Lawrence, Ernest Orlando, 1901-1958

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1901-08-08
Death 1958-08-27
US
English

Biographical notes:

Ernest Orlando Lawrence, Nobel prizewinning physicist, inventor of the cyclotron and the founder and first director of the University of California Radiation Laboratory, was born on August 8, 1901 in Canton, South Dakota. His parents Carl Gustavus and Gunda Jacobson Lawrence were the children of Norwegian immigrants. Ernest Lawrence attended St. Olaf College and later the University of South Dakota, where he received his A.B. degree in 1922. He had originally thought to become a medical doctor, but was influenced to switch to a career in physics while attending the University.

From the description of Ernest O. Lawrence papers, circa 1920-1968. (University of California, Berkeley). WorldCat record id: 122515011

Biography

Ernest Orlando Lawrence, Nobel prizewinning physicist, inventor of the cyclotron and the founder and first director of the University of California Radiation Laboratory, was born on August 8, 1901 in Canton, South Dakota. His parents Carl Gustavus and Gunda Jacobson Lawrence were the children of Norwegian immigrants. Ernest Lawrence attended St. Olaf College and later the University of South Dakota, where he received his A.B. degree in 1922. He had originally thought to become a medical doctor, but was influenced to switch to a career in physics while attending the University.

Following graduate work at the University of Minnesota and the University of Chicago, Lawrence accompanied his research advisor, Professor W. F. G. Swann, to Yale University, where he received his Ph.D. degree in 1925. Lawrence continued research in photoelectricity at Yale as a National Research Fellow and an assistant professor. He gained an important reputation in this field through his measurements of the ionization potential of the mercury atom and the time lapse between radiation striking a metal surface and the first appearance of electrons (with Jesse W. Beams). Several universities sought Lawrence for their faculties. He accepted an offer to join the University of California faculty in 1928, and two years later he was the youngest full professor on the Berkeley faculty.

He was soon caught up in the quest for a way to accelerate particles to high energies and thus expand the research into the atomic nucleus begun by Ernest Rutherford's bombardment of light elements using the alpha particles from radium. In September, 1930, he made the first public announcement of the new method at the meeting of the National Academy of Sciences held in Berkeley and demonstrated a tiny model cyclotron. From the days of that first model, Lawrence followed a pattern of building bigger and more sophisticated machines. In 1939, he received the Nobel Prize for his remarkable invention.

The first cyclotrons of any size were the 11" (1930) and the 27" (1934), later expanded to 37" (1937). They were used to confirm the existence of artificially induced radioactivity, the disintegration of light ions, and to produce large amounts of neutrons for the study of radio isotopes. Next came the 60" medical cyclotron (1939), which was used in the work of Lawrence's brother, Dr. John H. Lawrence, on the effects of neutron therapy on cancer and the production of radioisotopes for medical use. Then followed the 184", which in its final form in 1946 included the synchrotron design of Edwin M. McMillan, and, in 1954, the Bevatron, based on a design of William Brobeck.

Along with these advances in cyclotron technology came a phenomenal growth in what was called the Radiation Laboratory. By 1936, it was a combination of some office space in, and an old wooden building behind, LeConte Hall, the physics building, but it soon expanded into many buildings. In 1940, before the tremendous growth during and after World War II, there was a separate medical cyclotron laboratory, called Crocker Radiation Laboratory, the construction of the Donner Biophysics Laboratory had begun, and money had been obtained to construct the 184" cyclotron in a setting off the main campus on Charter Hill. This growth was possible because Lawrence had proved to have a remarkable gift for getting financial support. He had complete faith in the need for his exploring ideas; his enthusiasm was infectious. He used the funds received to produce significant research results and so the cycle repeated.

During World War II, Lawrence worked closely first with the National Defense Research Committee on microwave research and submarine detection and then with the Office of Scientific Research and Development's Section S-1, subsequently the Manhattan Engineer District, on the magnetic separation method for isolating U 235. The magnet for the 184" cyclotron was converted into a giant mass spectrograph, Calutron, for research into the separation technique. Not only did Lawrence head the activities at the Berkeley laboratory, but he also attended many Washington meetings and gave advice concerning the development of the atomic bomb and suggestions for its use. In addition, Radiation Laboratory scientists worked on the development of prototype racetrack separators for the magnetic separation plant section of the Y-12 facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

After the war, the University of California Radiation Laboratory continued to be financed from Manhattan Engineer District funds. The Laboratory was even given support for projects outside of the District's specific province. With the establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission, the support of the Laboratory was taken over by the Commission and increased. In 1952, at the AEC's request, Lawrence established a new laboratory at Livermore to do weapons and other applied research.

By this time, Lawrence seldom took part in the actual experiments carried on at the laboratories. However, he still took time out from busy administrative duties to visit various parts of the complex Laboratory, to talk with colleagues about their work and offer his help. Like many other scientists after the war who became national figures, Lawrence was called upon by the federal government to give his opinion on problems in weapons development and the dangers of radioactive fallout. An old interest in television inspired him to work on a color television tube in the early 1950's. This grid style picture tube, the Lawrence tube or Chromatron, was used in the portable color television sets of a Japanese company in the late 1960's.

Although he had been diagnosed early in 1952 as having chronic ulceritis and told to rest and relax more, Lawrence could not stay his fast pace for long. At President Eisenhower's request, and with only the hesitant approval of his doctor, Lawrence attended the 1958 Geneva conference on the suspension of nuclear testing. There he became acutely ill and had to return early to the United States. He died shortly afterward, on August 27, 1958, leaving behind Mary Blumer Lawrence, his wife of 26 years, and their six children.

From the guide to the Ernest O. Lawrence Papers, [ca. 1920-1968], (The Bancroft Library)



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Subjects:

  • Nuclear physics
  • Scientists
  • Color television
  • Nuclear weapons
  • Nuclear physics--Research
  • Particle accelerators
  • Physics
  • Medical physics
  • Military art and science

Occupations:

not available for this record

Places:

  • California (as recorded)