Quarterman, Lloyd Albert 1918–1982
Lloyd Albert Quarterman 1918–1982
Although Lloyd Albert Quarterman is best known as one of six African American scientists who worked for the U.S. government during the 1940s to develop the atom bomb, he is rarely mentioned in histories of that research. Consequently, before his death in the summer of 1982, no interviewer had made a point of documenting Quarterman’s life or his inclusion among the scientists trusted with the most carefully guarded defense secret of World War II. What has been written on Quarterman stresses his dedication to scientific exploration; Ivan Van Sertima, who interviewed Quarterman in 1979 for Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, concluded with this quotation from the then experienced chemist and physicist: “We are in an age of discovery.... We live in the world of the unknown. That’s the only place to live.”
Quarterman was born in Philadelphia on May 31, 1918. He developed an early passion for scientific experiment and discovery by occupying himself with toy chemistry sets. He headed south for college some time in the late 1930s, studying chemistry and earning a reputation for his prowess on the football field at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina. When Van Sertima interviewed Quarterman, he could still see the athlete in the distinguished, sixty-year-old scientist: “As he spoke, the shock of his voice and his occasional laughter seemed to contradict his illness and I began to see before me, not an aging scientist, but the champion footballer.” But young Quarterman evidently prioritized his studies: after earning his bachelor’s degree in 1943, he was immediately hired by the U.S. War Department to work on the research being conducted at high-security laboratories across the country: the Manhattan Project.
Quarterman began work as a junior chemist; he was, officially, an assistant to an associate research scientist and chemist. The government hired him to work with a huge network of scientists spread across the country at different laboratories, each team pursuing a separate portion of the work necessary to develop an atomic bomb. What his exact duties were no biographer or interviewer has ever documented, since each of the scientists was sworn to secrecy at that time, thereby placing a seal of silence on even the most mundane of activities.
We do know, however, that Quarterman was affiliated with two of the laboratories in the overall network. He worked
Scientist specializing in fluoride chemistry, nuclear chemistry, and spectroscopy. Assistant to associate research scientist and chemist on the Manhattan Project, New York, NY, and Chicago, IL, 1943-46; nuclear and fluoride chemist at Argonne National Laboratories, Chicago, 1946-1970s; developed the “diamond window,” 1967; performed initial research on synthetic blood during the 1960s; created new compounds and molecules. Author or coauthor of many professional papers in his fields of specialization.
Member: Society of Applied Spectroscopy (national officer); Scientific Research Society of America; American Chemical Society; American Association for the Advancement of Science; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Society of Sigma Chi.
Awards: Certificate of Recognition, U.S. War Department, 1945; honorary doctorate of science from St. Augustine’s College, 1971.
at both the Columbia University laboratory in New York City and at the hidden University of Chicago facility in Chicago, Illinois. It was the Columbia team of scientists that first split the atom—the act of nuclear fission necessary to produce the tremendous release of energy that would fuel the atom bomb. Before they could split the atom, however, these scientists—including, occasionally, Albert Einstein—had to create the uranium isotope necessary for fission; consequently, Quarterman was predominantly involved in the experiments that led to what author Stephane Groueff has described as the “gaseous diffusion method of obtaining fissionable materials.” That is, more simply, the transformation of solid uranium into huge amounts of a particular kind of uranium gas.
The work at the University of Chicago was no less or more important, but the facilities were considerably more confidential. The empty locker rooms and racquet courts beneath the unused football stadium, Stagg Field, were converted in 1942 into a giant, hidden laboratory for the team of scientists working on the “plutonium program.” Here, Quarterman and his colleagues worked under the direction of Enrico Fermi, the preeminent Italian physicist responsible for much of the major development in the field of nuclear physics in the twentieth century. The scientists developed and built the first nuclear reactor, or pile; this structure—essentially the same core structure found in modern nuclear power plants—allows for the massive conversion of plutonium into nuclear energy.
The work in these labs came to an end in 1945, when the U.S. military won the war against Japan. The two bombs made possible by these scientists obliterated two major Japanese cities—Hiroshima and Nagasaki—in early December. On the sixth of August, Quarterman received a certificate of recognition from the U.S. War Department for his work “essential to the production of the Atomic Bomb, thereby contributing to the successful conclusion of World War II.”
As soon as the Manhattan Project was officially closed down in 1946, the government converted what remained of the Chicago research team into Argonne National Laboratories. The laboratories hidden beneath the University of Chicago’s football stadium became a multi-million dollar facility, still run by the University of Chicago, above ground in a Chicago suburb. Most of the work conducted at the lab was geared toward the exploration of the peaceful possibilities of nuclear energy production. An Ebony article written in 1949 profiled the ten African-American scientists working at Argonne, including Quarterman, and stressed the positive potential that scientists then saw in nuclear physics: “Most of the experiments at Argonne are involved in such projects as disease prevention, prolonging human life and producing new sources of power.” At the time, Quarterman expressed his usual feeling of excitement at discovery: “You can expect almost anything when you are exploring. It’s just like playing poker; you’ve got to keep your eyes open.”
Quarterman stayed with Argonne for about thirty years. His work kept him in the midst of the most important scientific projects of the day, some with great public appeal, some much more obscure but no less important. He continued to work with Fermi’s team of scientists, who contributed to the first nuclear power plant. Although the process of producing energy from nuclear fission has become controversial because of possible dangers and resulting pollutants, the scientists involved in this project in the late 1940s believed that they were creating a revolutionary peacetime possibility from their military research. For Quarterman, this became the opportunity to study quantum mechanics under a world-renowned scientist, augmenting and strengthening his skills as a chemist and physicist. In 1952, Quarterman earned a master’s of science degree from Northwestern University.
The bulk of Quarterman’s work involved his skills as both a nuclear chemist and a fluoride chemist: he primarily occupied himself with creating new chemical compounds and, consequently, new molecules, from fluoride solutions. Van Sertima described the nature and significance of this work: “When Quarterman was going to school there were no ‘compounds’ of zeon or argon or krypton. These were... thought to stand sovereign and alone, reacting with nothing. But Quarterman and his team made them react with the fluorine atoms. They made zeon tetrafluoride—zeon difluride—zeon hexafluoride.... Quarterman took zeon difluoride and incorporated it in other experiments, making a whole series of new compounds.” Van Sertima concluded that “for a period of time they were the greatest fluoride chemists on earth.”
Quarterman also worked as a spectroscopist, studying the interactions between matter and radiation. Van Sertima compared this field of specialization to “a man peering into the depths of the universe with a dozen eyes or windows.... He can study the composition of elements in our universe that are either invisible or elusive or obscure to us.” In order to “look at” a highly corrosive solution, hydrogen fluoride, Quarterman developed a unique, corrosion resistant “window” made of diamonds—aptly referred to as the “diamond window.” It was after a long period of exploration that Quarterman succeeded with the “first discovery trial” of the diamond window in 1967. By 1971, his credentials were such that his alma mater awarded him an honorary doctorate of science in chemistry.
In the last twenty years of his life, before a paralyzing illness began to slow him down, Quarterman initiated research on a medical possibility known as “synthetic blood”—“work which,” Van Sertima commented, “had he been allowed to complete it, might have been one of America’s major medical accomplishments.” The reason that Quarterman was not able to continue with this work has never been explained, although “the loss of an opportunity to work on this project, which he felt might have saved thousands of lives,” is said to have greatly disappointed Quarterman. He told Van Sertima only that he “ran into socio-political problems.”
In his interview with Van Sertima, Quarterman was especially apt at describing his work—complex and specialized—in terms that made it exciting and accessible even to readers with little or no education in chemistry. Van Sertima noted that Quarterman devoted time to talking with black students in the Chicago public schools, demonstrating that careers in science are not only open to them, but also rewarding and interesting. Quarterman maintained a commitment to the African-American community in other ways as well, including dedicated membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Quarterman died of his ailments in the late summer of 1982, at the Billings Hospital in Chicago. Not surprisingly, the one thing noted in his obituary notice in Jet, aside from his work on the Manhattan Project, was that he had donated his body to science.
Groueff, Stephane, The Manhattan Project: The Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb, Little, Brown and Co., 1967.
Sammons, Vivian, editor, Blacks in Science and Medicine, Hemisphere Publishing Corp., 1990.
Van Sertima, Ivan, editor, Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, Transaction Books, 1983.
Ebony, September 1949.
Jet, August 9, 1982.
—Ondine E. Le Blanc
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