Cindy Kelly: It is January 14, 2014, and we are in St. Louis, Missouri. And I want to ask the first question of you, which is to tell us your name and spell it.
Dunell Cohn: My complete name is Dunell Edlin Cohn, D-U-N-E-L-L. Edlin is E-D-L-I-N. And the last name is Cohn, C-O-H-N.
Kelly: Very good.
Cohn: I spelled it all correctly. I have always gone by the name of Don or Donny, Donny in the old days and Don the last fifty years.
Kelly: So it is Don spelled with a U or O?
Cohn: No, an O. Yeah. I never was called Dunell by anybody. It was for an honorific name given to really recognize people that have been important to my parents.
Kelly: Well, we know you are an Oak Ridge war baby, and we want to know about you. But should we start by talking about your parents?
Cohn: Sure. My connection to Oak Ridge is definitely through my parents. My mother is Charmian Cohn, married my father in April of 1943.
Kelly: Could you spell Charmian?
Cohn: Charmian. It is C-H-A-R-M-I-A-N, and her last name was Edlin, which is my middle name. She married my father in April of 1943 in Chicago, just prior to his leaving to go down to Oak Ridge, Tennessee as part of the Manhattan Project. They lived in Chicago for, I do not know, maybe five months or so, and then moved to Site X in Tennessee.
My father was Waldo Cohn, W-A-L-D-O, originally from Berkeley, California. After graduate school and getting his doctorate, he went to Harvard for a few years, and then was tapped by the Manhattan Project to join the project as an expert in radioisotopes, which he had used a graduate student. He moved to Chicago first and then to Oak Ridge.
And his job was really to develop techniques for separating the fission products from the nuclear reactor. He had a lot of expertise in separation techniques. He had developed a technique called ion-exchange chromatography, which turns out to be a very general and powerful technique for separating chemicals. And he really applied that to separating fission products from the reactor.
A lot of this had to be done with remote techniques, so these columns that he built and ran had to be operated with mechanical hands behind leaded glass and so on. But it turned out to be a very powerful technique for separating things. And then after the war he used that technique to turn it to biochemical, separating of the nucleotides and nucleosides that make up RNA, ribonucleic acid. His career was built on that application of separation techniques that he developed during the war, but now devoted to biochemistry.
Kelly: We just heard a snippet on your dad’s tape. Maybe you can back up to where he was born, how he happened to—?
Cohn: Sure. Yeah, he was born in Alameda, California, which is part of Oakland, California right next to Berkeley, in 1910 and went to school there. He was the oldest of two boys. And I guess in about 1925 or so, his parents moved the family to Berkeley, California, as he says on his tape, to be close to the university because they hoped he would go there and he could walk to the university. And so that is what happened.
So I guess in around 1918 he entered the University of California at Berkeley and became a chemistry major, and after four years went on to graduate school and gradually moved over into the more biochemical realm. But as part of his graduate studies, he began to use radioisotopes to study biological systems. This was really the beginning of radioisotope tracer work with biological problems, mostly with phosphorus-32 but also sodium and other radioisotopes of various ions that he could try to track through mice or rats, trying to see where they got deposited, how long did it take to clear, those kinds of early studies using tracers to look at living organisms. So these were tracers that were made in the cyclotron at Berkeley, and this was work that was in the early 1930s, 1932-35, in that sort of time period.
Kelly: He stayed at Berkeley until when?
Cohn: Probably about 1938, I believe. He got his PhD, and then he took a job at Harvard as a—I do not know what they called them. Not a tutor but something like that. So I think in 1938 my father got his PhD and moved then to Harvard, and he was at Harvard for about four years doing postgraduate work. And it was at Harvard, then, that he was tapped to join the Manhattan Project because of his expertise in using the radioisotopes.
Kelly: Okay, this is great. Good.
Cohn: So in October or so of ’42, maybe September, he moved to Chicago, where the Manhattan Project was setting up ,and was there for about six months before being moved to Oak Ridge. He finally moved to Oak Ridge probably about October of 1943.
Kelly: And do you know what he was doing in Chicago?
Cohn: He was beginning to work on techniques that might be applicable to separating these fission products, but it was all sort of a hypothetical at that point—if, indeed, a reactor could be built and would be built in Oak Ridge. It was really preparatory to that because there was not a reactor to deal with. Fermi's pile had been built, and so they knew the concept at least of a chain reaction was possible and the dynamics of what they wanted to build, this graphite reactor. But that work did not really start until the reactor was up and running in Oak Ridge, which was later in 1943, I believe they went online.
So at that point he moved to Oak Ridge, and as they applied these techniques to try and separate fission product—partly to have them analyzed for their health risks and benefits—he would prepare samples to help physicists back in Chicago or in other places to try and figure out what these isotopes might do, whether they were toxic or not toxic and so on, those kinds of things. He was not involved in that work directly, but in separating these products. So he worked on the reactor, taking the samples from it, feeding in materials, to expose them to neutron bombardment and then purifying the things that came out of the reactor and separating the components that were there.
Kelly: That is very interesting, especially because in looking at how they separated these fission products to get the plutonium at Hanford is a huge process.
Cohn: Yeah, he was not interested in separating the plutonium. He was interested in the smaller things that are produced by fissioning of these large nuclei of uranium and so on, of the breakdown products that occur. So there were lots of them, and it was not totally predictable what they would be, and so on. So that was the job he was involved with. And again, I think the health physicists were interested in these products and what they would do.
From that work, probably the most important part of what he did in Oak Ridge was something that came out of that, which was not part of the original plan. And that was that he realized that you could use the reactor to produce radioisotopes in large quantities that could then be used for medical and biological research. So one of his two major scientific contributions was the development of their radioisotope program.
He packaged and sent off the first radioisotopes produced in the reactor for that purpose of medical/biological research and really started the radioisotope program at Oak Ridge. He and a man named Abersold, that’s A-B-E-R-S-O-L-D, began the radioisotope program. And I know that his friend and the person who was the head of the Oak Ridge Laboratories for many years after the war, Alvin Weinberg, basically decided that one of the major contributions that the whole Manhattan Project and Oak Ridge facility had made to the world was developing this program of making radioisotopes available. And of course, they have had unlimited applications in research and in therapy and so on. So it was an important contribution that came out of the war effort, even though it was not a direct objective.
Kelly: Absolutely. I actually had a chance to meet Alvin Weinberg.
Cohn: Oh, you did?
Kelly: I did.
Cohn: Alvin Weinberg was a very, very close friend. Probably my parents’ closest friends were the Weinbergs, and I grew up with their children. They were family. And in Oak Ridge, strangers—not strangers—people who are not related, they really did become family, because there was not another family. And so very close relationships developed, and certainly ours with the Weinbergs was one of those.
Kelly: Well, he was highly revered.
Kelly: That is pretty good. Very nice.
Kelly: So tell me more about what happened next. You left us with Charmian and marrying your dad. He had been previously married?
Cohn: Right. He had been previously married. I do not know, probably got married around 1938 or so, maybe ’37 to a fellow graduate student from Berkeley who was also a scientist. And they, together, went to Harvard. And they had a son in October of 1940, my brother Marcus, Mark. And about a year after that his wife died, I believe ovarian cancer. I am not positive. And he was left with a one-year-old child. And again, it was about a year after that probably, maybe not even a year after this, that he was then pulled into the Manhattan Project. But he had, basically, to figure out how to care for this child and continue a career and so on.
And during that time he leaned on close friends, and two of them were the family of the Coryells, C-O-R-Y-E-L-L, and the Dunlaps. And because of their importance to him during that period, when I was born several years later, I was named “Dunell" after those two families.
My mother actually met my father in Boston at a going-away party for him. He was moving to Chicago, again, to begin this new project, and she happened to be in Boston visiting a friend of hers, and met my father at a party. And they began to correspond and decided to get married. And six months after they met, having never seen each other again after that first weekend, she took a train from New York to Chicago. And my father made special arrangements so that they could actually get the medical test and the license and get married the day she arrived, because he did not want to have her spend the night with him without being married. So they made special arrangements, because of the war, to get a special dispensation to get married that day.
So she arrived in Chicago, and they got married. And then they lived in Chicago for almost six months, I guess, before moving to Oak Ridge. And during that time my brother had been sent to live with my father’s mother in Berkeley, with his grandmother to take care of him. So shortly after they got married, my parents took the train out to California, and picked up my brother, brought him back. And then he ended up, of course, moving to Oak Ridge with them.
And so I arrived in May of 1944, about thirteen months after they got married, but in Oak Ridge. [I was] one of sort of the first crop of babies born at the Oak Ridge hospital, which is also an interesting story because the whole setup in Oak Ridge was so unusual, being a government town that was created out of not quite nothing, but almost nothing. The hospital—you could think of it as a good experiment in socialized medicine: everybody got care there at basically the government’s expense. And there were aspects of Oak Ridge that were really unusual in that way. And so some people looked at Oak Ridge as sort of a social experiment in this radical way to build a community.
So there is an aspect to it that has a sort of intellectual overlayer to it, but it was a town where there was no unemployment. There was no extreme poverty. It did not have the kinds of things that regular places would have a part of their history. So everybody there had a job which is not the way most communities are. So it was a very unusual place in that way. And of course, a lot of PhDs, a lot of very educated people and engineers and so on.
Kelly: So if you can recall, Charmian had some observation that she wrote in a letter to her parents.
Cohn: Yeah, I found a letter that she had written three days after she got married, April 17th, written to her parents, and just telling them how she had found herself in this intellectual hothouse where everybody she met seemed to be more brilliant than the next. And they were from Stanford and Berkeley and Harvard and so on, and they all were very intense, working at this secret government project that she did not know much about, or anything about, and tell them they were not going to find anything about it either, but that she is going to be moving to this Site X somewhere in the South. And she said, “In a state that I never thought I would live in.”
I think she probably thought she would never live outside of New York City. She was a real New York City girl, and I think it was a shock to her system to find herself in this half-built city that was Oak Ridge, with no sidewalks and lots of mud and houses going up left and right, and certainly not what she had expected probably from her life. And that was true, I think, of a lot of her friends and compatriots, the women of Oak Ridge. Not the working women but the wives of the scientists who were mostly, again, big-city university-educated women who found themselves in this town with no history, no culture, no facilities.
It was a real frontier sort of feeling to it. And in fact, I think they thought of themselves as frontiersman, the people who went to Oak Ridge. They were carving an intellectual space in the wilderness. So again, that was a feeling I think that really permeated the town for at least a decade after the war, through the decade I grew up in. It was this feeling of really having made a town out of nothing themselves, and great civic pride developed in Oak Ridge. So my mother who denied for probably four or five years that she lived in Oak Ridge, or at least told people she was from New York but she happened to be living in Tennessee, gradually became an ardent cheerleader for Oak Ridge and the physical beauty and the community that was part of this experiment. I think that actually that physical beauty actually attracted a lot of people in Oak Ridge. They all appreciated just the force and the contours of these mountains around them. That was another aspect of the town anyway.
Kelly: Where did she live when they arrived?
Cohn: When they arrived? I do not know whether they had a house when they first arrived. There are some postcards I have where my father sort of talks about getting settled, but he is not talking about this town. And there are references to Gatlinburg in these letters, and I am not sure if he really was in Gatlinburg or if this was like a fiction of a way to refer to a place but not actually saying quite what it was. I mean, everybody knew it was near Knoxville, but I know the first house they moved into, and that they were in when I was born, was one of the cemesto houses that were put up to house the community.
There were really four basic designs of houses, and then there were apartments that were built and so on. But there were B and C and D and F houses. I do not know what happened to E houses. They left them out somehow. The B houses had two bedrooms in it. The C’s maybe also did. The D’s and F’s had three bedrooms. They were all built of a material called cemesto, which is a—I do not know quite what it is. They were built supposedly to last a few years. They are still there. Most of them have been renovated but still the basic plan is there.
One thing that was really nice about Oak Ridge as a planned community is that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill I guess were the people who designed the town, they really followed the contours of these hills and made streets that curved and bent. And they left a lot of trees. They did not knock all the trees down to put these houses in, and they put all the houses at different angles. So even though every fourth house was an F house, it did not look the same. They are not all facing the street at the same angle and so on. And so it really had a nice appearance to it as compared to what it could have been, which I think could have been a very regimented Army town.
And so the center of the town was built of all of these houses, and then gradually Oak Ridge just spread wider and wider out into the neighboring communities and it developed suburbs of its own and so on, although it is not a very big town itself. But it has almost become linked to Knoxville now in terms of being able to get around. It used to be that Knoxville was quite a trip from Oak Ridge through backcountry roads, and it was a major deal to go to Knoxville to shop or something like that. Now it is just a zip down the highway. I am trying to think of what else.
Kelly: Can you tell us something about the layout, like where the shopping centers were?
Cohn: Well, yeah, there were a few. I mean, the one, of course, that was really in the center of town was Jackson Square. And it is still there, Jackson Square, fairly unchanged in terms of its geometry. There was a theater. There was, I think, three movie theaters in the early days in Oak Ridge. One of them was in Jackson Square. There was a drug store there and a men’s clothing store and so on. And close to that was the big guest hotel that visiting scientists and so on stayed in—the Alexander Hotel.
And close to that was a church that was an interdenominational church. We just called it the Church on the Hill, and that is still there also. I do not know if it is a Methodist or not. I do not remember what denomination it is now, but it was an interdenominational church. And actually the second house I lived in was very close to that on Kingfisher Lane, was just up from Jackson Square. We used to go sledding on the Church on the Hill in the front of it and so on and walk down to the movie theater to see double features at the Center Theater I think it was called, that one.
But there were other shopping centers. There was one in Pine Valley. There was one near the Grove Center, where the big swimming pool is. There were recreational facilities in town. The army built things big and pretty well, so we had a gigantic swimming pool that is still in Oak Ridge. But it was a huge pool and a center for recreation. In the early days, there obviously were dances and so on in the rec hall and that sort of thing, but that is only things I know by pictures and rumors.
The schools in Oak Ridge were very good, had good teachers that came from neighboring areas but some from farther away. Again, everybody in Oak Ridge was brought in from outside in one way or another, and so they were not extremely southern in their feel. They were a little more—not international but national schools I guess. And of course there were a lot of bright kids and kids who had parents who valued education and pushed education, and so they did a great job and were very successful schools. I think they probably still are very highly ranked as public education. Trying to think what else about the schools.
Kelly: What about your mom? Here she is now just arrived and soon enough has two babies. And how does she live day-to-day, and what is her life like?
Cohn: Well, I do not know a lot about that. I know a little bit later on about it. Those first few years I really do not know much about except that I know it was a struggle in terms of dealing with the mud and the lack of transportation. And the women, in general, tended to be trapped. They did not have cars to go driving around town and so on. They basically had to be at home with their babies. But they did band together, and my mother formed very, very strong friendships in those early, early days that lasted her whole life.
But soon after things began to settle in Oak Ridge, these women became avid and ardent volunteers in a variety of ways, again, building community structures whether it was the Playhouse or the musical community. My father, again, had founded this symphony, and we will get to that, but my mother became a founding member of the Civic Music Association that supported the symphony and the chorus and raised money and did publicity and all of that.
Other friends become involved in forming a playhouse, and people who were not particular actors like my mother acted in plays in the early 1950s at the Playhouse, an art center was formed. My mother became very involved with reading for the blind and doing braille labels and things like that, so they took up volunteer activities. And but again, those memories come from a little later period than during the war.
Kelly: So can you, through conversations you had had with your dad and other materials, subsequently talk about what it was like for him during the war?
Cohn: Well, I think they worked very hard, so I think, particularly in the war years, that there was a sense of urgency. Clearly things were secret and compartmentalized. My father was one of the scientists who knew pretty well what was going on, although I do not know how much he knew about the structure of the bomb particularly. He certainly knew that the plutonium was being produced in the reactor and so on and what it was for.
But again, that was not shared with the wives. There was very little discussion of that outside of work, so I think that must have been a very strange kind of thing. These are people who are intensely involved in their work, and their work almost defines them in many ways. But it was only at work. They used to work fairly long days and Saturdays for sure. But I remember, at least as a kid, that he almost always was home for dinner, that there was some regularity to their schedules, or his schedule at least, where he would come home at six o’clock or so, and we would have dinner together.
Again, there was a headiness to all this new science that everybody was really excited about, I think, very involved in. The men also formed very close relationships through that work, I know, just carpooling and so on. There were not a lot of cars and a lot of ways to get around town, so they would carpool to go to the labs and so on. And again, families became sort of integrated in some ways with one another.
Now his work with the project really came to end fairly quickly after the war, and he then joined what became the biology division that was housed at Y-12 in the laboratory area there and turned, again, his expertise in separation techniques to biochemistry, back to what he had come from before the war and went on with that work for the rest of his career.
Kelly: So why don’t you talk about how he got involved in this music as a child and then what that lead to at Oak Ridge.
Cohn: Well, he got involved in music as a child, the cello, as a youngster. His parents were pretty disciplined, his mother particularly. And one of the stories I have heard is that he had practice three half hours a day, and that his mother would sit there and watch him and make sure that he practiced at those times. He began to take lessons, actually, in San Francisco at a fairly early age, actually. He would take the ferry from Alameda across to San Francisco and then take a cable car or a bus to his teacher’s place and back, a fairly long trip. And he became quite accomplished and a pretty serious musician, played a lot of chamber music with people who went on to become people of the Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony. He played with Isaac Stern, who was a youngster when my father was already in graduate school, but he played with a lot of good musicians. And music became a very important part of his social life and his self-identity.
And when he got to Oak Ridge, he of course had his cello with him. I do not know how he got it there, probably just carried it along on the train. I do not know any stories about that. But immediately after he got there, he looked for people to play music with, and found people to play some chamber music and then gradually a little bit larger groups. Invited more people. And in I guess the fall of 1943, which is really not a month or two after he had gotten there, his little group of musicians had gotten too big for the house.
They were not in a very big house. They were in a C house at that point. So they found a place at the high school to play, and gradually they started to play a little string orchestra, and then added some winds. And finally it got to be too big to run itself and they needed a conductor and told my father, “You started this, you conduct it.” And so my father had a lot of experience in good orchestras in Berkeley and I think also at Harvard, but certainly at Berkeley he had played a lot of music. And he really taught himself to conduct, and he founded the symphony, which gave its first concert in the spring of 1944. I think the first concert actually was a month after I was born.
There was some sort of story, again, which I do not quite recollect, about him being called out of rehearsal when my mother went into labor and so on, and rushing down to the hospital. But I think in June of ’44 was the first concert by the whole symphony. And he conducted it for eleven years, and then after that played cello in it for another, I do not know, maybe twenty years or maybe more. I am trying to think. He conducted it up until 1955, and he finally retired, I think, from playing the cello basically in ‘85 or ‘86. Something like that. No, okay, maybe I cannot add correctly.
Kelly: Yeah, it was in the ‘90s.
Cohn: It is, okay. Anyhow, he played as long as he could play. Finally, his arthritis and bad shoulders got to the point where he did not feel he could really do it that well. So finally, around the age of eighty or so, he retired from performing. But in addition to the orchestra, they founded a series of amateur chamber concerts they called “coffee concerts.” And again, he had a few quartets but one major one that would perform probably once a year, then other group of soloists and so on would play.
There was a lot of music in Oak Ridge and a lot of scientists were amateur musicians. Alvin Weinberg, as you mentioned, was a very good pianist and occasionally would give concerts, piano. There were a lot of scientists who were musicians, and so we had a very strong music community.
So anyhow, that is my father’s involvement. He founded the symphony and ran it for a long time. And I guess at the beginning he really did run the whole thing. I mean, his secretary, who was Dotty Silverman, Dorothy Silverman, wrote a thing about being in the symphony and how Waldo would set up the chairs and set up the music stands and arrange the music. And he sort of did, from the janitorial to the conducting aspects of the symphony, but he loved it. And I think actually that was his great pleasure in life was the music. The science, he certainly got rewards from that and traveled a lot and spoke and got recognition. But I think the music was probably his first love or his real love.
Kelly: That is great. You mentioned also that he had been involved in desegregation.
Cohn: Yeah. In Oak Ridge, people tended to do lots of things, and Oak Ridge was governed by a city council—it was not governed. It was governed by the government, by the Army, but they set up a citizen’s advisory council, basically was like a city council. They would meet and make recommendations to the government about things having to do with running the town. And my father became a member of the city council and actually became the head of the city council, the mayor of Oak Ridge, I think in 1952 or so.
And one of the things he proposed was to integrate the schools. At that point, the Army had the position that it should not do things counter to local traditions. Of course, Oak Ridge had really no local traditions, but the area certainly did and that was of segregation. And Oak Ridge had been set up with a very clearly demarcated area for African-Americans, and they had their own schools. And they did not go to the public schools. They did not go to the public high school. They went to, I think, a school in Knoxville, maybe. But anyway, Father felt the school should be integrated, and got a resolution passed through the city council to recommend this to the government to integrate the schools. And the government turned them down and said, “No, this would cause discord.” And they did not want any discord, and they were going to go honor local traditions.
And there were a number of people in the community—again, this was a Southern town overweighed with this international scientific community—people took great exception to this and actually had a recall election to get him out of office, and they succeeded actually. He was recalled in 1953. Very shortly after that, of course, the Brown vs. Board of Education decision came down from the Supreme Court in ’54.
And one of the untold stories of Oak Ridge is that it was probably the first community in the South to honor that decision and in 1955 integrated the schools with no problems and no disruption. Again, they were done by neighborhoods, so the elementary schools were not integrated until much later because the blacks did live in a geographically separate part of town. But they did immediately go in 1955 to one of the two junior high schools, the closest one, and to the high school.
That was another saga of my father in Oak Ridge, but again, it gives you a picture of the way people lived in this community. They built it. They felt that it was theirs. There was a great involvement and attachment to the community that I think was really fairly unique for these founding fathers sort of.
So there is a story actually, not written up, but this happened to me. I guess this was in 1954 after the Supreme Court decision. I was ten years old, went to the local Pine Valley Barber Shop to get my hair cut. And I am sitting in the barber’s chair and in comes Mr. Brewer, who lived not too far down the street from where I had grown up, but who was a real Southern anti-evolutionist, anti-integrationist. So when he comes in, he is complaining loud at the barber, how it was that Jew Cohn got the Supreme Court to integrate the school, and it was all his fault. And I was sort of slinking down in my chair saying, “Maybe they will not notice me.”
But it was a tough time actually. During that recall election, we got calls threatening us as children, “We are going to get you,” and “You are a Jew nigger lover.” That kind of thing. Again, this was not from the whole community and certainly not from the scientific community, but again, it made you realize that you were living in a Southern town in some ways, w hich I think I was fairly insulated from otherwise. Because again, we moved in our own little social circle, and everybody’s father was a scientist and a genius of some sort. That kind of thing.
Kelly: Following along those lines, you had mentioned that Margaret Mead had come to town?
Cohn: Yeah, I do not remember when that was. I think it was probably in the ‘50s or early ‘60s. I may have actually been out of town by then. I went to college in 1961. I do not know exactly when it was. And Margaret Mead had looked at Oak Ridge, again, as a sociologist would, and was interested in what this community could be like. I think she was quoted as saying, “A community with no grandmothers.” Again, everybody was young. Nobody had family that was from that area. There were no grandmothers. There was no history to it. And so she came to Oak Ridge to see what the sociology was like, and I think she was pretty unflattering in her picture of the town dynamics and of the women in town and these women who did not work but were highly educated.
Anyhow, I do not know what she wrote, but I know that everybody got their back up. And there were a flood of letters written to Margaret Mead about this, and those have been gathered into a book that was published in 1975 by, actually, a friend of my parents, Thelma Present, who lived in Knoxville actually at that time. But Letters from Oak Ridge to Margaret Mead is the name of the book I think, and I would be interested to see what the two sides had to say about the culture of Oak Ridge and different ways of viewing it.
Kelly: That is great. Well, can you tell us more about the Weinbergs?
Cohn: Well, the Weinbergs came to Oak Ridge, I think, a little later, probably something like 1948 or something like that. I do not know how my parents met the Weinbergs particularly, but they became very, very close friends. My mother used to spend an hour on the phone with Marge Weinberg every morning over coffee. It was just a ritual to call up and just chew the fat and so on. They had two children, one who was a year older than me and one that was two years younger than me. And the older one, David, [we] became really best friends. And from an early age we were playing together. There are stories of us building a fire under Alvin’s nice grand piano in the living room, or trying to build a fire at ages three and four, or something like that. But we were best friends, and the two families were very close. I lived with the Weinbergs at times when my parents would travel. That kind of thing.
Alvin, of course, went on to become the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratories. He was a good amateur musician. I know when my father died, Alvin was giving a eulogy to him at the memorial service and said, “He was my best friend and my worst critic.” So my father was always very direct about his criticism of Alvin’s piano playing or of anything else, political things and so on. My father was very firm in his convictions and beliefs about things, and he would tell people when he disagreed with them. And I think people valued that in some ways, but also he was a tough act. He was a tough guy in that way, so, “My best friend and my worst critic.”
Kelly: What did he think about the atomic bomb?
Cohn: Well, I think from what I have heard him say and so on over the years, that before the bomb was exploded, there was very little attention to what it might do or how it might be used. There was a furor, a frenzy almost, to get it built, a tremendous fear of Germany having the bomb. He also, I think, had a real fear of Japan, being a West Coast person. He, I know, had a feeling all through the late ‘30s of Japan expanding and expanding and expanding into more areas into Korea and China and so on and saw this threat from the Pacific also. So I think there was really this focus on winning the war and not much philosophizing about it.
Once the bomb was almost ready to go, though, people began to consider it, and he actually was one of the group who sent a letter to the president urging him not to use the bomb. I guess this is usually called the Szilard Letter, but he was one of the signatories of that. And of course, that decision was not made in Oak Ridge to use it, but a lot of people did think that it should be demonstrated rather than used and so on. That did not come about.
And after the war, he was very vocal about turning the control of atomic energy over to civilian control and attempting to internationalize it. And he actually testified a couple of times at Congress about that because it needed—to not keep this a secret, not to keep it with the military. Again, that did not go very far, although I guess we did have civilian control of the Atomic Energy Commission when that was formed. So he was politically active in that way, and this is in the ’46, ’47, ’48, period. And again, I only know that from stories I have read rather than personal experience.
Kelly: So what did he think of the hydrogen bomb?
Cohn: I do not know that he thought anything about that. I mean, at that point he is not really connected with atomic energy particularly, and certainly not in the loop in terms of the science going on around that. His concerns had shifted totally towards biological science, towards where he had come from, and he really had no connection to the nuclear side of Oak Ridge. Yes, certainly he knew about the kinds of reactors that were being developed and so on and was friends with people who were involved in that, like Alvin Weinberg. But Oak Ridge really was not, I do not think, central to the hydrogen bomb in any meaningful way.
Again, we were friends with one of the fathers of the hydrogen bomb; Hans Bethe was a good friend of my parents and so on. I have met him and played with his kids and so on also, but I do not think there was anything particularly—he always was a little bit of a cynic about the fear of atomic energy and about radiation. He thought there was a lot of media hysteria about that. I know that people thought, well, “Plutonium being the most dangerous chemical in the world and how this tiny, tiny, tiny bit can kill you.”
And my father would say, that you could hold plutonium in your hand and it will not do anything to you. It is an alpha emitter, and its radiation does not even pierce the skin. It is only if it is inhaled in the right size pieces, and so on, then it can be very dangerous. He thought it was a boogyman that people had created of this fear of radiation, so he was pretty cynical about that aspect of the popular press.
And probably that extends to other kinds of applications of science and so on. I think he would probably be really welcoming of things like genetically modified foods or whatever. I mean, those things did not scare him. He thought they were understandable and controllable, and I think he would point to the positive outcomes of nuclear energy as far outweighing the negatives.
I know Alvin used to argue that the atomic and hydrogen bombs are basically what prevented the last sixty years from having major wars. I am not sure I agree with all of that, but certainly there is an argument to be made that they have made big wars impossible. But certainly my father would be in that kind of camp I think, pretty hardnosed.
Kelly: When did you realize that Oak Ridge was so special as a place to grow up?
Cohn: I think that was something I always knew and always felt that it was a unique place. I think I was born into that, and I think I got that from my parents and my parents’ friends and so on, this feeling that it was a town that had these international connections and this intellectual community that was really unique, that it was not your regular place and that somehow we were very special because of that. So I think we were brought up thinking the community was a very special place and this pride of place.
Probably a lot of people grow up in Akron, Ohio and think, “That is a great place, too.” But certainly we did and I think our parents did, too. I think that they came to appreciate Oak Ridge as this place that they had created, and so there was a very special bond. I think that is true for all my friends. Now, very few of them have gone back to Oak Ridge. It is the sort of place we went to college and went on and went other places.
And again, being a town without grandmothers, if you want to think of it that way, means that once my parents’ generation began to die off, my connections to Oak Ridge have just gotten weaker and weaker and weaker, because there is nothing permanent there. There are not siblings there and uncles and aunts and that kind of thing. So I have almost no reason to go back to Oak Ridge now. Very few people that were friends with my family that are still there and not very many friends that I knew as children that are still there which is too bad. I sort of miss that now at this point. It would be nice to have that connection. So maybe there is a long-lasting side to this being brand-new and not having a history.
Kelly: When did your parents die?
Cohn: My father died in 1999 at the age of eighty-nine, and my mother died in 2007 at the age of ninety-three. And she actually died here in St. Louis. We moved her here just a few months before she died, but other than that, they spent the rest of their lives in Oak Ridge, both of them.
Kelly: That is great. I hesitate to stop asking questions because you have such nice answers.
Cohn: Yeah, trying to think if there are other things that—well, I mean, there are other things you know about Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge was a dry community. You probably know that, right?
Well, I mean, obviously this was a county where you could not buy or sell or have liquor. I do not know if it was a statewide thing. Certainly it was a countywide thing, and it was a dry county. But the scientists all traveled a lot to meetings all the time, and whenever they went, they had big empty briefcases or whatever that came back filled with booze. So I think there was a fair amount of alcohol available in Oak Ridge, and I think it was a very long time before alcohol was allowed legally in Oak Ridge. So everybody became bootleggers of one sort or another in minor ways.
I know that in the hills around Oak Ridge there were people making moonshine and so on, and there was some suspicion of these people, particularly officials who had government cars that had license plates that marked them as not Tennessee but government, that these were revenuers and so on. So there was a little friction there between the hill folk, and they were brewing moonshine, the locals.
Kelly: To what extent—again, this may not be something you can answer—but the secrecy at Oak Ridge, how did that—?
Cohn: Certainly, I was aware of that as a child. I mean, there were signs still around when I was old enough to read signs and so on, that sort of, “Loose lips sink ships” kind of things. And of course, going in and out of town until I guess 1955 or ’56, we would go through a guarded gate. And it clearly was a city that was behind a fence. And you went through these guard gates, and you had to stop and the guard would check your IDs or whatever and look in the trunk sometimes. But clearly that was part of the deal. I mean, that was something I was aware of from pretty early on that there was a secrecy to it.
Now I do not think it was quite like it was during the war when things were very secret and nobody talked about uranium and there were code words for this and that and the other. And particularly the women, I think, were really in the dark about what the heck was going on. They knew it was a big project, they knew it was involved in ending the war, and they knew things like that but not any details. Even up until, I would say, the early ‘50s and really until the town opened up in ’55, there was definitely a feeling this was a place separated from the outside.
And of course, there was this big opening of the gates, big celebrations and so on and parades and fireworks and so on. Actually, I think they blew up Elsa Gate maybe I think in a public sort of thing, where they actually exploded it, to announce the opening of Oak Ridge and the end of government control of the town, government running of the town. It became a civilian place like others. But yeah, I think everyone I knew grew up feeling like it was a very special place, different.
Kelly: Well, that is wonderful.
Cohn: Yeah, I mean, I can tell you more about my father’s later career and so on, but I do not know if that is of interest.
Kelly: Well, why don’t you give a thumbnail sketch if you could?
Cohn: Well, he used these separation techniques to isolate and identify the components of RNA, ribonucleic acid. And from his work he discovered the structure of RNA, the binding that connects one nucleotide to another, which turns out is the same in DNA, but it was less clear in RNA and more difficult to show. And this was right in the period where the structure of DNA finally got discovered in 1953, but he was involved in developing this structure of RNA in 1951, ’52, ’53, ’54, all through that, and really a part of this very exciting opening of the nucleic acid research.
He went on, actually, after he retired, to editing a volume called Progress in Nucleic Acid Research for, I do not know, fifteen or twenty years sort of before and after retirement. And he actually devoted more and more of time later in his career to editing things like that. He was part of a nomenclature commission that tried to figure out how to name these compounds and organize them and so on, and really using more of his chemistry background.
But that was his research area, in the structure of RNA. And RNA has, of course, been discovered to be much more important than we ever thought in controlling how genes are expressed and so on in cells. It is a major player. It is not just this temporary copy of DNA that is involved in protein synthesis. It has many more roles. So I know his friend, again, Alvin Weinberg, thought that that was, again, something that probably deserved more recognition than he got, that RNA has actually turned out to be more important than it first was thought to be.
And according to Alvin, at least he was nominated for the Nobel Prize at one point for some of this work, so it was good stuff. So he had really two major scientific achievements, the radioisotope program was one that came directly out of the war effort, and then this work in nucleic acid research. So he was pretty well-known. Traveled a lot. When I was child, we went to Europe when I was eight, and then we went and lived for a year there when I was eleven. And he went many, many times to speak and visit universities and so on. So he had quite a good scientific career as well as the music career, he had both.