A True Atomic Narrative: An Interview with Julie Coryell

Jessilyn Dagum, Staff Writer


Saint Martin’s has been known to host a wide range of spectacular individuals, each with their own story to tell. I had the honor of sitting down with one of our campus guests to learn about her father’s contribution to the creation of the atomic bomb, as well as her experience growing up in a culture of secrecy.

“My name is Julie Coryell. I was born on Christmas Eve, 1943 in the secret, segregated, dry city of Oakridge, Tenn. Oakridge was the site of three big projects that were geared to find a way to process Uranium to make fuel for the atomic bomb.” Julie Coryell is a guest speaker in Saint Martin’s University’s Atomic Narrative class. Her father, Charles Coryell, played a significant role in the chemistry behind the atomic bomb. “The chemist’s story is less well known than the physicist’s story,” says Julie. Their role in the Manhattan Project was equally as important.

Julie’s father accepted a position in the Manhattan Project in 1942, for which he was Chief of the Fission Products Section, both at the University of Chicago and at Clinton Laboratories. Coryell, along with his group, was responsible for characterizing radioactive isotopes created by the fission of uranium and for developing a process for chemical separation of plutonium. Julie went on to tell me, “I was the first child born in X ten of the Clinton Labs. That was the pilot reactor for the reactor at Hanford.” It was at the Clinton Laboratories, where Julie’s father, along with Jacob Marinsky and Lawrence E. Glendenin, discovered the previously undocumented rare-earth element 61, which her mother would go on to name. “One day the scientist said to my mother, ‘Grace Mary you’re a poet. What should we name this new element?’ and my mother said to them, ‘Well it’s been awhile since I’ve taken chemistry, remind me, what’s an element?’ and they told her, ‘it’s something from the earth that hasn’t been discovered before’ and she said to them, ‘it reminds me of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and was punished for the act by Zeus. I think you’re playing with fire.” Thus, element 61 was named Promethium: A name coined from her mother’s poetic mind. Julie shared with the Atomic Narrative class a poem her mother wrote about the first colored photograph of Trinity Bomb test in Los Alamos.

“I don’t always understand the chemistry, but I know the language. My mother was a poet and my father was a chemist.” Julie went on to explain what it was like growing up in the Atomic age so close to the creation of the atomic bomb. “A child is always wondering but also scared too of imagined and real implications of parental work.” When asked what her experience was like growing up, Julie replied, “It was a very cosmopolitan experience. My father was on a first name basis with some of the major scientists of his time. He once had a stunning battle with Glen Seaborg, the Nobel Prize laureate.”

One of the most memorable things Julie said to me during our interview was, “My father learned that the notion that’s really important in science is: you’re important by the ideas you produce. Not our age or your status or your extensive experience. He took to the Manhattan Project a very egalitarian and trusting attitude to the young men he hired. Many had been his students in California. He felt that if you outlined what you were doing as best as you could, people engaged, and they often produced. People rose to the occasion.”


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