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Interview of Arisitid Grosse by Charles Weiner on 1974 January 11, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4646-1
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Born in Russia 1905, childhood in Japan; early education in Japan and in Shanghai; undergraduate and graduate studies at University of Berlin from 1922; protactinium work with Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner 1926-1927. Moves to the U.S. (Universal Oil Products Corp.); comments on Vladimir Ipatief; travels to Europe (Cavendish Laboratory, the Curie Institute in Paris, and Berlin); Columbia University from 1939, dismissal from the Manhattan Project; president of the Research Institute at Temple University for 13 years (later affiliate of the Franklin Institute); desert agriculture. Also prominently mentioned are: M. S. Agruss, Francis William Aston, Niels Henrik David Bohr, Eugene Booth, James Chadwick, Arthur Holly Compton, Marie Sklodowska Curie, John R. Dunning, Gustav Egloff, Albert Einstein, Robley Dunglison Evans, Enrico Fermi, George Gamow, Hiram Halle, William D. Harkins, Georg von Hevesy, Karl Hoffman, Eugene Houdry, Lyndon B. Johnson, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Irene Joliot-Curie, Petr Kapitsa, Robert Andrews Millikan, Alfred O. Nier, Ida Noddack, George Braxton Pegram, Isidor Isaac Rabi, Ernest Rutherford, Frederick Soddy, Fritz Strassman, Leo Szilard, Joseph John Thomson, Harold Clayton Urey, John Archibald Wheeler; Atomic Energy Commission, Basic Science Foundation, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, Technische Hochschule (Berlin), Universal Oil Production Corporation, and University of Chicago.
We’ve viewed generally what we hope to accomplish, with the understanding that there are many things beyond this outline that we could cover at a future date. And if we’re lucky, we’ll get through a good portion of this. But the first general introduction that would be very helpful for me would be to know something of the years from being born in Russia in 1905, and ending up in Germany with an engineering degree in 1926. So I’m interested in a little of the family background, and why you ended up and how you ended up in Shanghai and how that finally determined you’re going to Germany.
Well, it’s quite an interesting story that starts, I mean, with my father. Because my grandfather was a surgeon, and my father just collapsed when he was at the University of St. Petersburg at the first sign of, or sight of blood. And of all things, in those years, 1890-1895, or thereabouts, he decided to study Chinese, and went to the Institute of Eastern Languages, at the University of St. Petersburg, got his degree, and as a result joined the Imperial Russian Foreign Office, and was sent to China and went to Peking as a student of Chinese, still in the days of the old Empress that reigned longer than Queen Victoria; was in Peking, was a great scholar of Chinese and knew it so well that he could translate later for the Czar of Russia, when the brother of the Emperor of China, the small Prince that the Dowager Empress was sort of supervising visited the Czar. So he became quite a well-known expert on the Chinese and other Oriental languages. And as the result, I started my life in China. Now, when you say I was born in China, it is not correct, I was born in Russia, but the Chinese never ask you where were you born, they want to know, where were you conceived? And to a Chinaman, I reply, “I was conceived in the Middle Kingdom,” which is the Chinese name for China. Therefore they look at me with a much friendlier expression in their eyes and say, “You’re not a barbarian, therefore.” Because that’s the way, I mean, they separate the people — those who were conceived in China, from those that were conceived outside of the Middle Kingdom, such as you people. And so my father spent most of his life in the Far East, and he died and my mother died, in Shanghai. He was stationed in various places in Japan, such as Yokohama and in northern China, and it was during the Russian-Japanese War that the Japanese attacked suddenly at Port Arthur, the same way that they did later at Pearl Harbor, and my mother escaped with the last train from Port Arthur, and I was born in Russia while my father stayed in Niecou-Chuang in China: he was a civil official, i.e. Governor of the Province and turned over the city of Niecou-Chuang to the Japanese military authorities, after the big battle that took place. After peace was signed my father was sent to Japan — we spent many years there. I grew up in Japan, I speak a little Japanese — (exchange in Japanese) And then in Shanghai, I learned to speak Shanghai dialect — (speaks Chinese —) This should go over well with Yin and Yang, I mean Lee and Yang. Because one of them is from Shanghai.
Let me ask, I’m a little confused — how long were you in Russia? You were born there?
Right after the Russo-Japanese War, in other words I was born January, 1905; the war was ended, and so we moved. My father was appointed consul in Yokohama, so we went to Japan then. But in those good old days, my father used to get a three months vacation every few years, and it usually was so arranged that my mother, with my two sisters and brother — there were four of us in the family — used to go on an earlier vacation, and my father would join us, and then we’d come back all together. So these were extended visits, I mean, to Russia, from time to time, in the good old days of Imperial Russia. And my first vivid recollection in life is, at the age of four, when I got lost in the wilds of Siberia, because I was very much interested in locomotives as a little boy, and I ran away from my governess to look at the locomotive in front of our train at the Station Taiga. Our car was the last car, and I ran away from my governess, and then suddenly after I saw the locomotive in all its glory and everything, I found out that I didn’t know which way to go, and found myself lost — and that’s my first recollection in life, at the station Taiga — right in the midst of Siberia. And this could be pinpointed very easily, because there were no other trips except this one, I mean, at that age.
Let me ask when you started your schooling and where?
Well, I was fortunate enough that I had many different types of schooling. Now, first I was supposed to get — well, let me give you a little more background of the family. Our family comes from the Baltic states of Russia, which was originally started by the Crusaders, after they were thrown out by the Saracens from the Holy Land. But “the boys liked the Crusading business so much” — that was around the beginning of the 13th century — when Saladin and the name is familiar to you, I mean, threw out the Crusaders. And they first retreated to Rhodos Island and then to Malta. But then many of them returned to their native countries, to Germany, France, England or what have you, they decided to continue and find some other heathen lands, and so that’s how the Baltic states along the Baltic Sea were gradually penetrated by knights, most of them of German descent, so that one finds that there very many Germans names like my own, Grosse. We were never citizens of Germany or belonged to the Reich. It was at the time of Peter the Great that the family was taken over — I mean, not the family, but these parts of Russia where they lived were made part of the Russian Empire. So as a result of that, I got essentially three different educations a Russian education at home and later in the school in Harbin, secondly, a French education at the Ecole Municipale Francaise in Shanghai in the French Concession, which was separate from the others.
There we learned much more English, because there were many English and American boys in the French school, and my mother decided it would be much better to send me to an English school, and I went to the Holy Trinity Cathedral School in Shanghai, where “all the chaps were English, you know,” because an American would spoil the English language. So that’s the way it was, and I finished that with my University of Cambridge examinations, which I passed, and so I could be accepted at the University of Cambridge. Then I finished a formal Russian education by an examination in Harbin at the Russian so-called Realschule or what the Germans call Realgymnasium. And then came the time to find out where I would continue my studies. I became very much interested in chemistry at the age of 15, and since I couldn’t find any textbooks in Russian some friends of ours suggested that I visit the American School in Shanghai. And I went over to see their chemical laboratory first, and saw a lot of the equipment and the experiments that they were doing, and I felt I could do these things at home, and that’s where I started my first laboratory, in Shanghai, buying the equipment from the Japanese drugstores and drug companies, to be exact, and pharmaceutical chemicals in the pharmaceutical shops that were all up and down the famous Shanghai street called Broadway.
Was that its real name?
That was the real name. And at the end of Broadway was the famous hotel in Shanghai that has the world’s greatest bar, called the Astor House. It has a much larger bar than the Astor House in New York and it was world famous for that. My laboratory was built in a building that my father built in the former garden of the Astor House, which was sold to the Russian government, still in the last days of the Czar. So my main point is, I had a multiple education. And so the time came for me to continue my studies in chemistry, and my father was figuring that a good way to start this would be to send me over across the Pacific from Shanghai to Berkeley, University of California. I remember, and I did look over comparatively recently, maybe the last few years, a letter from the chancellor of the University of California. It said that I would be admitted, I may have to pass some additional preliminary examinations. But at that age, I was only 17, my mother felt that since many of our relatives, running away from the Bolsheviks, were in Germany or in Europe, that it would be better for me to go to Berlin, because we had some relatives in Berlin and I would be under some supervision. And my mother’s point of view prevailed, and so I was sent to the Institute of Technology in Berlin, or as it was called in Berlin at that time, the Technische Hochschule in Charlottenburg.
Did you have to apply in advance for admission?
Well, at that time, my father had correspondence with the authorities, and they felt that first, my German language requirements would have to be fulfilled, and so I studied German on the ship, because when I got on the ship in Shanghai, a ship of the North German Lloyd, the only two words I knew were “Bier” and “Kartoffeln.”
That’s an adequate start.
But anyway, by the time we arrived in Trieste, I learned quite a bit. I used to speak German, I mean, as a little boy, during the visits in Riga, before the First World War. But anyway, in a comparatively short time, I mean, I studied up on the German requirements, and so was accepted, and started my student days at the Institute of Technology in Berlin. It was 1922.
Had you a specific goal in mind, or was this a general interest in chemistry?
No, it was a general interest. Let me tell you, and I still have my notebooks, on the Shanghai Commercial Press, notebooks starting in 1920 — these experiments that I was conducting in my laboratory. So I have a full record of these laboratory experiments, even now. I have them at home, including some of the samples of the various chemical preparations, both in inorganic and organic chemistry that I prepared then and [they] are still available in my laboratory at home. I was keeping a record, as a chemist should.
Did you have contacts with anyone else who had the same interests, in Shanghai?
No, not at that time. Except my brother and a friend of his, but they didn’t have the chemical ability, and I remember, I heard once a big bang in the house. The laboratory was right in the attic. And it occurred to me, it couldn’t have been something outside, it must have been in the house, and I figured my younger brother and his friend may have been making some chemical experiments. And lo and behold, when I arrived there a few minutes later, my friend was still holding his arms in front of his face, because they blew up a big flask full of hydrogen. They didn’t wait for the hydrogen to take all the air out, and so ignited the mixture to show that hydrogen burns, and the whole thing — So to that extent I had negative inputs, I mean, as to what chemistry could bring in.
What about public lectures? Anything?
Not that I recall. At the Holy Trinity Cathedral School there were no science courses. There was no physics or chemistry. The only thing, I visited the American school in Shanghai, but that was only once, before I started my laboratory. But I had sort of a self interest. I was reading books, in English, French, German and Russian on chemistry, and figured that I’ll come to be something practical, a chemical engineer. So when I went to Berlin, I was contemplating getting first a diploma as an engineer, and then a doctor of engineering.
Let me ask you about the books for one minute. Were they texts, popular books, or some classics in the field?
Well, there was a Russian translation of the famous book of Smith, here in America, which was very popular in Russia, and of course I had the PRINCIPLES OF CHEMISTRY of Mendeleeff, which I got old copies of. That would interest you, in this connection, and you will find that eventually in my notebooks, that back in 1922, I had copies — I was interested in radioactive elements, and all the disintegration series of uranium — I and uranium — X 1 and X 2 and uranium II, protactinium was discovered just shortly before that, and it was considered a branch series of uranium, and the whole thorium series. So I was interested already then in radioactivity, as a — well, I was 17 at that time.
Did you read books by Soddy or Rutherford or —
Well, I did hear about Soddy, and that reminds me that here I have Soddy’s book, where he writes about me, many years later. And I don’t know whether I showed that to you. But I’d like to. Soddy of course was a chemist. That’s Soddy’s book on the interpretation of the atom.
So you were developing an interest in chemistry in general, with chemical engineering as an aim, but at the same time radioactivity?
Radioactivity, but essentially in the basic aspects. I mean, this was the age when the theory of relativity was coming in, — I mean, the Bohr theory of the atom was coming in, quantum theory from Max Planck, and I was interested in the basic aspects, both in physics and chemistry, and any book I could lay my hands on, I would try to do that. And so I had quite a substantial library, and at that time, in 1922, a lot of cheap German books — by cheap, I mean they were particularly inexpensive for the various Chinese students in various colleges, and I used to spend many hours, as I remember, in some of the go-downs, storerooms, where the German textbooks I mean thick volumes of organic chemistry, and I used to spend many hours to my complete delight, to delve in these books and look them over. There were very few buyers that were really interested in them. So I remember, this whole subject of matter changing in your hands by the will of the chemist, had me fascinated. And of course, the old dream of the alchemists that the elements would be changed was of course of particular interest. And in that connection, I may mention to you, in Shanghai I was making up a collection of elements, and I still have them preserved. They were sealed in, I had something like 30 of the elements in my little sealed test tubes, from white phosphorus that would ignite on breaking that thing, to gold and platinum and iron and there was no uranium at that time, but speaking of uranium, I would just like to mention when I arrived in Germany in 1922, I bought some pure metallic uranium from the firm of Kahlbaun, which was one of the big houses, similar to Arthur H. Thomas now here in Philadelphia or Emery and Ammond in New York, and when the Manhattan Project came and this thing was declared secret, I had quite a difficulty of explaining how come I had some pure uranium in my possession. That was bought as pure metallic uranium back in 1922 to ‘24, somewhat in that period.
Part of this collection?
Part of the collection, yes.
How did you get started in your school work? Were any fundamental changes taking place in your outlook as a result of these direct technical —? (inaudible)
I was looking for the book that I wrote, starting in the year of 1924-25, with Professor Erich Krause, who was a man under whose direction I made my doctor’s dissertation, on metal organic compounds, a field that was a very specialized field of chemistry, but which now is perhaps the most fascinating field of the whole basic field of chemistry. Metal-organic chemistry is the science of the organic compounds of metals. They have tremendously interesting properties, and I mean, in the human body, hemoglobin is one representative of an iron organic compound. In nature, chlorophyll that is the green matter of leaves and that is responsible for photosynthesis, is another, and then of course, a tremendous number of very valuable compounds in the whole field of drugs, pharmaceuticals, that are metal organic. Of course lead tetra-ethyl for automobiles is another metal organic compound that is generally known. So I became interested in the basic aspects. I wouldn’t say that I was particularly interested in the engineering aspects, although I took the courses. I was always interested more in the basic development of a science.
In that case, why was your goal chemical engineering with the idea eventually of a doctorate in it, why not chemistry per se?
Well, of the two possibilities. I mean, this was done already before my decision was made, from a practical standpoint. You see, the whole Russian Revolution happened. The whole old structure of society collapsed, and it was felt that doing a purely scientific — I mean, becoming a professor at a university, for a refugee, or a man without a country, which I was for 20 years actually, there wouldn’t be the opportunities that one would have if one could present a diploma saying, “I am a chemical engineer.” So these were the practical considerations. But I’m saying, my reflection and interest at that time was along purely basic lines. Now, I think that was a wise decision, in the sense that all the engineering and all the chemical engineering is again based on pure chemistry and pure physics, coupled with mathematics. So that if one has a good groundwork in the two sciences and mathematics, one can apply oneself to any problems in chemical engineering.
Was basic chemistry and basic physics well taught?
I would think so. I mean, the man who had a great influence, outside of Erich Krause with whom I was doing research — and he died at an early age from inhaling chlorine in the laboratory. He died at the age of 37, and so I finished the book that I started with him, which is even now considered the Bible of metal organic chemistry. It’s called: Die Chemie der Metall Organischen Verbindungen and I was trying to develop –- it’s a big volume of something like 1000 pages, so I can commiserate with anyone who’s publishing a book, because that really represents a tremendous amount of work in which my wife helped me quite a bit.
What was your role in relation to his role?
Well, the thing is that I became interested in that area of metal organic chemistry. We published first joint papers on various discoveries, on thalium organic compounds. Then I went over to other metals and we felt that there was no book in this area, and so my interest of trying to get all the knowledge that was available in this area, in proper form, — that would be a good thing, to get this book on metal organic chemistry organized and started. We started it in 1925, ‘26, ‘27, in those years, and I finished it only in 1937, ten years later.
Are you co-authors?
We’re co-authors, right. It’s called the Krause-Grosse Metal Organic Chemistry. And since you ask about this thing, and my first name is sort of very rare in this country, except in one city being Louisville, Kentucky there every little kid knows what Aristid means. That’s the first horse that won the Kentucky Derby, and there is a big statue of the horse Aristid at Churchill Downs. But speaking of this metal organic book, I was, oh, maybe eight or ten years ago at the meeting in Dallas, Texas, on metal organic chemistry, where it was discussed about these old books, and somebody said, “It’s a pity that Aristid von Grosse who wrote that book died.” And I said, “What do you mean that, that ‘she’ wrote that book, and so forth?” And I said, “I am Aristid.” These are coincidences that happen.
This was a project that developed while you were doing student work?
While I was doing student work, collecting the literature, and so that was pursued. Then Krause died. And I mean, his mother appealed, during one of the visits of my wife to Berlin, that this was the work that he cherished most, and I mean, it could be brought to an end, and with her prompting, this thing was done, at the University of Chicago, where I was visiting professor. But to come back to your first question as to what prompted me, or whether I was interested in engineering — at the time in Berlin, I got acquainted with Vladimir Ipatiev. The name is not too familiar, but his picture is standing right in front there. He was one of the great catalytic leaders of our century. He was a general in the old Czarist regime. He was a friend of Lenin, and was put in charge of Soviet chemical production by Lenin, during the time of the breakdown, and he used to come to Berlin on occasional visits, to visit German industry. And I got acquainted with him, I would say roughly in the years 1927 or ‘26. And I came with him, or I came over first and got Gustav Egloff of the Universal Oil Products Co. interested in Ipatiev and secondarily in myself, and that’s where we started our industrial work, in Chicago at the Riverside Laboratories of the Universal Oil Products Co. And there, all the basic information on pure chemistry that I learned, I mean, in view of my interest, slanting it towards pure science, came to full fruition, because on any industrial process in engineering for the oil industry, we always asked ourselves, “Why do it this way? Can’t you change the whole groundwork, change the ground rules and make it by much, simpler chemical reaction?” And so this applies right now in our whole energy crisis situation, too.
We are doing many things the stupid way because we just haven’t thought deep enough how to change them and do these things better. And I would like to go on record, now: Take, for example, we are converting fuel, like the Arab oil or whatever we have in our own country, in gasoline engines, very ineffectively, losing two-thirds of the energy, and only saving a third, if we’re doing good, (and actually less though) for the mileage in our car. Every physicist will say that if we would learn to combust these same hydrocarbons in a fuel cell, at room temperature, we would get conversions I mean which are about 2-3 times larger. But none of our big corporations and companies are really aware of that fact and are studying these things. So I would say, in answer to your question, about having this broad approach — it paid off when we started working in Chicago.
Let’s get back then to the education period. By the time you received your chemical engineering degree in 1926, was it already clear — I know your motivation was clear, but was it clear in terms of the institution that you would go right on for a Dr. Ing. degree in Germany?
Well, I wanted to get a doctor’s degree for the simple reason that that was considered — I mean, although a Diplom-Ingineur in German was considered also an adequate end of an education, but to get a doctorate degree, I mean, was considered even better. And so since I felt I had the talent and the ability, I might as well do that. Now, since your question is broader, and I’m just looking at Albert Einstein, there, I want you to see that in these old years, could you just get those two photographs down, that are right behind your chair — that’s one, and the other one is there, right — I was visiting, and this is the picture which was taken — here you see Albert Einstein sitting — this was at Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry. There’s Bohr, here on a visit to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, and James Franck is there. I mean, you see a lot of luminaries. Hevesey is standing here — that’s Lise Meitner, sure — so that was the time that I got acquainted with — Otto Hahn is sitting there too, Fritz Haber is sitting there. And so while I was at the Institute of Inorganic Chemistry, or to be exact the Laboratory of Inorganic Chemistry at the Technishe Hochshule, we of course as young boys were interested in going to the Physics Institute of the University of Berlin, where, I mean, a colloquium or seminar was taking place once a month. And so here I have vivid recollections of Erwin Schrodinger, for example, explaining wave mechanics to a group of top notch physicists like Einstein, Max von Laue, Max Planck, Nernst, and many others, and I remember — and Leo Szilard was there too at the same time as an assistant. I learned only later of Einstein.
Did you understand much of what was going on?
Well, theory of relativity, I mean, interested me already in Shanghai, not the general theory of relativity but the special theory of relativity was at that time, I mean, something that was considered very modern, and one had to be up to date on these things.
I was thinking of Schrodinger explaining his work. He was a physicist.
Well, now, when you ask me that, I just want to — of course, we were awed, and no stupid questions were permitted by students, I mean, not by any written law, but one would be ridiculed in the presence of all these luminaries, if one wouldn’t ask a really carefully thought out question. And instead of just asking the top people, one would check with one’s own comrades and so forth, “Am I really doing the right thing in asking this question? Does it make sense or not?” Because I remember how Einstein interrupted Schrodinger and said, “Well, look — Das hast du aber Erwin nicht ganz richtig gemacht. And Schrodinger explained to Albert and said, “Albert, Aber Ich meine es ganz anders, so meine ich es.” “Ach so, so,” sagte Einstein. To me that was of course high physics, and I was just enjoying that. I mean, Einstein didn’t quite understand, so I felt that it would take many years before I would be in a position to get at these things.
Did you get any physics courses in your schooling?
Oh, sure. At the Institute of Technology, there were regular physics courses, and physical experimentation, measurements of various types.
No, I meant, did any of the new concepts come into your courses?
These were so new at that time that we got our fill. I mean directly going to the authors at these seminars. Now, of course, there were seminars with Max Vollmer, for example, who was teaching physical chemistry in Berlin, who later went over to the Soviet Union, and so we tried to keep ourselves up to date in the various institutions of learning in Berlin. I remember originally I wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because they were way outside, in the part of Berlin called Berlin-Dahlem. They were far away. But when I joined the Institute, I of course was at the sessions of Haber’s Institute, and Haber’s colloquium in physical chemistry gathered as much luminaries as Einstein and Planck gathered in the field of physics, I mean, when they were having their seminars at the University of Berlin. So there was a competition between the various institutions. And so when I joined the Hahn-Meitner Institute, then I visited quite often the various symposia that were going on, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes. There was the Institute of Physics, the Institute of Chemistry which was the Hahn-Meitner Institute, and the Institute of Physics of which Albert Einstein was the head, and many others.
How did it happen that you decided to, and were accepted to, work at the Hahn-Meitner Institute?
Well, it had nothing to do with me, except that I had the good fortune, in view of my general interest in chemistry and because I approached it from an experimental standpoint already at the very young age of 15, that Karl A. Hoffman, that was considered a terror by all the students — I found favor in his eyes. And I not only finished the examination with mit Auszeichnung in German — that means “with honors” — but he also put a star behind Auszeichnung and that, they said, they told me later, never happened. And I was an inorganic chemist, and so Otto Hahn asked Hoffman — Hoffman published a book that was known all over Germany on inorganic chemistry, that had something like I think 25 editions or something of that number — and so Hoffman was well known as one of the main trainers of chemists in Germany, not in organic chemistry which was a special field, but in the basic inorganic chemistry, which by the way, is one of the things that we don’t do in this country, and I would like to spend just a few words on that point. In Europe, there was no gathering together of all the chemical sciences in the departments of chemistry, as we have them here, or departments of physics.
The department of chemistry in this country covers the whole field of chemistry from A to Z. And if some professor who is the leader in that particular group is interested in one particular branch of chemistry, let’s say organic chemistry, like Roger Adams did at Champagne or at Urbana, Illinois, at the University of Illinois — the whole department is more or less structured along organic chemical lines. If there is an outstanding physical chemist like Harold Urey at Columbia University, he gathered around himself a large number of physical chemists, and other parts of chemistry may be completely neglected. This thing is not possible in continental Europe. It’s not possible in the Soviet Union, for the simple reason that the institutes of chemistry are sub-divided. The Institute of Inorganic Chemistry exists as such, is budgeted as such, has its own staff of professors, and is doing inorganic chemistry. The Institute of Physical Chemistry will pursue physical chemistry, and the Laboratory of Organic Chemistry will pursue organic chemistry, so that sciences of chemistry are divided already in their very structure, and you cannot shift and make one thing disappear. Of course, right now in many of our government agencies, I mean even chemistry as such doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s called material science, which supposedly takes everything under consideration. So when Otto Hahn asked Hoffman, “Do you have some student to recommend who might be interested in radioactivity?” Hoffman called me in and said, “Now that you’ve got your degree, would you like to do something completely different, in the field of radioactivity?” And that’s where I was invited to the Hahn-Meitner Institute.
Was it made clear to you that this was for a limited period of time?
It was for a limited period of time, just to do a postdoctorate piece of work, maybe for a period of a year or something like that.
Was the stipend for this training from —
— there was no stipend at the beginning. This all gradually developed, and I had to fight for it for quite a while, and I did get a Liebig stipend, but it was after I was many months at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.
A Liebig stipend is a fund set up to honor Liebig?
Right. That’s it exactly, I mean by the German society that was I believe an extension of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society.
Now, did you first have to interview with Hahn?
Well, I don’t recall exactly how it was. I think Hoffman made the red-commendation and Hahn asked me to come over, and I think he made a great impression on me, because he was telling me in German, “I bet you a hundred pounds sterling,” and it struck me funny, how come a German professor would talk I mean in terms of pounds sterling? Because at that time I knew very little that he was a pupil of Rutherford.
At McGill and so forth, and that’s the way he learned it, because I wasn’t even 21 then. And so after a comparatively short time, I think we spoke a few things in English, because he knew of my Shanghai background, and I was in. So there was no period, I mean, of any checking up or so forth. He just took Hoffman’s recommendation, and after he saw me, I mean, he —
Did he outline for you what your duties might be?
He said, “I have some particular problems,” and it might be interesting to record for history, Hahn was very much interested and had a controversy with Fajans, Kasimir Fajans who developed together with Soddy the displacement laws of radioactive elements, about how the various radioactive elements in minute quantities behaved. In the presence of other chemicals. He was interested in the separation of radium from barium, or barium from radium, and suggested that I study the various glasses containing radium and barium, in regard to their emanating ability, and I started that work, and to be frank, it didn’t interest me particularly, for the simple reason that right adjoining to the room, which had three big laboratory tables for about — no, two laboratory tables, one on each side, so there were four — noticed in the adjoining room — Now, this was, I started in November of 1926, and in the adjoining room, I found something like a few hundred bottles of various sizes and shapes filled with preparations, obtained while trying to isolate protactinium, which Soddy and Cranston discovered in England in 1917 and which at the same time Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner discovered at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Hahn and Meitner particularly tried to isolate protactinium because it was known that it had a long life, and they tried, and they assumed, exactly like Marie Curie did, that because radium was in the periodic system was standing below barium, and she added barium to the uranium pitchblende residues out of which uranium was taken out, for various other purposes, and did isolate radium, did get it together with the barium, and then separated the radium from the barium by fractional crystallization. So the first isotope of element 91, which is protactinium or is also called protoactinium, was discovered by Fajans originally and called brevium, because it had — that is — uranium X-2 or UX2 with a very short half life of 70 seconds. And Fajans originally added, again on the same assumption, following Marie Curie’s tradition, some tantalic acid to the source of uranium salts, separated the tantalic acid, and did finally then have the radioactivity of uranium X 2, that new isotope, and so Hahn and Meitner also were adding tantalic acid to the residues after the radium. They were called in German “Ruck Ruckstande”, in other words, “the residues of residues,” because the radium was extracted from the Uranium residues, and what was discarded then, that’s where the protactinium accumulated. By adding tantalic acid (Ta2 O5) or other tantalum compounds, they tried to enrich the tantalum, and after ten years they more or less gave up. From 1917 till about 1926.
November ‘26 — you had your doctorate in ‘27 and went there then?
No, wait a minute, it was at the end of — I don’t know exactly. You see, the doctorate may depend on the date that the document is handed over to you. I passed the examinations before I joined, so I knew I had it, but it may not have been an official document at that time. But the date of November, ‘26, is when you were actually at the –-
At the Hahn-Meitner Institute. I recollect this because — Let me come back to these dates, why I remember them. So when I saw all these preparations, I started thinking: here is an element that should be present in similar amounts to radium, in nature. Why then are they not able to get it? So I got the original, starting in the library, the original publications of Hahn and Meitner on the properties of protactinium, what they were. They were published in the Berichte of the German Chemical Society, in the PROCEEDINGS of the Prussia Academy of Sciences and so forth. And it occurred to me that they were following the wrong track. Now, I was a great admirer of Mendeleef, who predicted the properties of the elements, and so I figured, since uranium stands under tungsten and molybdenum in the periodic system, and I always keep the periodic system close at hand (— we have one right now —) that uranium does not have the properties of tungsten, although radium, standing under barium, does have, because it’s on the left side of the periodic system. But uranium has completely different properties, and in nature, uranium minerals don’t contain tungsten and vice versa. And the same applies to thorium and hafnium that was discovered shortly before that time by Hevesey. There also you can separate thorium from hafnium. Hafnium is very similar to zirconium, and so protactinium, standing between the two, i.e. th and U, should not have the properties of tantalum, but it should be readily possible to separate the Pa from the tantalum, without any difficulty, and all these properties were written out on a sheet of paper, or three or four sheets, which I still have, and they were I was asked by the Deutches Museum in Munich to send them. But here I would now really say that I must have had a lot of nerve and cheek to tell to really top notch scientists like Hahn and Meitner that they were wrong in describing the properties or assuming the properties of protactinium the way they did, and I gave them a written statement, how I would proceed to separate protactinium from the residues, where it occurred in a concentration of one part to a million or something like that.
Were they aware, prior to that written statement, that you had been looking into this on your own?
Well, that happened only within the first weeks that I was there. I was looking into it, in the library of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, in their own publications. And so after I came to that conclusion, I wrote it out. It must have been the end of November in 1926 that I presented Hahn with this write-up. And I mean, after a while he figured, well why not take a chance? So he gave me a number of his preparations, to see what I could do with them. And this is what Hahn has been covering in some of his letters to me recently. Let me see if I have that here. And since you understand German, you’ll be interested in this thing. Here is, 1966, —
He wrote to you, when?
Here is the letter. I can give you a copy. No reason why not. Here is one letter. And here is another letter, written January, 1967.
This is a ‘66 one you gave me.
Yes, and here I’ll give you the other one. Now, this, in this first letter, — I wrote to Hahn, Lise Meitner and so forth in regard to the Enrico Fermi Prize that they got at that time, and so then we established — he was 87 years old then. He writes here, and I think that this is the paragraph that you may be interested in, the first letter, this is ‘66, he said: (in German) Ich erinnere mich naturlich noch sehr genau an die Zeit, in der wir zusammen in Berlin gearbeitet haben. Sie wissen, dass ich Ihre bessere Chemie, was das Protactinium anbelangt, immer geschatzt und anerkannt habe, denn meine Anreicherungsversuche, unter der Annahme, dass das Pa tantalahnliche Eigenschaften hat, waren ja durftig und ohne Erfolg. Sie haben die Reinherstellung des Pa in kurzester Zeit geschafft. So I am very glad to have this thing from Hahn, because I consider him one of the outstanding scientists, and particularly in the field of chemistry, because to me he’s a nuclear chemist. Now you know that nowadays, he’s made a nuclear physicist. But I being the one who’s been always fighting for independent chemistry, even in the physics department with Enrico Fermi and John Dunning and so forth.
So when you turned your attention to it, you had only been doing this for a few weeks?
No, no, I was looking at the literature and so forth. Then I gave Hahn the write-up, and he still has the original, all there in his papers. Well, OK, so we can Xerox it. So he gave me the preparations, and at the same place where I was working on this barium-radium problem of their emanating ability, I mean, I switched over to the protactinium thing, completely, as a matter of — in two days or so. And I was trying to find out what they did, found out that it was a complete mixture of everything under the sun. I mean, these residues that we had. And found out after some time that they contained phosphoric acid that messed things up, I mean in the form of phosphates, and that it contained large quantities — well, of iron, silica, all kinds of other elements; elements that have nothing to do with tantalum. And after about three months, I had the protactinium enriched by a factor of 100,000 and had it as pure protactinium pentoxide, Pa2O5, mixed with Zirconium dioxide, ZrO2. And all my notebooks are still available, and they’re at the Deutches Museum now, where you can follow the whole thing from A to Z.
You didn’t keep Xerox copies of the notebooks here?
I have kept some pages, which I’ll be glad to pass on to you, but at least I want you to know the record is there. My equipment that I used has been passed on there too. We know now, as a result of the studies, that they are badly contaminated with Pa and so they are radioactive, and the present generation of young physicists or chemists would probably handle these things only by long range arms behind, I mean, lead windows. Now, in those days, it may be of interest to the young generation, all these things were done by hand, directly, as Marie Curie handled radium, from one beaker to another, filtering things through a filter funnel, sucking them off, igniting them in a crucible. I must have inhaled quite a bit of protactinium, because right now, the protactinium in me — and I have the medical reports are essentially, in this small area here —
— in your chest —
In the chest, in the tubes that lead off to the lungs — it must have deposited there, in soft tissue. They’re not in bones, which makes it a very sort of interesting thing to the radiologist.
Getting back to the timetable, you said about three months before you had a 100,000 enrichment, and your first publication at least this note that you published in NATURE, was September ‘27. Is that the sequence? Was there any publication prior to that?
Well, wait a minute, there was — that is not necessarily the first publication. I think the first publication appeared in Naturwissenschaften.
Yes, I wasn’t clear of the date, though. It’s listed first in your publications.
Yes, but that is just my secretary happened to —
No, Naturwissenschaften is listed first.
Right, OK. Now, the thing is, so I started in November, end of November I presented the predicted properties of protactinium to Hahn, and then I think I started working in December. So December, January, February, or by the beginning of March I had the Pa. I was planning to concentrate it still further. And so one or two months later, I mean, this went off to the Naturwissenschaften and to NATURE. And I’ll tell you later, because there’s an interesting point there, publishing in NATURE. But then I gave a presentation at the German Chemical Society on protactinium where I mean, Fritz Haber was presiding, and I remember he was asking me a number of pointed questions. I mean, at the end of the lecture, which was customary in those days. Here is the lecture. That was the one given.
No. 3 on your list.
Yes, No. 3 on the list.
I’m interested in the second note, the one in NATURE. It’s a three paragraph note, submitted September, ‘27, and you say, “It is hoped that the difficulties both financial and technical of preparing a sufficient quantity of the element for an atomic weight determination will soon be overcome, so that this outstanding problem of radioactivity may be settled.” I’d like to know a little more about those problems and how they were in fact overcome.
Well, the interesting point is that you see, here is an outsider, I mean like myself, a youngster, really, who, I mean, in the eyes of Hahn and Meitner was considered just a complete beginner, taking an independent viewpoint based on his education in a French school in Shanghai during the First World War, where the Germans were considered “a bunch of barbarians,” right, in an English school, where the Germans were not maybe considered barbarians because of the Royal Family’s connection, but they were not, I mean, up to what you would think are gentlemen, right? And so this viewpoint prompted me to be as independent as I could and that’s why I wrote to NATURE — which of course Hahn and Meitner did not like. And of the two people, the interesting thing is that Lise Meitner, that later I mean had to leave Germany on account of Hitler, she was much more German than Otto Hahn. Now, I think that’s to her credit. I mean, Lise Meitner was an outstanding woman, and I was telling them, “Look, Germany has no radium ore. You have to get it out of either Czechoslovakia or out of the Belgians, which had at that time discovered the big ore deposits in the Belgian Congo.” And Lise Meitner would put her hands over her breast and say “Das protactinium ist ein Deutsches element,” and “Wir werden nie mals zu den Czechen oden zum Belgian gehen” — “that protactinium is a German element, and we would never go to the Czechs or the Belgians to get residues from.” So this was the reason, I mean, how to get the stuff? If the Germans had nothing, right? But it so happened that the Germans did get from Joachimstal, and still kept some of the radium residues, I think they had something like three-quarters of a ton of radium residues from Joachimstal. Joachimstal is a place from where the name dollar comes. I don’t know whether the average person knows that or not. Joachimstal means the valley of Saint Joachim — Joachim’s tal, tal is valley. They had silver mines next to the uranium, and in the old days, silver was the thing that was mined at Joachimstal, and so a piece of, chunk of silver cut off from a long bar was called in German a taller, from Joachimstal. The Pennsylvania Dutch brought it over here, taller, taller, taller, what is that German “Heinie” talking about, he means dollar — and that’s how the American dollar was created. So [it is] from that same place where the uranium residues came from.
And so that became available and solved the problem?
So with that, I mean — wait a minute, with that I went to the I.G. Farben, I mean, as Hahn’s representative, and I was working at Ludwigshaffen at the main laboratory of the Badish Andire und Soda Fabrick, called BASF, which you see on all the aspirin bottles and so forth, the big aniline combine, and there I isolated something like 70 milligrams of protactinium, in the form of pure protactinium oxide, Pa2O5.
You worked there.
Right, with the workers supplied I mean by the I.G. Farben. It was part of the I. G. Farben complex. And that’s where I met Herman Mark, which I presume you may have seen and visited at Brooklyn, who is now a top notch polymer chemist, but he was originally a physicist. Well, he was a metal organic chemist, Herman Mark, who then I mean discovered the electron diffraction, while he was at the I.G., and I mean got interested in all kinds of things.
How long were you there, and what months —
— oh, I don’t recall right now, but these things were published, I mean in some of the publications, and — I was there for about nine months or something like that.
This was after the NATURE note?
Oh, that was after the NATURE note, and you may have some more.
What did you expect to accomplish with the NATURE note? Did you think that someone outside then would volunteer to send you —?
No, not necessarily, no, but I just wanted to have it known. Look, I had a high regard for Soddy. I corresponded with him. You will see what Soddy wrote about me in this book which comes to that time. And so I wanted to be generally known, outside of the purely German community. But when Hahn and Meitner didn’t want to try to get it from outside sources, then I mean I contacted Marie Curie first, and that’s where I was visiting and got acquainted with her. I mean, they didn’t have any money and so forth, but gradually, after I got acquainted with Gus Egloff and Ipatiev, then parallel to that development was Mr. Hiram Halle, who started the “School of social research,” is it called, in New York?
“New School for Social Research.”
New School for Social Research was started by Mr. Hiram Halle, who was an outstanding individual and a gentleman, and he’s the one that gave me money to get the — while I was working for UOP at the Riverside Laboratories with Ipatiev, I also was invited as a professor to the University of Chicago, on radioactivity, and it was there, with the money that Mr. Halle provided, and with the help of our ambassador in Czechoslovakia, Mr. Rashevsky — that’s all described in the SCIENCE article — I got the possibility — and this was all done for tremendously small sums of money, because for research the University of Chicago didn’t have more than $50 a year or something like that. And I had, I believe, $5000 from Hiram Halle, and that got the whole thing started, from a concentration of one part to the million, down to the pure protactinium (Pa2O5) that was used in the atomic weight determination.
You also, in some of the papers, you specifically thanked the Chemical Foundation for support.
It was the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia that gave me some money, after the Halle funds were exhausted. It was the Philosophical Society.
On some of the papers, though, the Chemical Foundation —
— no, I don’t recall any Chemical Foundation. It could have been in the Columbia days, when I got the Guggenheim fellowship.
That was the Research Corporation I think in those days.
No, I didn’t get, as far as I recall, any — but show me what may have happened in all these 50 years —
The thing that I’m interested in is, before you get to Chicago, did Hahn or Meitner, either one of them, have any objection to your publishing in NATURE? Did they think that this was a violation of some kind of politeness or whatever?
As I think back, I have to admit that, I mean, I was wrong. In other words, I didn’t even ask for their permission. I was a Shanghai boy, right, about to return to Shanghai after I finished this thing, to visit again my father and mother and the rest of the family that was there, and so to put it bluntly, I didn’t give a damn. So and being young and so forth, one doesn’t care. And now that I look backwards, I can feel that I really caused them probably a lot of chagrin, I mean to Hahn and Meitner. And they felt that I misbehaved completely. Which I think that any young student, I mean, coming and studying in a particular country, at a particular institution, shouldn’t be doing what I was doing. But I was so convinced by the Allied concept of human justice that I just felt that, I mean, the Germany that was responsible for the whole World War I didn’t have a leg to stand on, so I didn’t get the Hahn and Meitner, — I mean — (telephone interruption)
You were telling about your attitude to what Hahn and Meitner, and others in Germany might feel, and you were explaining that you were reasonably confident and were concerned — This independence on your part also implies to me that you had an idea that your future would certainly not lie in Germany.
Did you have some place in particular in mind?
Well, let me tell you that, with my Shanghai background, right, and the other important thing is, I was a man without a country at that time. Nobody wanted to have Russian refugees if they could help it. So when I, for example, wanted to go and visit my sister in France, she was married and had, lived on the French Riviera, right close to Monte Carlo, I tried to get a French visa to get there, the French wouldn’t give it to me. Through some coincidence, I got an Italian visa to get into Italy, and there on the border of Italy, right at the, you know, Monte Carlo border, I was telling the French consul, who was an Italian by birth, but you know, an honorary consul, that “Ma soeur est en Requebruine.” that “My sister is in ______ .” He understood that I was a “masseur and a Requebruine” how, and that my clients are waiting for me, He said,_________ and — So you see, by some complete tricks and so forth, I was getting in. So the background that you have to understand, and I haven’t mentioned that too, and this is the first time — this interview goes in depth, I mean, as to the mentality that was going on — for 20 years, and this was 1927 and the Russian Revolution was 1917, I was a man without a country. So I felt that it would be very difficult to get anything in Europe. But you are stuck in Europe, so you don’t have any allegiance to any one particular country. Then I mean, fortunately, my father still had a job in China, I came back and visited my family for a year, but found out when I was in Shanghai, there wasn’t much opportunity, and I came back to Berlin, and there, thanks to my good friends at the Institute of Technology, which grew up together with me, I mean grew up as students, I was offered the job as an assistant. And so I could exist, I mean, to some extent, at the Institute of Technology.
The one in Charlottenburg, you mean.
That’s the one in Char1ottenbrg, the MIT of Germany, where I was doing the studying and where the old Karl Hoffman, who was the dean of inorganic chemistry, and I continued work there, I mean, with — in the field of metal organic chemistry, and I had my students.
You were in Shanghai 1928-29.
1928-29. It was actually something like one year or maybe a month or so longer.
Did you do anything there, work?
Well, I was with some friends of ours, which was the Medical Analysis Laboratory in Shanghai, and I did some work on protactinium. I published a paper, my first paper in the JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY. That’s when, I believe, I became a member of the American Chemical Society. So I was trying to extend my feelers and see what could happen eventually in America. But I never had the chance, and to a refugee, I mean, to come over to America was at that time considered a pipe’s dream. Then it suddenly happened, one evening in Berlin, that I had the opportunity.
Well, there was the World Petroleum Congress, I think the second one, and I had a good friend, Howard Sieper who was the correspondent of the CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR in Boston, and in view of our varying backgrounds and interests in various fields, we used to go sailing together. He was a friend of some joint friends of mine. So I kept a pretty close friendship with him. And I was supposed to meet him one day right at his office which was Unter den Linden, you know, the main thoroughfare of Berlin, and I arrived at his office. It was 6 o’clock in the evening or so. He was gone, and no message was left for me, — so I decided to wait. But then I waited half an hour and nothing happened, and I was already in the elevator when the telephone rang, and the wash woman there, that was cleaning up the floors said, “There is a telephone ringing, and you perhaps speak English, these are always Americans there and I don’t understand a word.” So I came up to the phone, and answered it and there was Howard Sieper on the other side of the phone saying, “I got stuck with an American scientist here at the hotel Bristol on the other side of the street, and maybe you’d like to come over and meet him and get acquainted.” And he was Gustav Egloff, who was a man very much interested in publicity, who knew how to get newspaper attention all over the world, and he was at the Petroleum Congress. We started discussing things, and I told him about Ipatiev, and he immediately got very much interested, because they were interested in Chicago, at the Universal Oil Products Co., where they developed the Dubbs cracking process to make oil as it was done in California by the Dubbs process, in competition with what the I.G. Farben was telling the American oil industry, “With catalysts we can convert any oil into much better oil, and that will be the road of the future.” So they were very much concerned how things would develop. So when they heard that Ipatiev, who in their minds, in Gus Egloff’s mind and everybody else’s who was an outsider, was an important official in the Soviet hierarchy, that he was available and would like to come over to America — he immediately got in touch with Hiram Halle, who was the president, and one of the Halle family that has the big store in Cleveland. Yes, that’s the same family, and you know maybe of Miss Halle who is one of the big hostesses in Washington right now, she’s — Well —
So he got hold of him to get the invitation to —
So I went first, two weeks ahead of Ipatiev, to lay the ground and find out what the interests were, and I was supposed to meet Ipatiev a few weeks later. And he came to New York, and that’s the gentleman right there on the left. [in the photo] He came already at the age of 60 or 65.
You may have told me before but I don’t recall how you first came in contact with Ipatiev.
Well, Ipatiev was a well known Russian scientist, member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. In addition to NATURE I, through Ipatiev, presented one or two papers on protactinium in the Proceedings of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. So that’s how I got acquainted with him, in order to have a vehicle, first.
He wrote to you expressing his interest?
No, no — he was already in Berlin, and a friend of mine, who was studying with me, became his assistant, and so my friend Carl Freitag who passed away in the meantime at a much younger age, — he’s the one. So I met Ipatiev socially on many occasions, and we were exchanging notes. He studied originally with Moses Gomberg who was one of the outstanding organic chemists in this country, when they were together in Bayer’s laboratory in Munich, way back in 1899 or thereabouts.
I see. Then when you went to the US, to New York, was when, 1930?
1930 for the first time, and I met Mr. Halle then, went to Riverside, and then I got acquainted with the people in Riverside, and then was expecting and waiting for Ipatiev to come to New York. Then I brought him over to see Mr. Halle, and I was carrying out all the negotiations for Ipatiev, between Mr. Halle and Egloff. And that’s how Ipatiev was taken out from being a member of the Soviet hierarchy and brought over as a professor at Northwestern University, and with the Universal Oil Products Co. Now, I mention these things specifically because later this fact of course was not put to my credit on the black list that the Soviet authorities had in Moscow, when I was there, I mean, on the rubber mission a few years later during the Second World War. No, no, they did know it perfectly. They knew it much better than many things over here.
How did that affect your career? Were you given a position then in Chicago?
Well, so, let me tell you — While working on a stipend for the Liebig Society, which was about $43 a month or something in that neighborhood 160 marks divided by 4.2 — I suddenly got a salary of $500 a month. So that was a jump from $43 to $500. I accepted that.
This was with the UOP?
With the UOP. And it was, I mean, at UOP that this whole thing started, and we started the special catalytic research in — at Riverside. Now, let me tell you, this thing is more interesting, because I also got acquainted — you may have heard of the Fischer Tropsch process, which we are considering very much at this time in this country to make hydrocarbons and oil from coal. Fischer [and] Hans Tropsch were the two German inventors that developed the process to make it from coal, and Tropsch was also invited to Riverside. And I went to Czechoslovakia, to Prague, not only in connection with getting the radium residues to work on protactinium, but also to help Hans Tropsch get established in Riverside. So the three of us were together, Ipatiev, Tropsch and myself. So I got a lot of as far as my catalytic studies are concerned, I got it really from two outstanding masters, Ipatiev and Tropsch, and it will be of particular use right now in connection with our energy crisis. So I mean, you can see the ramifications of these things, as they go from one end of the spectrum to the other.
So there was no prior arrangement with the chemistry department of the University of Chicago?
No. Wait a second, first I was invited to Northwestern University, and I gave my first lecture at Northwestern University, and Ipatiev gave his lecture there also. Then, I mean, after a comparatively short period, I mean, — you see, I made a number of trips. I came first in 1930, went back to Europe in the fall of 1930, after three months in the States during the summer, passed through Aston and Rutherford and those places in England (Cambridge) on the way back. Then we started doing some work in Germany for UOP. Then went back in the summer of 1931 to report on that work in detail. Came back through to Paris, or London and Paris, at the time of the discovery of the neutron. So I met Chadwick and so forth, and with Aston. Again back to Germany. Then I got married in Berlin — on my honeymoon, just like my father and mother, we came to this country. And stayed permanently, I mean, on the third trip, in 1932.
I see. That was confusing to me.
So there were a number of trips back and forth, and that’s what got me, I mean, to get acquainted with the whole development in physics, both in England, at the Cavendish, in Paris at the Curie Institute, and of course I was in touch with the developments in Germany.
That’s a whole chapter for next time that I want to discuss. Let’s just pursue this for a minute, on the biographical detail of how you became connected on one of these trips possibly with Chicago, with the chemistry department there. How did that come about?
Well, this was because I told Gus Egloff already that I was very much interested. This was my work that was going on, and let me tell you that I was interested in protactinium. But I think the real tipoff was that Kasimir Fajans, who was in Munich at that time, and he was a celebrity in the field of radioactivity, met Gus Egloff, and he must have told him a few things about me, and that is the thing that decided Gus Egloff that he will do everything he can to get me to come over with Ipatiev. And because of my interest in radioactivity, I was stressing that I would very much like to continue my radioactive studies, and particularly isolate protactinium, and Mr. Halle knew that, and he was the one that offered out of a clear blue sky to give me money, I mean, to do these things. And so, giving that assurance to the University of Chicago that funds will be provided for that thing, Julius Stieglitz(?) — you know, the brother of the famous photographer in New York who was chairman of the chemistry department, he had enough wisdom to see, and Harkins was there too, that this would be something worthwhile. So there were no difficulties for the chemistry department to invite me as visiting assistant professor at the University of Chicago.
With your salary paid from —
— the salary was, I don’t recall exactly now, one will have to look, but I think essentially the salary was paid by U.O.P., and I was spending only one day a week at the University of Chicago. And so the salary was paid, I think, fully by Universal Oil Products Co., although I wouldn’t be able to know exactly until I checked the record.
The actual cost was paid by the funds of Halle.
That was paid directly to me, and I was given the — this money, and so paid it through, it was paid through, I mean directly, and I was making the arrangements with the Lindsay Light Co. people, in West Chicago where now the cyclotron — not far from Batavia was built.
And the funds that Halle gave were his personal funds, or were connected with –-
— no, they were his personal funds. Halle was a great philanthropist, a great individual. You know that the whole New School of Social Research was his own thing and not part of UOP or anything else.
There’s a good history of that, by Johnson I think.
Right. Johnson was the president then at that time.
Well, let’s see, in the remaining time, which is not very long, let’s agree that we have a whole period to fill in —
— right — well, anyway, we’re in Chicago now, and there comes the interesting period, on — where Fermi’s work was beginning.
How did you first become aware of Fermi’s paper on the transuranic elements, the one that he published in 1934? Did you know about this work before the paper was published?
Well, let me tell you that in those times, with the background that one had at the University of Berlin, with Hahn and Meitner in radioactivity, the discovery of the neutron, the meeting of Cockcroft and Walton, the meeting of George Gamow and all these people that were involved — I mean, one knew everybody in this whole field, from A to Z, that were interested in I mean, to a chemist, the transmutation of the elements as it happens in radioactivity is the very essence of chemistry. I consider physics as just an adjunct to the whole basic chemistry that’s going on. So I mean, we were watching out, and after the discovery of artificial radioactivity by Irene Curie and Joliot-Curie, I mean, one was interested in anything that may develop. And Fermi started, as we all know, first by bombarding with neutrons that were discovered by Chadwick, the whole host of elements, from No. 1 to No. 90 first, and I mean, he did discover a whole bunch of new radioactive isotopes. And I remember in Chicago already before he published anything on 93 and 94, we were repeating some of these experiments at the University of Chicago.
Just taking some radium from the supply of the Michael Reese Hospital, I mean that they were using, and surrounding that with beryllium and so forth, we were making our own neutron source. So I mean, this was a fascinating field, and I don’t remember exactly how, but we were right in those experiments that Fermi was carrying out. At a later date, he bombarded also uranium and thorium, and claimed that he had obtained elements on the right hand side of the bombarding isotope, and at that time any chemist of course was fascinated by the possibility of making elements beyond 92, which for times immemorial was considered the end of the periodic system. And so then Fermi’s publication — I mean, he described there in detail how he did it, and I repeated, together with Agruss, some of these experiments, and found that they were ambiguous, and that the same reactions were also shown by protactinium. In other words, that it could be just as well protactinium or element 91 instead of 93, to show these reactions.
Didn’t you also take another attack on it to show that elements 93, 94 and 95 would have certain specific properties?
Right, and so this was published in the JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY. There were two possibilities, that there were either the true homologues of rhenium which is just above uranium, above element 93, and it would be so as to say eka-rhenium and that the element 94 would be eka-osmium, standing below osmium, or, in line with what Bohr was suggesting — Niels Bohr you know had the elongated form of the periodic system, — and that the electrons should be going out, instead of becoming valence electrons, should go into lower orbit, and that you would have a second group of rare earths elements. And so those two possibilities were considered. And from that, I mean, it did not follow — I was expressing to Fermi in our private correspondence, and by the way, these papers and letters to Fermi, and it’s interesting how he wrote to me back in German, and we have correspondence both in English and in German, and it’s kept by the AEC in connection with our compensation board application many years later. They have the originals. I don’t have copies of them. But that’s where they’re located, and I use this opportunity to put this down on record. And so, I suggested to Fermi that it’s very simple to find out whether I was right or wrong, just to add to his element 93, and he had much better neutron sources than we had, to see whether it separates out with the protactinium or not. Now, Hahn read this note of mine, where I was questioning Fermi’s results, and he decided to repeat the experiments, and he describes it all in his memoir.
Right, I remember. You know, the timing is very interesting, because Fermi’s publication was June 16th of 1934, and —
Is that the publication in the PROCEEDINGS of the Royal Society?
No, the one I’m referring to, I’ll show you in a moment — your first note on this is July 7 and Fermi — in NATURE is the one I’m referring to, and that was June 16th. Your paper in NATURE, was submitted on July 7th, so that’s very fast.
Well, this was a field that was, I mean, of tremendous interest. As you know, that Ida Noddack, who had the right answer — I mean was also — what year was this, ‘34?
This was ‘34. His article in NATURE was June 16th, 1934, the publication date —
You have Fermi’s article here?
This is the paper, right.
Oh, this was in NATURE. I don’t recall this paper but I must have seen it. So I sent to Fermi some protactinium to check these experiments, and when I was later in Rome, I got acquainted with Professor Amaldi and first, I mean, he didn’t know who I was and so forth. “Oh,” he said, “protactinium — Grosse. We still keep your protactinium right here,” and he showed it to me.
Did they use it? Did they check it?
No, Fermi never — when I met him at Columbia and so forth, I asked him, but Fermi, you know, is so much interested in many much more important things. I found out only recently that in his patent application that he put down in Rome, he did describe that he made these experiments with protactinium, and he described it and it showed that it didn’t go in other words, he had the same results that Hahn had, that it was not protactinium, but he never published that, and only in his patent application, he put it in. The specification. So in one of the patent applications of Fermi that I’m sure you have, published in the complete set, it will be found.
The sequence of your publications: Fermi’s was 16th of June, and then your first publication was 7th of July. Then you have another one in NATURE the 12th of October, then the really definitive ones are 11th of December, two different ones, in the chemical and in the physical journals. Now, you say that in between, during this period in 1934, you were in correspondence with Fermi as well?
Then were you in correspondence with either Hahn or Meitner?
Yes, I think I was in correspondence with Hahn and Meitner. Now, I don’t have the correspondence right now. It may be somewhere in my papers, because I don’t choose to throw them out. But I may have turned some of them over to the AEC, because I have turned over to the AEC not just the letters of Fermi, but also a lot of discussions and papers with Nier, with Bainbridge, with Baxter — I mean, a lot of people that were interested. I knew everyone that was interested in mass spectroscopy. I don’t have any correspondence with Arthur Dempster because he was right there in Chicago so I didn’t have to. I mean, we did get together on various occasions, and I remember particularly vividly an occasion on the day that it, the actual existence of Uranium-235, was first proved. I was the only one in Chicago who could appreciate the thin line right on the left side of the thick Uranium-238 line that he obtained.
When and how did you become aware of Ida Noddack’s work on the subject, specifically on —
— Let me tell you first of all, we were working in the same hall, Hall C — there were halls A, B, C — of the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory at the Technishe Hochschule in Berlin. She was also there, and I got acquainted with the Noddacks after they discovered that, or claimed to have discovered, well, actually did discover element 75, or rhenium, and they also claimed to have discovered masurium, that originally you heard was element 43 but later proved to be wrong, and was produced artificially and now is called technitium.
What Segre had done.
What Segre had done. So I mean, I have known Ida Noddack from way back in the early days in Berlin. And speaking of Robley Evans, whom you know, you might be interested that I first discovered a cosmic radioactivity back in those years, 1934, before I came to Chicago, and Robley Evans was investigating the radium content of some of the minerals that I used, while Ida Noddack and Walter Noddack were getting X-rays on the concentrate that I obtained. I don’t know whether you have that article or saw it but it’s called “An Unknown Radioactivity.” So, I was in contact with the Noddacks, I mean, in the days of Berlin, in other words since 1927.
I noticed in one paper, you did acknowledge them, doing some work —
How did you become aware of their paper, or did you see their paper or know of what she had said about Fermi’s element 93?
Sure, I saw that, but my recollection was vague at that time. I saw it again recently, when she gave me a personal reprint of this paper. It was in 1934. I was at Chicago at that time. So I know that she was claiming that, that in 1934 and in 1935, what she was suggesting seemed to be so much contrary to all what the physicists were saying — and I mean, physicists like Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi and others that nobody was really giving proper attention to her. And I least of all. I should have, as a chemist, I mean to give her much more credence.
You saw it as it came out in the journal?
I’m not quite sure, but I’m perfectly aware of this thing, because I was discussing these things, and so I would have known it one way or the other. I was always checking up things in CHEM ABSTRACTS, by the way. Since I became [a] member of the American Chemical Society when I was in China, I was always reading the CHEM ABSTRACTS, which gives you a full story on anything that happens in radioactivity. So it may well have been that through CHEM ABSTRACTS I learned about either Fermi’s experiments or unless I got it direct. Because nowadays, I mean, none of the young generation seems to be using these abstracts journals to check up what’s going on. I find out nowadays, somebody says, “Well, look, if somebody may know about something, that’s got the answer, call up that fellow by phone and find out whether he knows,” and there is no systematic search of any type.
In Fermi’s case you must have gotten it directly from the journal or from Fermi, because the gap was so small.
Well, I think it was — look, I was in close touch with Arthur Compton and with Dempster. I remember when Gamow came to this country, I went in to see Arthur Compton together with George Gamow, and I was a white Russian from all my background. George Gamow you know was the pride and glory of the Soviet Union. So Arthur Compton said, “I would like to know, how do you feel about Gamow, is he a Communist or not?” and so forth. I gave him a clean bill of health, because I knew from way back in Berlin already, 1927, how he tried to get out of the Soviet Union three times, together with his wife, and was not successful. And so when he saw Molotov one time, and said, “I’ve been invited to go overseas. I would like to show my wife, I mean, the degenerate West, would you have any objections?” — Molotov said, “OK, go ahead and see them.” And then he never returned. So Arthur Compton wanted to know, but since you mention, how did I know about these things? I remember that Arthur Compton at the same time asked me, “What do you think of Fermi’s 93 and 94?” So I mean, Fermi, Arthur Compton was aware — everyone knew that Fermi had something extremely interesting.
Oh yes. But what did they feel about Ida Noddack’s paper?
Look, nobody gave her credence.
Did they even talk about it?
Sure. Look, the usual way, I mean, particularly in this country we say, “She’s a nut, just don’t listen to her, that’s all — what can a woman know about these things?” Look — you’re talking to physicists like Rutherford, Millikan, Planck, Bohr, Fermi and so forth. They all felt that, who ever heard of something splitting down the middle? So I mean, it was completely you’ve got to see that the whole feeling was one was standing on the solid rock of the elements that did not change. Now, one woman already messed this thing up, Marie Curie, by saying that radium is converted into lead. Rutherford proved she’s right, and with Soddy, he developed the whole theory of the transmutation of the elements, and so that upset the chemists no end.
You know that, for example, Theodore Richards, who was professor at Harvard, the first Nobel Prize winner in this country in chemistry, didn’t pay much credence that there would be different atomic weights for lead. He thought that was probably something that is not likely to be true. Because when Fajans asked him to determine the atomic weight, I mean to make the atomic weight determination of lead from uranium minerals, Theodore Richards took a very dim view of these things. But he finally was persuaded and did find the atomic weight was different. But in those years, I mean, the mentality was quite different. Everyone thought that Ida Noddack was completely off her rocker. What she just suggested — I don’t know whether you read her paper — was that one should check the elements in the middle of the periodic system to see whether a completely unknown type of uranium disintegration could not take place. And I was discussing all these things that we are discussing right now with Ida Noddack, sitting with her near Bonn, during my visit the last time when I was visiting Strassman, in Mayence (or Mainz) and we were having some nice cocktails served in her rhenium bowl. She got as a present a bowl made out of pure rhenium metal, which, you know, is extremely expensive and very hard to fabricate and so forth, but it was done, and so we were reminiscing about all these old times.
Was she somewhat bitter? How did she feel about this lack of credence?
Well, of course she was bitter through the years, but let’s not forget that so many bitter things happened during the whole war in Germany. The whole collapse of the Hitler regime and so forth. That I mean this lack of personal recognition — Otto Hahn said finally, “Die Ida hat doch recht” “Ida was right in the end,” and I think that pleased her much more than any special recognition or anything like that.
Let me ask, we just have time for a few minutes more, one other question about Hahn and Meitner. When they came up with their paper which demonstrated that in fact Fermi’s 93 was not 91, what was your response to this? Did you feel that this was definitive?
I agreed, that since they checked it, I mean they added the element protactinium in the form of uranium-Z, I believe they did it, that it was completely definite that I was wrong and that Fermi was right. So that improved, I mean gave the impression, I mean confirmed the fact that 93 and 94 existed. Now, let me tell you, because you’re putting down on a very important and sensitive point, the thing is, I have to confess that I wrote to Hahn about a year or two before the Second World War started, and at that time, he not only claimed to have discovered — well, Fermi had 93 and 94 — but there was also element 95, 96 and 97. Eka-gold was the last one. And I felt that the second alternative that I considered, not the Bohr alternative but the second one, was correct, and my correspondence with Hahn, just during preceding the World War years — in other words just before, yes, in 1937 and ‘36, before the discovery of fission took place — I more or less confirmed that I felt and I wrote something on this thing, in the row of the sequence of atomic numbers, I think I have that in the list of papers — that was published in the JOURNAL OF CHEMICAL EDUCATION — that strengthened Hahn’s opinion that he was on the right track and prevented him and Strassman from discovering this thing earlier, that they were on the wrong track. You see, this is a preconceived notion but ingrained in some of the best brains, and that experimental evidence is interpreted thataway and not thisaway, you see.
You said that when Hahn and Meitner demonstrated that in fact Fermi’s 93 was not 91, then you went on to say, therefore Fermi’s 93 existed.
That doesn’t necessarily follow.
Well, wait a minute, the other alternative was Ida Noddack’s. Either it is going downward in the periodic system, and the first, next one, and the chemistry of protactinium was not generally well known, that was eliminated that it wasn’t thorium, radium and so forth was originally eliminated at the very beginning by Fermi and so forth, because I mean, he could have thorium and show that these were not isotopes of thorium, his 93 and 94. And so the only other alternative was Ida Noddack’s, that every element in the periodic system had to be checked, or it would be outside, and that would seem to be the only possible proposition.
So you were convinced, once Hahn and Meitner had eliminated 91 —
Also, Fermi may have written to me, without details and so forth, or he may have just said, “Hahn already showed that it is not protactinium,” and so I agreed with that, because I was the one who suggested the experiment that would prove it one way or the other. I mean, I was not set in the views that it had to be protactinium. I said only Fermi did not originally prove that it was not protactinium, and it would be very easy to prove by adding an isotope of element 91, making the chemical separation, and seeing whether they’re different. He did that… It showed that it was not Pa. so I agreed fully, it had to be the other.
Whether [or not] he did it, at least you know Hahn and Meitner did it.
Right. I do not know definitely, until much later years — I mean, I’ve seen this thing in writing — but Hahn and Meitner did it, definitely.
It would be really interesting to see the letters. To piece two together it’s a fascinating story, really.
Well, these are really interesting things, particularly —
Let me just say that we’re going to have to stop, and then when we look at the transcript, we’ll know — I think we already know — what the gaps are, but we’ll also know what’s ahead of us, and we’ll have to plan a time when I don’t have any other appointments and you don’t, and we can perhaps spend a full half day, I think.
All right, sure. I’ll be glad to, because I think this is an interesting thing, to put it down on the record. I mean, a lot of things are being discussed today for the first time — I mean, except at the time that they were —