ST. LOUIS – The film “Oppenheimer” is generating a lot of interest in the Manhattan Project and St. Louis’ involvement in the development of the atomic bomb. This comes just one day after the 78th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, signaling the end of World War II. A scientific and military breakthrough that wouldn’t have been possible without the St. Louis region.
“That kind of finely tuned nuclear work isn’t possible unless you have a chemically pure sample to begin with, and that’s what Mallinckrodt provided,” Dr. Gwendolyn Verhoff said.
Verhoff teaches history in St. Louis and wrote her dissertation on the history of refining uranium and Mallinckrodt’s work.
“Mallinckrodt committed his Mallinckrodt Chemical Works to developing a process to bring that product start to finish and put it in government hands in a scaled-up way that would actually have it be arriving in a way that would be suitable for a mass production wartime effort,” Verhoff said.
By July 1942, Mallinckrodt workers were producing a ton of purified uranium each day. An effort that required thousands of people working around the clock, seven days a week.
“Shift after shift. Long hours, extra work. They did everything that was asked of them and more,” Verhoff said. “They made something that hadn’t existed before, and out of that contribution and the contribution of this region and the communities where this work was hosted, came very concrete scientific breakthroughs.”
She said other cities were contributing to the Manhattan Project, too.
“A lot of the isotopic work during the war happened at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. A lot of the reactor work happened at Hanford, in the state of Washington. Then, finally, as those locations churned out their products. Those products could be sent to Los Alamos to the weapons designers, and they made a working weapon. That would not have achievable were it not for the contributions of St. Louisans to the work,” Verhoff said.
She said the people are the lasting legacy of our community.
“Our very heroic workers here. Their contributions. The contributions of our neighbors who did all of this work and made all of this possible,” said Dr. Verhoff. “Through the course of the war, they kept that production going. Then, after the war, that expanded to the 1950s, and then by 1957, Mallinckrodt opened the most advanced uranium processing facility ever built at Weldon Spring.”
Even though many in the community are still dealing with the aftermath of the exposure, Senator Josh Hawley said he is committed to honoring the lives impacted and make sure they are compensated.
“I think that we should remember them and keep them close in mind, because they did give so much to the community,” Verhoff said.