Little Boy. Courtesy/wikipedia
Jim Nolan, a professor of sociology at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., didn’t know much about his grandfather, James F. Nolan, a physician with training in radiology who played a unique role in the early history of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos.
James L. Nolan, Jr., Professor of Sociology, Williams College
The younger Nolan had a general idea that his father had moved to Los Alamos at an early age but no detailed knowledge about his grandfather. Very few details, that is, until three years ago, when his father died, and a box of his grandfather’s possessions was passed on to him. Inside were military papers, photographs, a scrapbook from his time on the project and other souvenirs.
Putting those pieces together has turned into a new book project for the scholar who has previously applied a sociological perspective to subjects like law and society, and technology and cultural change.
“It’s this incredible treasure trove of material,” Nolan said in a recent telephone interview, “including correspondence with Oppenheimer and pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and as a sociologist who has studied technology and society, this was a fantastic project.”
James F. Nolan, Manhatten Project Physician
Nolan’s grandfather, as it turned out, had a curious dual role at Los Alamos. He was an obstetrician and gynecologist, which meant he delivered a lot of babies, starting with his own daughter, and including laboratory director J. Robert Oppenheimer’s daughter Toni. On the other hand he had training in radiology, which meant he played a role in measuring and understanding the effects of radiation on human health.
“My grandfather delivered babies,” Nolan said. “He also delivered – he actually physically carried – the uranium-235 from Los Alamos to Tinian Island, where the final assembly took place. So he delivered Little Boy, which is the name of the first bomb dropped on Hiroshima.”
James Nolan, was also among the first Americans who went into Japan after the surrender in August 1945. He was involved in one way or another with the first eight nuclear bombs, from the Trinity Test in New Mexico, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to later nuclear tests at Bikini and Eniwetak islands.
As the world observes this year the 70th anniversary of the only wartime uses of nuclear weapons, Jim Norton is particularly interested in his grandfather’s role as a doctor in the context of a military effort and to what extent were medial considerations compromised under the prevailing military concerns.
“That’s one of the important themes I see coming out of this,” he said. “There has not been much written about the doctors in the Manhattan Project.”
Norton says it’s clear that the military’s priority was making a bomb for military purposes, just as the scientists were concerned with experimentation and discovery. Could they actually harness the atom and make an explosion for military purpose? It fell to the doctors to be worried about the radiation. They were the ones who urged Gen. Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, to watch out for radiation fallout.
“In fact, it was my grandfather who went to Gen. Groves with a report that was written by the doctors and two other physicists urging him to allow them to put into place evacuation and safety procedures because they feared the effects of the fallout,” said Jim Norton, noting that Groves resisted but gave them some leeway in the end.
“To what extent did the doctors extend their vocational concerns for providing for patients and concerns about preserving and protecting life, and in what way were those concerns compromised by the overriding military concerns?” Jim Norton asks. “That was an issue throughout and one that continued for a long time.”
Delivering Little Boy: Captain Nolan, the Manhattan Project, and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age
Jim Nolan will speak at the School of American Research, SAR Board Room, 660 Garcia St., Santa Fe, NM
- Tuesday, Oct. 27, 3-4 p.m. Free
- Reserve a seat in advance for the talk. You can reserve your seat here.