August 1995

Edwin Roberts Russell

Scientist

Edwin Roberts Russell

As black youth growing up in segregated South Carolina in the 1920s and 1930s, Edwin Roberts Russell’s hopes for his own future were realistic, “I wanted to become a carpenter and build things,” he said. Never in his wildest dreams could Russell have imagined what he would one day help to construct: the atomic bomb which helped the United States defeat Japan and achieve victory in World War II. Born in 1913 in Columbia, he attended Benedict College Elementary Training School and graduated form Voorhees High School in Denmark in 1931. Encouraged by family members to pursue a college degree, Russell received a bachelor of science degree with honors from Benedict College in 1935 and earned a master’s of science degree in chemistry from Howard University two years later. To help finance his education, he used his carpentry and brick laying skills that he had believed would be his life’s work. Russell spent the next four years as a chemistry instructor at Howard University, before entering the University of Chicago to pursue a doctorate in surface chemistry. He had been there a short time when he joined a project involving top-secret experiments. With the United States at war against both Germany and Japan, US President Franklin Roosevelt had given his authorization for work to begin on the construction of an atomic bomb — the famous Manhattan Project. Russell, who joined the Manhattan Engineer District in July, 1942, was one of those scientists directly involved in the production of atomic energy. The excruciatingly slow process of separating plutonium from uranium took more than two years before Russell and his associates were able to produce enough plutonium to manufacture an atomic bomb. Both physically and psychologically, the war years were painstaking ones for Russell. The scientists worked long hours and were constantly under the surveillance of the FBI. When the bombs were finally dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hundreds of thousands of Japanese were killed. “We were not thinking about the destruction of anybody,” explained Russell. “Our goal was to produce energy, and you have to remember that ten times as many people could have been killed if the war had continued.” While working on the project, Russell encountered the ugly reality of segregation. At a pilot plant built in Tennessee, white and black scientists were housed in separate facilities, a fact which caused Russell to refuse to join the research team there. Instead, he remained in Chicago, where he was research chemist and section leader of the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory. In 1947, he returned to Columbia to become a professor of chemistry and chairman of the science division at Allen University. In 1957, he joined the E.I. Dupont Savannah River Laboratory in Aiken as a research chemist until his retirement in 1976. In addition to his work in the development of atomic energy, Russell was awarded a series of US patents for proven experiments dealing with the Atomic Energy Program. He has written several classified publications in the field of nuclear energy and he has served as a contributing editor to the National Nuclear Energy Series. Also, Russell has been the recipient of numerous awards, honors and citations for his outstanding contributions to the field of science. “Success is setting one’s mind to achieve the seemingly unreachable goals,” is the message he has imparted to inspire young people to enter the world of science.