Rochester author's book tells the story of her grandfather's role in the race to build an atomic bomb
"Wilhelm's Way" by Teresa Waldof highlights the role of Harley Wilhelm and his process for creating pure uranium in 1942.
ROCHESTER — Rochester author Teresa Waldof’s first book is a history about the Manhattan Project, the race to produce the first nuclear weapons during World War II.
On another level, it is a biography about the life of Harley Wilhelm, an Iowa chemist who played a key but largely unheralded role in building the atomic bomb. Wilhelm was also Waldof’s grandfather.
On Dec. 2, 1942, physicist Enrico Fermi and Leo Sziland created the first controlled nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago.
But the achievement would not have been possible without uranium pure enough and in sufficient quantities to create the first atomic weapon. Wilhelm’s contribution was to develop that chemical process on the Iowa State campus.
Prior to their discovery, scientists had been able to produce mere micrograms of the highly pure uranium. Wilhelm and other scientists in his lab would eventually produce 60,000 pounds a month of this "very dangerous material," Waldof said.
Scientists had selected isotopes uranium-235 and plutonium-239 because of their ability to undergo fission. Fission happens when a neutron strikes the nucleus of an atom, splitting the nucleus into fragments and releasing a huge amount of energy.
But while the famous physicists behind the Manhattan Project — Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard and Fermi — are household names and the subject of serial movies and books, chemists like Wilhelm have existed in history’s shadows.
Scientists had known about uranium for more than a century, but it wasn’t until the race to harness its power that scientists were able to unlock its secrets for both good and ill, ushering in the Atomic Age.
Waldof said her book, “Wilhelm’s Way: The Inspiring Story of the Iowa Chemist Who Saved The Manhattan Project,” sets out to correct the historical record. It also tells the story of an unassuming Iowa farm boy whose intelligence and work ethic propelled him to the top ranks of scientists, and whose life intersected with an epic moment in history.
Waldof was formerly interim executive director of The Civic Theatre.
PB: What was your grandfather’s role in the Manhattan Project?
Waldof: My grandfather was a chemist, a metallurgist who was brought on to the project. Initially, his job was to find a substitute for pure uranium. At the time, Arthur Compton, (a Nobel Prize winning physicist who oversaw the project) did not believe he was going to have pure uranium in time for his experiment that took place on Dec. 2, 1942.
My grandfather was working on that, but on the side, he worked on the purity problem, because that was what the physicists really wanted. And he is the guy who figured out how to purify uranium and came up with the process.
Author Richard Rodes wrote the definitive account of the effort to build the bomb with his book, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” He doesn’t mention your grandfather. Why do you think he did that? And do you think it was an oversight?
It was an oversight. The physicists had this theory that you can have a chain reaction. It was the physicist’s theory. It took the chemists’ work to be able to make that theory possible and prove it. And Richard Rhodes, I think, was really talking to the physicists. He wasn’t going and talking to the chemists.
When did you begin to learn about your grandfather’s role in the Manhattan Project?
It took time for it to sink in. In 1986, a building on the Iowa State campus was named after Wilhelm, and I was there for that. And (one of the presenters) there said that if it weren’t for Harley Wilhelm, “we would all be speaking Japanese.” It’s an overstatement. I think we’d still have won the war. But the point was what Wilhelm did was so critical. We did not invade Japan, because of what Wilhelm was able to accomplish.
What was your grandfather like?
He was just kind of a jovial guy. He had the look of a kind of crazy professor with spiky hair. He was a happy, friendly guy. I didn’t realize he was so humble because that’s who he was. But when he died and we opened up his closet, it was filled with all these awards. I was so surprised that he was way more than I ever realized.
You were too young to ask, but do you know whether your grandfather had any qualms about his involvement in a project that led to the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and killed tens of thousands of people?
I think he felt bad that a lot of people died. In the last third of the book, I talk about the neighbor boy, Eddie Miller, who died in the Battle of the Bulge. So people they know are dying in the war. They want this war to end. We don’t want to invade Japan. How many millions of people are going to die if we invade Japan? As horrible as it is, the number of people who died from the atomic bombs, a lot more people would have died if we had invaded.
I talk about this in my book. We firebombed Tokyo in March 1945 and it killed more people. (It is estimated that the attack on central Tokyo left an estimated 100,000 dead and over one million homeless. In comparison, the bombing of Nagasaki resulted int he immediate death of between 39,000 and 80,000 people).
The other thing about your grandfather was that he was a tremendous athlete. In 1961, he was named one of the 100 greatest athletes in Drake University’s history. Your book says that he once bounced a basketball off the ceiling and into the hoop.
In 1912, basketball bounces into town, and he learns how to play basketball. And he’s a phenom. I was able to find an article from 1914 when he was in eighth grade where he scored every point in the game. And then, in college, he did the same thing. He was a phenomenal basketball player. He was also a really good baseball player. He was a semi-pro and got asked to be on a professional farm team.
Your book is a self-published work. Self-publishing can be a hit or miss proposition. Yet the book has been recognized by two national book award organizations, Writer’s Digest and the Independent Author Network. To what do you attribute the success?
I attribute it to my process. It took seven years from conception to published work. I did all the research. I took a long time organizing the story. I belong to a Rochester writers group. So when I started the very first chapters, I would take them to them and get their feedback. And then I would rewrite it. And then I had beta readers, I had six beta readers read the book before I ever showed it to an editor. I took that feedback and used it to try and improve it and raise the level of that book before I ever put it in front of an editor.
Wilhelm’s Way is available in paperback or online as a Kindle book on Amazon. It can also be ordered through Waldof’s website at teresawaldof.com .