Science and Conscience: Chicago’s Met Lab and the Manhattan Project

Reunion of atomic scientists
Reunion of atomic scientists on the 4th Anniversary (1946) of the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction, December 2, 1942, pictured in front of Bernard A. Eckhart Hall at the University of Chicago. University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf3-00232, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Exhibition Dates: February 19 – April 13, 2018
Location: Special Collections Research Center Exhibition Gallery, 1100 East 57th Street, Chicago, IL

On December 2, 1942, scientists at the University of Chicago produced the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction beneath the West Stand of Stagg Field, the University’s athletic stadium. This experiment, crucial to the control of nuclear fission, drove a rapid nationwide expansion of the Manhattan Project, the secret federal research and engineering program charged with producing a nuclear bomb.

Chicago’s role in the Manhattan Project did not end with the successful operation the first nuclear reactor.  Buildings across the University of Chicago campus were converted for use by the code-named Metallurgical Laboratory.  The Met Lab conducted extended research on the structure of uranium, developed the process for separating plutonium from uranium, and investigated nuclear radiation’s biological effects and safety issues.  At the end of World War II, the Metallurgical Laboratory was transformed into the first United States federal laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory.

Chicago’s Met Lab also took the lead in organizing scientists’ political response to the devastation caused by atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Concerned about the future development and use of nuclear weapons, Met Lab veterans created the Atomic Scientists of Chicago and began publishing the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  They joined scientists from other Manhattan Project sites across the country and pressed successfully in 1946 for the passage of the Atomic Energy Act (McMahon Act) and creation of the civilian Atomic Energy Commission.

The Met Lab scientists achieved great technical success in their contribution to the creation of a powerful new military weapon.  Yet the sobering consequences of their work moved them to enter the political arena and make the first critical arguments to control nuclear weapons and turn nuclear energy toward peaceful ends.

Based on archives and manuscripts in the Special Collections Research Center, Science and Conscience presents unique historical documents and artifacts, many not previously exhibited.  Items on display are drawn from records of scientists’ organizations and the papers of those who worked on the Manhattan Project and at Chicago’s Met Lab, including Enrico Fermi, James Franck, Herbert L. Anderson, Samuel K. Allison, Samuel Schwartz, Francis W. Test, Lawrence Lanzl, John H. Balderston, Jr., Albert Wattenberg, Eugene Rabinowitch,  Paul Henshaw, William B. Higinbotham, and Donald MacRae, among others.

Hours: Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. – 4:45 p.m., and, when University of Chicago classes are in session, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 9 a.m. – 5:45 p.m.

Free and open to the public.

Use of Images and Media Contact

Images from the exhibition included on this page are available for download by members of the media and are reserved for editorial use in connection with University of Chicago Library exhibitions, programs, or related news.

For more information, contact Rachel Rosenberg at or 773-834-1519.

Major General Leslie R. Grooves pins a Medal of Merit on physicist Enrico Fermi
Major General Leslie R. Grooves, director of the Manhattan District, pins a Medal of Merit on physicist Enrico Fermi for his contribution to the success of the Atomic Bomb Project. They are pictured at the University of Chicago with other scientists who also received the award. From left: Major Groves; Harold C. Urey, the Martin A. Ryerson distinguished professor of Chemistry; Dr. Fermi; Samuel K. Allison, director of the university’s Institute for Nuclear Studies; Cyril S. Smith, director of the university’s Institute for the Study of Metals; and Robert S. Stone of the University of California Hospitals. Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library.
Atomic Autographs
Autographed endpapers in Henry DeWolf Smyth’s A General Account of the Development of Methods of Using Atomic Energy for Military Purposes under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940-1945. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945). The Smyth Report was the first public account providing details of nuclear research conducted by the United States during World War II. This copy of the book, from the library of Metallurgical Lab staff member Melvin Bengston includes signatures of James Franck, Harold Urey, Samuel K. Allison, Eugene P. Wigner, Edward Teller, Herbert L. Anderson, and many other scientists and staff who worked on the Manhattan Project in Chicago. Gift of Diana King Rare Book Collection
Photo of James Franck
James Franck, winner of the 1925 Nobel Prize in Physics, professor of Physical Chemistry (1938-1947) at the University of Chicago, and director of the Chemistry Division of the university’s Metallurgical Laboratory (World War II). Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library.
Photo of Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi, winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize for Physics and professor at the University of Chicago. Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library.
Albert Wattenberg
Albert Wattenberg, pile construction, photograph, undated. Wikimedia Commons.
Stagg Field
Stagg Field (Old), West Stands Wall 5. Capes Photo. Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library.