North Central College - Naperville, IL

Dr. Carl C. Gamertsfelder '35: A Witness to the Launch of the Nuclear Age

"It seemed a little magical to me,” was how the late Dr. Carl C. Gamertsfelder ’35 described the nuclear reaction that took place at the University of Chicago on December 2, 1942.

The setting was not a modern science lab with high-tech instrumentation but instead a crude reactor fashioned out of a “pile” of layered graphite and uranium, located under the squash court stands at the university. He watched as a cadmium control rod was inched out of the pile by Dr. Enrico Fermi, who used a slide rule to calculate how far the rod had to be pulled to initiate the chain reaction.

This experiment marked the beginning of the Manhattan Project, which led to the construction and use of the first atomic bomb by the United States in 1945.

In 1995, Gamertsfelder shared his comments about the historic day during an oral history conducted by a representative of the U.S. Department of Energy. The nuclear reaction experiment started that morning but the team called things off and went to lunch at noon. After lunch, when the group realized they achieved the first sustained nuclear chain reaction, they celebrated by drinking wine from paper cups. Watching from a doorway during the reaction was the “suicide squad,” who would’ve run to the pile with a substance to quell the experiment if necessary. “They were called the suicide squad because they would be going toward the place you wanted to get away from,” Gamertsfelder said. “They recognized that things might have gotten out of hand.”

Gamertsfelder came to North Central in the 1930s with a family legacy. His father was Carl Gamertsfelder, Class of 1909, and his grandfather was the Reverend S. J. Gamertsfelder, Class of 1878, professor and president of the Evangelical Theological Seminary. The young Gamertsfelder graduated with majors in physics and mathematics and then went on to complete his master’s and doctoral degrees in physics from the University of Missouri. “I took some education courses and I tried to find a job teaching,” he said. “And thank goodness, I didn’t find one.” He was recruited to Missouri by Dr. Newell Gingrich ’26, who had contacted Dr. Clifford Wall, professor of physics, to find potential graduate students.

Gamertsfelder worked on the Manhattan Project until 1944 when he was transferred to Hanford Engineer Works in Richland, WA, to help in the design of the first atomic reactor. He later worked at General Electric in its Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Department to study how high-performance nuclear reactors could be used for aircraft propulsion. Later his other research evaluated the possibility of using plutonium-238 in nuclear reactors to generate heat that could be used to manufacture electricity for space missions. This research was utilized by the Apollo mission to provide energy for the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM)—the moon landing vehicle.

Gamertsfelder was named by the Health Physics Society as one of the true founders of the field of health physics, which involved studying the consequences of radiation on humans. During his oral interview, he described various incidents of radiation exposure to himself and his co-workers and experiments that were designed to find how plutonium might affect humans (by painting a small area on the arms of the subjects). He was considered to be a pioneer in the field of radiation detection and measurement. He also served on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In 1975, he received the North Central College Alumni Association Outstanding Alumnus Award for service to profession and society. Gamertsfelder died on October 2, 1996, yet his groundbreaking work continues to reflect North Central’s tradition of excellence in the sciences—a tradition the College plans to sustain with a new 21st century science center.