Profiles in Black Courage:

 

Edwin Russell:

Manhattan Project Scientist Extraordinaire  

by Terence L. Johnson

Former Professor, African and African American History

Former Field Archivist

United States

 

Link for Citation Purposes: https://bwwsociety.org/journal/edwin-russell.htm

 

The following Story is based on a lecture given by Manhattan Scientist Edwin Russell at J.F. Thomas Elmentary School in Columbia, South Carolina in Febraury 1989.

Edwin Roberts Russell, left Chicago and went to his home at 1240 Heidt Street in Columbia, South Carolina to see his wife and newborn baby girl. Russell remembered how people asked him, "What is wrong with you?" People in Edward Russell’s community were worried about his safety because the American government took an active interest in his past activities.  Russell learned that the FBI and other secret governmental agencies went all over Columbia to find out if he had any Communist or Leninist ties.  These governmental agencies later discovered through their investigations that he was a loyal American.[1]

Edwin Russell’s educational background prepared him for his work with the government.  In 1935, fifty-five African Americans graduated at the sixty-fifth commencement of Benedict College, including Edwin Russell, who received a bachelor’s of Science in Chemistry.[2]  He went on to Howard University to pursue a Master of Science degree in Chemistry.  At the time that Russell studied at Howard, the college was the only African American institution with a Chemistry program accredited by the American Chemical Society.[3]

In July of 1942, after graduating from Benedict College, he left his pregnant wife in Columbia and went to study Chemistry at the University of Chicago with a life savings in his pocket of nine hundred dollars. At the end of his first month at the institution, he was offered a position as an associate research chemist, while he pursued his Ph.D. in surface Chemistry, and while also teaching classes at the college. During his days at the University of Chicago, America was at war with the Axis Powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan. Russell went on to explain to the elementary class that he visited the difficulties involved in his task as a chemist on what would later be known to the world as the Manhattan Project.

One day, Russell’s supervisor approached him about a special job at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago. Russell later recalled:  “ I began working  for a week,  when a man gave me a bucket full of black mud…..I had to find out how much of this five to six pounds of black gunk, how much of rare earths was present in that material.”  Rare Earths were elements found in nature that could not be easily separated from one another.

“There were no chemical methods by which you could analyze the material.  There were no directions to go to, but I had to find it.  It did not know that this material was called pitchblende….When the man came back, I found that in the five pounds there was twenty milligrams that was about enough to fit on the end of my finger. …."[4]

After analyzing the nature of rare earths in pitchblende, Russell and a team of scientists had to separate one or two micrograms from seventy-five pounds of uranium. Because Edwin Russell was an expert chemist, he eventually became one of the scientists with the daunting task to isolate Plutonium from Uranium. 

The Columbia, South Carolina native remembered his former teacher, Judah Leon Shereshefsky, who also served as one of the heads of the secret project, say to him, "we are going to work night and day, you can’t tell or talk about anything you see or do except the people who are right here with you."[5]

Russell, as a member of the Manhattan Project, had the task of assisting other scientists in making the world’s first Atomic Bomb. The United States government hoped that the new super weapon would be used to defeat the Germans and the Japanese, thereby ending the second world war. The United States government made a great exception to the current laws of racial segregation that prevailed all across America at that time.  Selections of technicians and scientists on the Manhattan Project required the employment of the best minds, regardless of race or gender, to create the most powerful weapon of mass destruction the world had ever known.

While other black men and women in other cities worked on the Manhattan Project, Edwin Russell, however, was the first African American to work on the bomb project at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory.  Edwin Russell, referring to the number of African Americans assigned to the project in Chicago, stated “There were eight of us, on the dropping of the first bomb...The other seven, two of them were technicians and the other ones were scientists."[6]  Regarding knowledge about the physical world at time of the Manhattan Project, Russell recalled that: "In the 1940s matter was thought to have been made up three particles….a neutron—has weight but no charge, a proton with its positive charge was thought to be the heaviest and smallest part of the atom. It was the negatively charged electron that made the production of new elements possible.”[7]

In February 1989, Russell went on to explain to elementary school students at J.F. Thomas Elmentary School that with element 92, which was Uranium, scientist found that several uranium Isotopes had an additional neutron. Uranium 235, when it was purified…and separated from the other isotopes of Uranium would explode.”  Edwin Russell and other scientists discovered that if they took the regular Uranium and shot neutrons in it, it would capture one neutron that would make it into another form of Uranium.  Eventually one would arrive at plutonium 239.[8] Edwin Russell was working in Chicago when the government began building another facility for the making of the actual bomb at Oakridge Tennessee.  Russell recalled that “When the government got enough material to make to test for the bomb and at the Alamogordo, New Mexico, the nearest any person could be to where the bomb was being set off was sixteen miles.”  The test was made with Uranium 235 and it worked. When the Plutonium bomb was set off, it also worked.[9]

Russell and many other scientist made the decision that pamphlets would be dropped over Japan to inform the county’s citizens that a very powerful bomb would be used against them if their country did not surrender its efforts to wage war.  When the Japanese officials refused to surrender, an Atomic Bomb was exploded one thousand five hundred feet above Hiroshima.  According to Edwin Russell, the radioactive yield from the bomb’s explosion melted the entire city to the ground. Nothing was left standing except a few steel rods.  The second Atomic weapon was dropped in a valley in Nagasaki. That bomb dropped on Nagasaki injured and killed fewer people than the one employed over Hiroshima.[10]

After the two bombs were deployed, many scientists, including Edwin Russell, played a critical role in developing peaceful uses for Atomic energy as well as eliminating harmful waste products that came from nuclear experimentation. Russell created, often with other fellow scientists, various methods to separate Plutonium from uranium and other radioactive products. Edwin Russell developed the compound Potassium Cobalt Ferro cyanide, which reduced the dangerous elements in radioactive material and limited the amount of dangerous radiation that could enter the environment.11

Russell admitted that even after Potassium Cobalt Ferro cyanide compound was mixed with the radioactive material, waste from nuclear fuel and Atomic power plants still exhibited high levels of radioactivity.  Because the radioactive material had to be contained to protect the environment, it had to be placed one hundred feet underneath the ground. Scientists had to work on the treated radioactive material behind an eight foot thick concrete wall built around them. A six inch steel wall was also placed behind the concrete wall structure. Even with these precautions, it took ten years for one tank of radioactive material solution to cool down. While this toxic waste retained much of its radioactivity, Russell’s Potassium Cobalt Ferro Cyanide compound had successfully made millions of gallons of radioactive elements less hazardous.12

When Russell received a professorship at Allen University in 1947, he and his family, his wife and child, relocated from Chicago to Columbia, South Carolina, which he considered a more congenial atmosphere for his research.13 While he taught at Allen University, a historically black college, he often traveled across the country lending his advice and expertise to projects involving the peaceful uses of Atomic Energy.14

____________________________________

13Monsanto Chemical Company to Edwin Russell at Argonne National Laboratory, 23 

   July 1947. From a Video recording of a letter in the possession of Vivian Russell Baker.

 

14 Baker, Vivian Russel, interview by Terence L. Johnson. Interview of Vivian Russel Baker  (2008).

 

 

Bibliography

 

"American Chemical Society in Detroit, Mich. Noted Chemists Attend Hundreth Session." The Palmetto Leader, 1940.

Baker, Vivian Russel, interview by Terence L. Johnson. Interview of Vivian Russel Baker (2008).

"Civic Welfare League Discusses Vital Issues." Palmetto Leader, 1941."Civil Rights Congress Charges Four More Acts of Racial Genocide In USA." Lighthouse and Informer. Columbia, July 5, 1952.

 Lecture by Edwin Russel at J. F. Thomas Elmentary School in Columbia, South Carolina. Directed by Doris Mack Ruff. Performed by Edwin Russel. circa 1989.

 

 



[1]Lecture by Edwin Russel at J. F. Thomas Elmentary School in Columbia, South Carolina.. Directed by Doris Mack Ruff. Performed by Edwin Russell. circa 1980s.

[2]Starks, J.J. "Fifty-Five Graduates Awarded Degrees ." The Palmetto Leaer, 1935.

[3]"American Chemical Society in Detroit, Mich. Noted Chemists Attend Hundreth Session." The Palmetto Leader, 1940.

4 Lecture by Edwin Russel at J. F. Thomas Elmentary School in Columbia, South Carolina. Directed by Doris Mack Ruff. Performed by Edwin Russell. circa 1989.

 

[5]Lecture by Edwin Russel at J. F. Thomas Elmentary School in Columbia, South  

Carolina.. Directed by Doris Mack Ruff. Performed by Edwin Russell. February 1989.

 

[6]Ibid.

 

[7]Ibid.

 

[8]Ibid.

 

[9] Lecture by Edwin Russel at J. F. Thomas Elmentary School in Columbia, South

  Carolina.. Directed by Doris Mack Ruff. Performed by Edwin Russell. February 1989.

 

[10]Ibid.

 

11Ibid.

12Ibid.