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The University and the City
A Centennial View of the
University of Chicago
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Research institutes and accelerator building

Research Institutes and Accelerator Building under construction, 1951. Within weeks of the end of the war, President Hutchins announced plans for new institutes for scientific research to be built on campus. The buildings were constructed across the street from the old Stagg Field stands where "CF-1," the first atomic pile, had been built. Photograph by Rus Arnold.


William B. Harrell letter

William B. Harrell to Irvin Stewart. April 27, 1942. Under the code name of "Metallurgy," nuclear research was one of many war contracts given to the University by the government's Office of Scientific Research and Development.

Science and Medicine

Science in the City
President Harper sought the best men and facilities to support a full complement of scientific programs for the new university. Laboratories, greenhouses, and museums were constructed on the quadrangles, but they were never expected to be large enough to house the activities of University of Chicago scientists. Biologists spent summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts; botanists trekked through the lakeshore dunes north and south of Chicago. Bacteriologist Henry Taylor Ricketts traveled to Montana and Mexico to find the source of spotted fever and typhus. James Henry Breasted studied the archaeology of the Near East while Frederick Starr took notes on religious customs and symbols as he made a pilgrimage of the eighty-eight temples of Shikoku in Japan.

Although the University of Chicago's Department of Physics was well known through the work of Albert A. Michelson, Robert A. Millikan, Arthur Holly Compton, and others, the news which broke after atomic bombs fell on Japan in August 1945 brought the University's scientists to new prominence. There could be no hiding the fact that an international team of physicists and engineers had been assembled on campus early in 1942 for top-secret research; but the announcement that Enrico Fermi and his group had built a nuclear pile and successfully initiated the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, under the football stands, in the heart of the city, stunned even the faculty members who had eaten lunch every day with the physicists in the Quadrangle Club.

The nuclear pile had been planned for a site in the Cook County Forest Preserve, but a construction workers' strike and severe time constraints forced the group to build it on campus. Although the scientists were convinced their safety precautions were adequate, project director Compton wrote later, "I should have taken the matter to my superior. But that would have been unfair. President Hutchins was in no position to judge the hazards involved. Based on considerations of the University's welfare, the only answer he could have given would have been--no. And this answer would have been wrong."

Work accelerated in October 1942 as problems with equipment and obtaining pure materials were solved one by one. Orders with "double X priority" for graphite, uranium oxide, lumber for scaffolding, and a huge square balloon from Goodyear arrived at the Ellis Avenue laboratory with no questions asked. Youths from the Back of the Yards neighborhood were recruited to assist physics students to machine 400 tons of graphite into bricks and press uranium oxide into 22,000 small spheres.

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