed his career over the years and he has mine. And it's right in line with the things I've done in the past. All I have to do now is to learn a little bit of physics again, and learn some biochemistry. So I plan to take some courses in both physics and biochemistry. I plan to teach some physics in a small school in Colorado, and then I also plan to be on his board of directors.
Aaserud:Well, I'm glad to learn that this is not the conclusion of your career that this interview represents. It has not been possible all the time for private enterprise to enter this area, correct?
No, that's not quite correct. Johnson and Johnson for example, have a large facility in New Jersey. There are a number of pharmaceuticals that cannot tolerate heat treatment that are being treated with radiation. So you find these companies that are treating medical devices, they're getting more and more pervasive all through the country, particularly when they to use electrons and x-rays, as Cleland hopes to do with his new company.