Alumnus’ Obit Raises an Interesting Question

We at UVA Today headquarters are usually the ones who present the news from around the University, but today I’m asking you, dear readers, for a little assistance.

Roy BrittenYesterday we came across the obituary of Roy Britten, a pioneering DNA researcher at Caltech. Britten was a graduate of U.Va., where he studied physics. Presumably, he worked with legendary U.Va. physicist Jesse Beams, as both ended up working on the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to build an atomic weapon. (Britten’s obit quotes his son, Ken Britten, as saying, “As a committed pacifist, he was always pleased to say that his particular project was a complete failure.”) Another U.Va. figure who worked on the Manhattan Project is Frank L. Hereford, who went on the become president of the University.

Which brings me to my question: Has anyone ever put together a good history of U.Va.’s participation in the Manhattan Project? It sounds like it could be a pretty fascinating story. (Then again, I would imagine that a lot of the source materials may still be under lock and key.)


4 Comments on “Alumnus’ Obit Raises an Interesting Question

  1. Britten’s picture, which you lifted from the Pasadena-Star News obituary, has Britten’s birth year as 1930. The error jumps right off the page for those who remember WW2 ended in 1945. Britten would have been 15. Britten was, in fact, born in 1919.

  2. The University Library’s Special Collections hold a number of sources rich in information about UVa’s participation in the Manhattan Project, including:

    Jesse Beams’ papers (

    a history of the Physics Dept. (

    a Dutch dissertation about the development of the ultracentrifuge (

    Official records are housed at the National Archives in Washington (

  3. In the index of Richard Rhodes’ classic book The Making of the Atomic Bomb (which is very much a history of the Manhattan Project), there is no Index entry for UVa, University of Virginia, Britten Chance or Frank Hereford. However, there are two entries for Jesse Beams (p. 146 which refers to Beams as a Yale colleague of E.O. Lawrence, and P. 316 which refers to Jesse Beams at the University of Virginia using high speed centrifuges for uranium isotope separation).
    In the US Department of Energy 1999 publication called: “The Manhattan Project. Making the Atomic Bomb”, p. 6 points out that the centrifuge method for isotope separation “being pursued by Jesse W. Beams at the University of Virginia, received much of the early isotope separation funding.” However, on p. 14 under “Separation Methods: Fall 1942″, it states that “the centrifuge being developed by Jesse Beams at the University of Virginia was the big loser in the November [1942] meetings. Westinghouse had been unable to overcome problems with its model centrifuge. Parts failed with discouraging regularity due to severe vibrations during trial runs; consequently, a pilot plant and subsequent production stages appeared impractical in the near future. Conant had already concluded that the centrifuge was likely to be dropped when he reported to [Vannevar] Bush on October 26. The meetings of November 12 and 14 {1942] confirmed his analysis.”

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