Psychology lab, or nuclear research site? The history of Papazian Hall

In the years leading up to the Cold War, the U.S. government enlisted the help of a wide array of research sites around the country, including Papazian Hall, to assist in the Manhattan Project: an endeavor to construct the first atomic bomb. Recently, however, a report spearheaded by the Wall Street Journal has found that many of the sites that were declared safe by the Department of Energy (DOE) during the 1970s and 1980s still contain radioactive residue. While Papazian is not one of these sites, the recent publicity of similar nuclear research centers working in the Manhattan Project has brought the college’s involvement to the fore.

According to the journal’s report on the college, the Bartol Research Foundation, an extension of the Franklin Institute created specifically for research in electrical engineering, rented four acres of land from the college in 1924. Bartol then constructed its own building on campus where Papazian Hall now stands. According to the Swarthmore College Computer Society’s (SCCS) database of campus buildings, it was not until a few days after August 9, 1945, when Nagasaki was bombed, that Bartol revealed its involvement in developing nuclear weapons.

“During the late 1930s, Bartol became more involved with nuclear physics research,” said a Bartol representative. “The foundation began to do more government contract work, and Bartol personnel began the construction of a cyclotron intended to simulate the collisions of uranium atoms.”

The limited documents made publicly available by the DOE corroborate this. Bartol’s primary role in the Manhattan Project appears to have been to monitor the radiation caused by the interactions between uranium atoms in the cyclotron.

“Knowing how uranium atoms behave during nuclear collisions was crucial to the design of the bomb,” explained Peter Collings, professor of physics and coordinator of the environmental studies program at the college.

Bartol’s lab on the college’s campus was selected to research these collisions given the interest of the Bartol Research Foundation director, Dr. W.F.G. Swann, in cosmic radiation. Prior to the foundation’s government commission, Swann’s research in Bartol’s Swarthmore site primarily revolved around the energy of beta and gamma rays. Given these expertise, Colonel John R. Ruhoff, a high-ranking officer in the Manhattan project in charge of the procurement of raw materials, chose Swann and the Papazian lab as a site for government-commissioned radiation studies.

In a correspondence made public on the DOE website between Ruhoff and W.C. Fernelius, a physicist employed by the Monsanto company, Ruhoff is asked to mediate a transaction between the Bartol Foundation and Monsanto. According to their website, during the 1940s, Monsanto’s Central Research Department was deeply involved in the development of the Dayton Project: the engineering of the devices that would eventually trigger the atomic bombs. In the letter, Fernelius asked Ruhoff to purchase six Geiger counters from the Foundation. The counters were to be used by Monsanto to measure alpha, beta, and gamma rays for the Dayton Project. These counters were eventually made where Papazian Hall now stands.

From the specifically articulated presence of Geiger counters and uranium in historical documents regarding the site, the DOE’s concerns for the safety of Papazian Hall arise from the potential for there to be remnants of radioactive substances where the building stands.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has conducted various investigations into nuclear research sites such as the Bartol Foundation through the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP). According to the FUSRAP website, the corps undertakes a procedure of reviewing information about the site, assessing contamination on the site, and advising state-sponsored methods of remediation for the site if contamination is found. The entire process is made public so that those who live close to the sites can be informed of potential dangers.

Papazian Hall was assessed through FUSRAP in December of 1987, and was declared to be free of contaminants. The investigators determined that on the basis of the records they reviewed for the site, there were small amounts of uranium present in Papazian during the 1940s and 1950s. Nevertheless, when the site was tested based on these suspicions, it was deemed to be clear.

“The fact that radiation was produced is not necessarily something to worry about,” Collings said. “A good deal of radiation becomes inert quickly after it is produced … A little more complex is whether radioactive materials were used or produced during the experiments and could not be easily removed because they resided in part of the building’s infrastructure.  Again, if present, they would be easy to detect with a radiation meter, which is something I’m sure was done when the building was declared safe.”

The Bartol representative agreed: “While the site was certainly commissioned by the government to do nuclear research, no dangerous manufacturing was taking place at the institute.”

Collings added, “I doubt if anything produced here made it into one of the bombs … probably only knowledge was produced here and transferred to the bomb makers,” Collings added.

It is for precisely this reason that in 2011, Papazian Hall was “eliminated from further consideration” according to a public FUSRAP report.

After Nagasaki was bombed, Bartol’s involvement in government sponsored atomic projects decreased. The foundation’s site at Papazian Hall became a laboratory where, according to the SCCS database, students and faculty at the college could work with professionals from Bartol. In 1978, the college purchased the building and refurbished it.

“The construction was done by an alum named Paul Restall who owned a construction company headquartered in Media,” said Stuart Hain, vice president for facilities and services at the college. The company could not be reached for comment, but according to the FUSRAP website, the refurbishment of sites used for nuclear research has to be carried out following the guidelines laid out by the Environmental Protection Agency, particularly the Comprehensive Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). CERCLA provides a framework for the short-term removal and long-term remediation of hazardous substances, ensuring that the college is a clear site.

Free of residual contamination, today Papazian Hall is home to the college’s Psychology and Philosophy departments. Though the purpose of the hall has changed, its contributions toward one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century remain an integral part of the building’s historical identity.

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