Dr. Harrison Brown found ways to separate plutonium to devise the world’s first atomic weapons and then spent the rest of his life urging the abolition of those same deadly devices.
He was born in Sheridan, Wyoming, on September 26, 1917, the son of Harrison H. Brown (1880-1927), a rancher and cattle broker, and Agnes Scott Brown (1889-1963), a piano teacher and a professional organist. His father died when he was ten years old, and mother and son moved to San Francisco, where Mrs. Brown supplemented her income as a dental assistant by teaching music and playing piano for silent movies.
Trained as a chemist, Brown did undergraduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, and then earned a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The subject of his thesis, thermal diffusion of argon and construction of a spectrometer for isotope analysis led, in 1942, to an invitation by Manhattan Project chemist Glenn Seaborg to join him in the Metallurgical Laboratories at the University of Chicago. Brown joined the project and moved later with the research group to Clinton Engineer Works in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where he devised ways to produce plutonium. The techniques he helped develop were used to produce the plutonium used in the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki, 75 years ago on August 9, 1945.
After the two bombs were exploded and the war with Japan ended, Brown and other Manhattan Project scientists expressed their grave concern about the future. Although they had strong justifications for their involvement in the bomb project, they were powerfully committed to preventing further development and spread of nuclear devices. To that end, Brown joined the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS), becoming its executive vice chairman alongside its chairman, Dr. Albert Einstein. The Committee was formed to aid the public’s understanding of atomic issues by raising and directing funds for public education.
By December 1945, Harrison had completed a 160-page book, Must Destruction Be Our Destiny? (Simon and Schuster, 1946), warning about the extreme dangers of nuclear weapons. His passion led him to give 102 lectures within three months throughout the United States. He used royalties from the book sales to support the work of ECAS, which later became a working committee within the Federation of American Scientists whose aims and efforts were directed to proper regulation of atomic power and weapons.
He maintained his anti-nuclear posture for the rest of his life and at his death in 1986 was editor in chief of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a publication produced by many who had helped develop nuclear bombs but who had become adamant in their opposition to them.
Learn more about Dr. Harrison Brown’s career and activism in his papers at the American Heritage Center. His papers contain his publications including books and journal articles as well as correspondence, subject files, a scrapbook, and audiotapes of interviews with Brown.
- Post by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener