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Nobel Physicist Ernest O. Lawrence: A Small Town, Cyclotrons, and the Birth of Big Science

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This post was authored by Stephanie Marcus, Science Reference & Research Specialist, in the Science, Technology, and Business Division of the Library of Congress. She is also author of the blog posts “Kebabs, Kabobs, Shish Kebabs, Shashlyk, and: Chislic” and “The Potato Transformed.”

I grew up in the small town of Canton, South Dakota.  A billboard as you entered town on US highway 18 boasted   “Home of 2600 Friendly Citizens.”  The sign most certainly should have added “and Nobel Physicist E. O. Lawrence.”  Two other names might also have been mentioned:  John H. Lawrence, pioneer of nuclear medicine, and physicist Merle A. Tuve, who, with Gregory Breit, used a pulsed radio transmitter to measure the height of the ionosphere, important in the development of radar. The only mention of any of them that I recall is that our new grade school where I entered sixth grade was named E.O. Lawrence Elementary.

Canton, SD. F.J. Bandholtz (c1907)

I am amazed that a small town in the Midwest could in a few years’ time and in one neighborhood produce three major scientists of the 20th century.  Brothers Ernest and John were born in 1901 and 1904, and Merle, born in 1901, played with Ernest and built telegraphic and radio equipment with him. They were all descendants of Norwegian immigrants and went on to earn degrees at prestigious universities (Ernest at Yale, John at Harvard Medical and Merle at Johns Hopkins). Each of the three made major contributions during World War II: Tuve improved proximity fuzes to detonate explosive devices, John Lawrence studied high-altitude physiology in order to help fighter pilots deal with unpressurized cabins, and Ernest helped to build the atomic bomb.

Bevatron model with L. Smith, McMillan, E.O. Lawrence, Lofgren, Brobeck, and Sewell (August 1955)

E.O. Lawrence received a B.A. in chemistry from the University of South Dakota, an M.A. in physics at the University of Minnesota, and then followed his physics professor, W.F.G. Swann, to the University of Chicago for further studies and to Yale, where he earned his Ph.D. He stayed on at Yale to do research on the photoelectric effect and became an assistant professor.  UC Berkeley, seeking to compete with the burgeoning physics scene in Europe, lured him away in 1928 and appointed him associate professor of physics.  By 1930 he was made a full professor, the youngest in its history.  When he arrived at Berkeley, Lawrence had already decided to devote himself to nuclear physics.  In 1929 the University also recruited theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, thereby securing two of the brightest young physicists in the country.  Lawrence (known as EOL to his colleagues) spent the remainder of his career at Berkeley (as did his brother John) and became director of its Radiation Laboratory (the Rad Lab) in 1936. It was re-named Ernest O. Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory after his death and is now the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a member of the Department of Energy’s network of laboratories.  Lawrence Livermore Laboratory at Berkeley, which opened in 1952, also carries his name.  He had conceived it as an incubator of new ideas, and after its groundbreaking research on thermonuclear warheads, fusion and advanced computations, its main activities became bioscience and environmental programs.

An article by a German scientist gave Lawrence the idea for his cyclotron, a circular particle accelerator, which became popularly known as the atom smasher. The vacuum chamber of his first cyclotron, built in 1929, was a palm-sized four inches in diameter, and over time he kept building bigger and more powerful machines—fondly called the “37-inch,” the”60-inch” and finally the “184-inch” with its 4000 ton magnet.  The synchrocyclotron was next (patented by colleague Edwin McMillan), followed by the massive Bevatron, which led to the discovery of the antiproton (it was decommissioned in 1993 and later demolished for space).

Aerial view of B-51 Bevatron – University of California Radiation Laboratory

John Lawrence, who was teaching at the Yale School of Medicine and had been following his brother’s achievements, became interested in the possibility of using radiation and radioisotopes in treating human disease.  After visiting Berkeley in 1935 to do some research, he moved there in 1937.  Ernest was also interested in the biomedical possibilities for his cyclotron and because it was easier to get money for medical research than for physics, philanthropist William H. Donner, whose son had died from cancer, donated funds to build the Donner Laboratory with John as its director. Not long after John had moved to Berkeley, the brothers learned their mother had uterine cancer and only a few months to live.  John brought her from the Mayo Clinic to Berkeley to be treated with radiation by Berkeley radiologist David Stone in colleague Robert Sloan’s X-ray tube.  The tumor shrank and disappeared, and Gunda Lawrence lived another 15 years.  This further motivated John and Lawrence to pursue treating with neutrons from the cyclotron, which they felt could be more effective than X-rays.

In November 1939 after Germany had invaded Poland to begin the Second World War, Ernest was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work with the cyclotron.  It wasn’t safe to go to Sweden to accept it–in fact, his brother had just returned from a conference in Britain on the ship Athenia, which was attacked by a German U-boat.  John had been rescued off a lifeboat by a destroyer crew.  The prize was awarded instead on the Berkeley campus February 29, 1940.  EOL, who was the epitome of the new man of science—a brilliant, engaging scientist with flair for promoting his projects and a savvy fundraiser–had said years before that he would be famous. Despite his dashing style, he humbly gave credit to his laboratory and colleagues: “It goes without saying that it is the laboratory that is honored.” The Chair of the Physics Department, Professor Raymond T. Birge, in his speech at the ceremony, spoke of their efforts as one of the first examples of “big science,” science conducted by a large team of scientists and engineers (with big machines and big money).

Image of Patent 1,948,384 from

Under EOL’s direction, Berkeley scientists became heavily involved in the war effort:  Oppenheimer headed the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos; Edwin McMillan went to MIT to work on radar, to the Navy Radio and Sound Laboratory in San Diego to do research on sonar, and then joined the Manhattan Project; and Lawrence spent time at Oak Ridge overseeing the electromagnetic isotope separation process he had developed.  Before Pearl Harbor, many scientists had suspected that Germany was developing a bomb and EOL, who had been working with uranium, wanted to push ahead in the race against slow action in the U.S.  He prevailed, and the cyclotrons at Berkeley were used to search for new elements that could undergo nuclear fission, and the huge magnet of the 187-inch was used to enrich uranium.

After the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in 1949, scientist Edward Teller pressed for the U.S. to speed up work on the “Super,” the hydrogen or H-bomb, and dedicate another laboratory to the effort in order to take the pressure off Los Alamos.  The Atomic Energy Commission was not in support of the H-bomb, but Lawrence was on board and proposed using the site he had secured for producing plutonium, the former Livermore Naval Air Station.  With the Livermore Laboratory already in place, the AEC and the University decided to acquiesce in establishing it as a nuclear weapons design facility.  Teller accepted a position there and faculty colleague Herbert York became the director.

Early in the Cold War, Lawrence thought nuclear weapons were the answer to the country’s security, and he and his good friend Oppenheimer parted ways over this.  While he was excited about the successful Trinity bomb test in 1954 and wanted further testing, he was always interested in peaceful uses for atomic energy.  There was much talk of disarmament, but Lawrence feared this could not be adequately monitored.  When he was asked by President Eisenhower’s assistant, Harold Stassen, to chair a special task force on inspection and detection, he couldn’t say no.  This meant traveling to Washington and abroad often, in addition to his already busy travel schedule.  His health was not good, as he suffered from chronic ulcerative colitis.  He was asked by the Eisenhower in 1958 to lead the U.S. delegation with two other scientists to Geneva to meet with international experts, including the Soviets, on how to detect violations of a test ban.  Lawrence insisted on attending, despite being utterly exhausted and unwell.  The conference began on July 1, and although he resisted going home and pushed himself through pain and illness, by July 31 he was back in a California hospital.  The father of six  told his wife Molly he wished he’d taken more time off, but his conscience wouldn’t allow it. A few days before his death on August 27, 1958, Eisenhower announced the U.S. moratorium on testing, and the Soviet Union, United Kingdom and the U.S. agreed to begin test ban negotiations on October 31.

Lawrence had received every possible award and honor, but at his memorial, Berkeley President Clark Kerr said, “he will go on being honored as long as the history of science continues to be written.”  When young scientists at his Rad Lab discovered element 103, it was named Lawrencium.

“Lawrence will always be remembered as the inventor of the cyclotron, but more importantly, he should be remembered as the inventor of the modern way of doing science.”

Luis Alvarez, winner of the
1968 Nobel Prize for Physics

To learn more:

Childs, Herbert.  An American Genius:  The Life of Ernest Orlando Lawrence.  New York, Dutton, 1968.

Heilbron, J.L. and Robert W. Seidel.  Lawrence and His Laboratory:  A History of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.  Berkeley, University of California Press, c1989.

Herken, Gregg.  Brotherhood of the Bomb:  The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller.  New York, Henry Holt and Co., 2002.

Hiltzik, Michael A.  Big Science:  Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex.  New York, Simon and Schuster, c2015.

Voices of the Manhattan Project:  Search for Ernest Lawrence and hear interviews, including one with his daughter Margaret Norman.


  1. Excellent piece!

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