By Heather McClenahan
Los Alamos Historical Society
With World War II over in mid-August 1945, uncertainty surrounded almost everything about Los Alamos, from what would happen to the laboratory to what would happen to the many young men who had been assigned there by the U.S. Army.
The Special Engineer Detachment brought in hundreds of GIs with scientific and technical backgrounds to work on all aspects of developing the atomic bombs. Like tens of thousands of other soldiers after the war, they awaited orders from their Uncle Sam to muster out and return to civilian life, orders that were months and even years in coming.
Faced with hundreds of bored young men in an isolated location, the leaders of Los Alamos decided to use the talents of some of the world’s greatest scientists to teach these technical minded soldiers during their down time.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, is often given credit for developing the idea, while others cite Norris Bradbury, his successor as laboratory director. Regardless, the short-lived university would have a profound effect on the young men who took advantage of learning in a unique setting.
Paul Numerof, an SED with a background in chemistry, wrote in his memoir, “Most of us wanted to go on to study more about our science in graduate school. After all, those were the disciplines in which we had been training before the military had recruited our talents. To do that, we had to be separated from the army, and there was absolutely no information given to us about that important subject.”
“Formal work in our laboratory came to a halt,” Numerof remembered, “except for the writing of papers that described all the analytical procedures we had developed. There were some topics about which I wanted to know much more, and since there apparently was no reason not to pursue them, I just followed my own interests. Someone … had the idea of establishing ‘Los Alamos University,’ a place where courses would be offered by various scientists who were still in residence. Where could a more qualified faculty be found? Certainly, there was no better way to use our time. Accordingly, I took courses in thermodynamics, nuclear physics, and biochemistry. There was a rumor that a faculty member from Harvard, who was still working at Los Alamos, wrote to his university, asking if they would grant academic credit for courses taken at Los Alamos University. It is alleged that Harvard replied that it would be pleased to grant academic credit if ‘Los Alamos University would reciprocate and grant academic credit for courses taken at Harvard!’ I don’t know if this actually happened, but it makes a nice story.”
In an oral history interview in 2013, Haskell Sheinberg recalled, “We had the greatest of professors. I took a course in radiochemistry from [Arthur] Wahl and [Joseph W.] Kennedy and [Gerhart] Friedlander. I took a course in modern physics, but I can’t remember who taught it. After about a year or year and a half, most of the professors wanted to go back to their own jobs or universities, so the school disbanded. I gave [LANL Historian] Alan Carr a copy of the curriculum for the university, a multi-paged curriculum—many interesting courses there … I had never had a course in metallurgy, so I took a couple courses in metallurgy and ceramics and plastics. Oh, and I even took one in patent law.”
As powerful and useful as Los Alamos University proved to be to its students, it did not last long. Physicist Raemer Schreiber recalled the troubles the university faced because of the uncertainty about the future of the laboratory in Los Alamos.
“That’s when we had the Los Alamos University. Senior people would give talks, and there was talk about getting graduate credit if you went through all these lectures and so on. But it sort of dribbled out, because it had a changing audience all the time.”
By the end of 1947, the young GIs were gone and the laboratory was focused on a new mission for developing weapons. Los Alamos University came to an end, but its impact lasted for decades.
After his service on the Manhattan Project, Paul Numerof earned his doctorate in chemistry and worked many years for Squibb pharmaceuticals.
Haskell Sheinberg returned to Los Alamos after the war, developed nuclear rocket propulsion engines, and held 26 domestic and foreign patents by the end of his successful career.
Editor’s Note: Information for this article was taken from oral history interviews on manhattanprojectvoices.com and from In August 1945 by Paul Numerof.