Alvin C. Graves

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Alvin C. Graves
Alvin C. Graves.jpg
Born 1909
Washington, D.C.
Died July 29, 1965(1965-07-29)
Occupation Physicist

Alvin C. Graves (1909–1965) was an atomic physicist and director of U.S. nuclear weapons testing for the US Atomic Energy Commission, predecessor of today's Department of Energy.

Graves was born in 1909 in Washington, DC, the youngest of six children. He graduated at the top of his class from the University of Virginia in 1931 with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and later earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.[1]

In 1942 Graves was an assistant professor of physics at the University of Texas when he was invited back to the University of Chicago to help build the first nuclear reactor, the (Chicago Pile-1). He was a member of Fermi's "suicide squad", assigned to drop buckets of liquid cadmium salts onto the reactor if something went wrong.[2] He and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth "Diz" Graves, moved to work at Site Y in Los Alamos, New Mexico, when it opened in 1943 and two years later he headed the Test Division there.[3]

Graves was badly injured in a 1946 laboratory criticality accident in Los Alamos that killed Dr. Louis Slotin. Slotin, who was training Graves to replace him in his position as chief bomb assembler for Los Alamos, was demonstrating the dangerous "tickling the dragon's tail" test to several other scientists when the accident occurred. Graves, who was looking over Slotin's shoulder, suffered an estimated 400 roentgen dose (by the rough knowledge of the time 500 roentgens was the amount which would kill half of the recipients). This caused severe radiation poisoning, loss of hair and a zero semen count, two weeks of hospitalization and a several week convalescence. He seemed to have recovered fully in a few months, work and skiing vigorously, with only a bald spot on the head to show for the experience. Two years later he fathered a healthy child, their second.[3][4]

Graves became dismissive of the radiation risks from nuclear testing; while serving as test director for the Nevada Test Site shots during the 1950s, he announced that the risks from fallout were entirely "concocted in the minds of weak malingerers."[3][5] As a spokesman for the Nevada Test Site, he would speak in local areas around Nevada assuring the population of no danger from the activities there. Graves managed many test operations, including the Desert Rock tests which exposed some military personnel to radiation, and the Castle Bravo test that irradiated many native islanders and test personnel.

According to Philip Fradkin in Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy, "Graves was a mainstay of the Los Alamos community. It was he who explained to the younger scientists that why their work was necessary to the defense of the country. He played cello in the Los Alamos Symphony, was an elder in the church, chairman of the board of the local bank, and three term member of the local school board."[3]

Dr. Graves died of a heart attack in 1965 while skiing in Colorado, twenty years after the Slotin accident, at the age of 54. A follow-up study in 1978 of the Slotin accident victims indicated that his death was possibly caused by latent systemic damage leading to heart failure from the accident.[4]


  1. ^ Becker, Bill, The Man Who Sets Off Atomic Bombs, The Saturday Evening Post, April 19, 1952, page 186
  2. ^ The Chicago Pile 1 Pioneers
  3. ^ a b c d Fradkin, Philip L. (2004). Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy. pp. 89–90. 
  4. ^ a b Hempelman, Louis Henry; Lushbaugh, Clarence C. and Voelz, George L. (1979-10-19). "What Has Happened to the Survivors of the Early Los Alamos Nuclear Accidents?". Conference for Radiation Accident Preparedness. Oak Ridge: Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. LA-UR-79-2802. Retrieved 5 January 2013.  Dr. Graves is identified in this paper as "Case 4".
  5. ^ Welsome, Eileen (1999). The Plutonium Files. New York, N.Y: Delacorte Press. ISBN 0385314027.