Ernest O. Lawrence (1901 - 1958)

Ernest O. Lawrence
Ernest O. Lawrence

Ernest Orlando Lawrence was born on August 8, 1901, in Canton, South Dakota. He earned his B.A. in chemistry from the University of South Dakota in 1922, his M.A. from the University of Minnesota in 1923, and his Ph.D. in physics from Yale University in 1925. He remained at Yale as a researcher on the photoelectric effect, becoming an assistant professor in 1927. In 1928, he was appointed Associate Professor of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and two years later he became Professor, being the youngest at Berkeley. In 1936, he became Director of the University's Radiation Laboratory as well, remaining in these posts until his death.

In 1929, Lawrence invented the cyclotron, a device for accelerating nuclear particles to very high velocities without the use of high voltages. Hundreds of radioactive isotopes of the known elements were also discovered. In 1939, Lawrence was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. His brother, Dr. John Lawrence, who became Director of the University's Medical Physics Laboratory, collaborated with him in studying medical and biological applications of the cyclotron and himself became a consultant to the Institute of Cancer Research at Columbia.

In May 1932, Lawrence married Mary Kimberly Blumer, daughter of the Emeritus Dean at Yale Medical School. They eventually had six children.

Lawrence built larger and more powerful versions of the cyclotron. In 1941, the instrument was used to generate artificially the cosmic particles called mesons, and later the studies were extended to antiparticles. He was called the "Atom Smasher," the man who held the key to atomic energy.

During World War II, Lawrence made vital contributions to the development of the atomic bomb, holding several official appointments in the project. He was involved with the Manhattan Project from nearly the beginning, serving as program chief in charge of the electromagnetic separation work at Oak Ridge that provided the uranium 235 for the atomic bomb. His Rad Lab became one of the major centers for wartime atomic research, and it was Lawrence who first introduced J. Robert Oppenheimer into what would become the Manhattan Project.

After the war, Lawrence campaigned extensively for government sponsorship of large scientific programs, and is known as one of the great ushers of the era of "Big Science," with its requirements for big machines and big money. He played a part in the attempt to obtain international agreement on the suspension of atomic-bomb testing, being a member of the U.S. delegation at the 1958 Geneva Conference on this subject. While in Geneva, he became ill and was forced to return to Berkeley. He died a month later, on August 27, 1958, in Palo Alto, California. Both the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory were named in his honor. Element 103 was named lawrencium (Lr) in his honor.