War And Peace: Leo Szilard's Nuclear Legacy

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The men and women who invented the atomic bomb would be horrified at its worldwide proliferation. Foremost among those scientists was Leo Szilard (1898-1964), arguably the first physicist to conceptualize an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. Szilard possessed an uncanny ability to see what was coming, and in fact got out of Berlin in 1933, one day before the authorities there began restricting exit visas. Safely in London, he was puzzled by Lord Rutherford's pronouncement that the atom would never be harnessed as an energy source, and as an avid reader of science fiction, he wondered if an element could be found whose nuclei would each release 2 neutrons upon bombardment by a single neutron. Realizing the implications of this exponential reaction, he had the foresight to take out a patent on the idea, thus delaying nuclear research in Europe for years.


Newly arrived in the U.S., Szilard worked secretly with Enrico Fermi in Chicago to build the world's first nuclear reactor, and was instrumental in galvanizing both the American scientific community and the Roosevelt administration to mobilize hastily to produce a fission weapon before the Germans did, putting him into direct competition with his old mentor, Werner Heisenberg, who didn't like Hitler, but naturally wanted Germany to have the bomb.


After the successful test of a plutonium implosion prototype in July 1945, Szilard reversed course 180 degrees, leading a group of renegade scientists opposed to the use of the bomb in warfare. With an Allied victory all but certain, he argued against using it on the Japanese, who did not have a nuclear weapons program. He feared the precedent of using the new technology, realizing this was a seminal moment for humanity. After the war, Szilard dedicated the rest of his life to seeking world peace and fostering better communication between nations, as well as embarking upon a second career in biophysics. The many "firsts" attributed to him also include the breeder reactor, a reactor cooling system (for which he collaborated with Albert Einstein), and the linear accelerator, which is essential in the modern delivery of radiation therapy.


Szilard's final challenge epitomized his outlook on life - diagnosed with bladder cancer at age 60 in Denver, where his wife was a professor, he got a second opinion in New York from Dr. Willet Whitmore, who recommended a radical cystectomy and ileal conduit. Always the maverick, Szilard declined Dr. Whitmore's advice and designed his own cobalt therapy, under the direction of Dr. James Nickson at Sloan-Kettering. He subsequently remained cancer-free for 4 years, until he died in his sleep from an MI.



Lawrence Wyner
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