Chicago Pile-1

December 2, 1942

Henry Moore’s sculpture, Nuclear Energy, at the site of the first controlled nuclear fission reaction on the University of Chicago campus.

On this day on December 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi and colleagues conducted the first controlled nuclear fission reaction at the University of Chicago (Chicago Pile-1). The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965. This Henry Moore sculpture, Nuclear Energy, was placed at the site on the 25th anniversary in 1967.

Atomic Snapshots: 109 E Palace

109 E Palace

In a nondescript arcade of shops in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was the unassuming front face of the Manhattan Project for Los Alamos and the Hill: 109 E Palace.

Dorothy McKibbin, the “Gatekeeper to Los Alamos,” would process each of the scientists and families and keep the overwhelming secretarial work in order, essentially ensuring the top-secret access to Los Alamos.

The entrance to the old offices was off the patio, in back, where men and women entered through the alleyway, and the townsfolk never saw them come out. They were whisked away out the back and spirited to Los Alamos. 

Today, the building has been rezoned and numbered, and the current 109 E Palace is a chocolatier with an entrance on the street.

Go to the back of the courtyard to see the historical marker. And don’t forget to visit the Los Alamos History Museum to see the original door, history, and a tribute to Dorothy McKibbin.

Atomic Snapshots: Mallinckrodt

In the Bremen area of St. Louis, Emil Mallinckrodt purchased land for a potato farm in 1840. By 1867, his three sons (Gustav, Otto, and Edward) had established a pharmaceutical company (Mallinckrodt Chemical Works) producing industrial, specialty chemical, and radiological chemical agents.

In 1942, Mallinckrodt was approached by the Metallurgic Laboratory to refine the uranium that would be part of the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction at Chicago Pile-1 on December 2, 1942.

Mallinckrodt still has facilities in this area, although the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October, 2020. Building 51, which refined the uranium for the early stages of the Manhattan Project, was demolished in 1996 as part of the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP). This program, now operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, identifies, investigates, and cleans up or controls sites in the United States contaminated as a result of the Manhattan Engineer District or Atomic Energy Commission activities.

West Lake Landfill (SLAPS)

Residues from uranium processing at Mallinckrodt are stored at SLAPS (St. Louis Airport Site), or West Lake Landfill, which is one of 33 superfund sites in Missouri on the National Priorities List. You can see this site as you fly out of St. Louis — a city with a long history of radioactive contamination.

Mallinckrodt Plaque
“In this building was refined all the uranium used in the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction December 2, 1942”

As an aside, we contacted the public relations office of Mallinckrodt inquiring of the whereabouts of the plaque (see picture, above) that used to be on the building. The spokesperson said that it was “probably stored in archives” after the building was demolished. (Cue the closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.)