Samuel K. Allison

Samuel K. Allison was born in Chicago, Illinois. He attended high school near the University of Chicago, where he later received a both a Bachelor’s degree and Ph.D in chemistry. In 1923, two years after receiving his Doctorate, Allison began work as a research fellow at Harvard University. The following five years entailed a succession of moves: first to the Carnegie Institution in Washington (1925), then to a teaching position in physics at the University of California, Berkeley (1926), finally culminating in a return to the University of Chicago (1928).

Allison remained in Chicago through the beginning of World War II. He served as a consultant to both the National Defense Research Committee and the S-1 Uranium committee, which did preliminary research on the atomic bomb. In January of 1942, he began directing the Chemistry Division of the Metallurgical Laboratory. In June of 1943 he took on full directorship of the Laboratory. It was here that the first controlled release of Nuclear energy occurred, on December 2, 1942.

By the close of 1944, Allison was moving yet again – this time to work at the top-secret Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. He served as chairman of the Technical and Scheduling Committee. His student, Alvin Weinberg, would later write, “The laboratory had its giants--Enrico Fermi and Arthur Compton, and Leo Szilard, and Eugene Wigner; it had its pessimists and bureaucrats; and it had a lot of somewhat bewildered young people undertaking their first scientific jobs. It was Sam Allison who, with his extraordinary patience and insight, kept this disparate crew focused on the main job, which was to achieve success ahead of the Nazi competitors.”

Allison was perhaps most famous, however, for reading the countdown for the Trinity test – the first explosion of an atomic device, in the desert at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945. In January of the following year, Allison received the Medal of Merit from General Leslie R. Groves. The ceremony took place at the University of Chicago, and President Harry S. Truman signed the citation.

Allison was opposed to the collusion of military and science. In the post-war years, he took part in the “Atomic Scientists Movement,” a group of Manhattan Project Scientists who later sought to curb nuclear development and proliferation. He is quoted as saying:

We are determined to return to free research as before the war. If secrecy is imposed on scientific research in physics, we will find all first-rate scientists working on subjects as innocuous as the colors of butterfly wings.

Allison died in 1965, while attending the Plasma Physics and Controlled Nuclear Fusion Research Conference.

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