William J. Bair

Dublin Core


William J. Bair


Hanford Atomic Products Operation


"Dr. Bair was a pioneer in the field of health physics. he was employed at Hanford beginning in the era when GE was the prime contractor. He did innovative research on the effective [sic] of radiation using animal models." Interview with B. Bair on 10/25/2004. Includes "alligator story"




Hanford History Project




Those interested in reproducing part or all of this oral history should contact the Hanford History Project at ourhanfordhistory@tricity.wsu.edu.






Oral History



Alternative Title

T.2010.52.04 (CREHST #)



Oral History Item Type Metadata


Todd Kenning


William J. Bair




CREHST Oral History Project
TITLE: Dr. Bair Comment
INTERVIEW DATE: October 25, 2004
INTERVIEWED: William J. Bair
TRANSCRIBER: Robert Clayton

Dr. Bair was a pioneer in the field of health physics. He was employed at Hanford beginning in the era when GE was the prime contractor. He did innovative research on the effects of radiation using animal models.

DR. BAIR: I was born in Jackson, Michigan 80 years ago. Lived most of my early life in Ohio. I was drafted in to the Army in 1943. Prior to that for a few months after I got out of high school I worked on the railroad as a machinist in the roundhouse. So that was a good experience because I knew I wasn’t going to do that for the rest of my life. But anyway I was drafted in ’43 and served in the infantry for 3 years in combat in Europe. I was in Czechoslovakia at the end of the war in Europe. And then my division was shipped to the Pacific for the invasion of Japan. Of course by the time we got there the bombs had been dropped and I stayed as part of the Army of Occupation for I guess maybe up to 6 months. I think it’s ironic that the bomb of course one of them was fueled with plutonium saved my life. I talked to Glenn Seaborg about that on a couple of occasions because he had a nephew that said the same thing. But anyway it’s ironic that I ended up out here at Hanford doing most of my research on plutonium. The health effects of plutonium.

KENNING: And what year did you come out? Where did you get your schooling?

DR> BAIR: After I got back from the Army in ’46 I went to Ohio-Wesleyan University and got a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. And then I got a fellowship a National Academy of Sciences fellowship in Radiological Physics at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. That first year it’s what we call Health Physics now. They didn’t have that term or use that term at that time. And at the end of the first year I was asked by Newell Stannert a professor there if I would stay on as a graduate student. And I did that with the idea that I would do my research in radiation biology. The biological effects of radiation. But at that time they had no degree program so I was in the Department of Physiology for a year until they got that program established. I finished my PhD in 1954 and I received the first PhD in Radiation Biology in the world. That’s my one claim to fame. Incidentally my professor Newell Stannert he’s about 94 now and still alive in San Diego. I gave a lecture this last spring in his honor down in California. But then after I graduated and got my degree in ’54 I looked around for a place. I had options at Yale, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and out here. My wife and I decided we’d try the west. And they offered more money too, which was a big factor. But anyway we came out in 1954. I came out to do research at the cellular level. And within 2 years I was working on the effects of breathing radioactive material because at that time there were concerns about workers being exposed to plutonium, ruthenium, and other aerosols in the workplace. Also at that time there were ruthenium particles being dispersed in the plant environment out here. Most of them were large enough that you could actually pick them up. But they were still concerned about the people actually breathing them. Anyway that’s how I began to get into the inhalation area. I served in that position until about 1960 so that was about 14 years 15 years.

TODD: So that was the?

DR. BAIR: Inhalation of radioactive materials.

TODD: Did the program have a title?

DR. BAIR: Not specifically. It was the Inhalation of Radioactive Materials.

TODD: And the department you were working for?

DR. BAIR: I was in the Biology Department.

TODD: The Biology Department for the Department of Energy?

DR. BAIR: No no no this was back in the days of the Atomic Energy Commission.

TODD: Right oh ok still AEC.

DR. BAIR: Right. Now the Biology Department I should say something about the Biology Department. When the plant started up out here the management brought in Herb Parker from Oak Ridge. Herb Parker had been out in Seattle. He was an Englishman from Manchester but he had been at Swedish Hospital. When the atomic energy business got started they hired him to go back to Oak Ridge to start a program to look after the health of the workers. They knew nothing about radiation protection in those days. I shouldn’t say that because they did have some experience with radium and other things but certainly this was a totally new ball game. When the aspect or prospect of making plutonium and other radioactive materials was totally new. So they brought Herb in to organize a radiation protection program, a health protection program, at Oak Ridge. And he did that. Actually he really started the whole field of Health Physics. Then when Hanford began operations out here they asked him to come out here and essentially set up the same program. One of the first things he did was to hire Dick Foster, a PhD from the University of Washington in the fisheries department, to come over and set up a research program to monitor and study the potential effects of the operations here on the salmon and other aquatic life. Then they also began shortly after that to look at the other aspects of the environment. The terrestrial environment…the whole ball of works. I mean what was going to be the impact of this plant on this whole area?

TODD: What was the time frame when they started doing this?

DR. BAIR: They started doing this shortly after he arrived and I can’t tell you the exact date. I think I could find the date for you.

TODD: But approximately what year?

DR. BAIR: It was approximately 1953. Oh whoops I’m off by 10 years about ‘43/’44. Anyway one of the groups that they began to set up was one to look at health effects. And this was when they hired Harry Konanberg. I think he might actually have been at Oak Ridge too to come out and get started this biology department. Initially this whole operation was in the same group as the medical people, which was headed by Dag Norwood. Dag Norwood was one of the first persons to really develop a very effective a health surveillance program for workers in the atomic field. Of course he died a number of years ago but his legacy is still out here in the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation. But anyway shortly after that time probably around 1947 I suppose ’48 maybe even earlier they split off separated the biology environmental work from the medical. And they also at the same time separated out the health physics- the routine monitoring of workers and the film badges and all that kind of work they separated that out.

TODD: Ok when you came here in 1954 if you could tell us what your work was and kind of what it was like around here in ’54.

DR. BAIR: When I arrived in ’54. First I’ll tell you a little bit about the biology department that I joined. The main effort of the biology department had been was still looking at the potential effects of radioiodine. And they had a large herd of sheep that they were working with. Dr. Leo Bustad who eventually became dean of the Veterinary School at Washington State University was in charge of that program. They also had a herd of miniature pigs. And they also developed a strain of white pigs because they were interested in looking at the potential effects of these particles these so called “Hot” particles ruthenium particles on the skin.

TODD: What was the name of these particles?

DR. BAIR: Hot particles. That’s where that term originated. In this case they were particles of radioactive ruthenium. And these were crystalline materials crystalline particles that had been released from the separations stacks. So they were out in the environment. So one of the points they were looking at was what the potential hazard of those particles were when they fell on people’s skin. So they used pigs to do that.

TODD: And the white pigs were?

DR. BAIR: Good animals for that. They used the miniature pigs then for studies similar to what they had done for sheep. Miniature pigs were good because they took up a lot less space and they ate a lot less food. They were a good experimental animal and I think some descendants of that herd they developed out here are still being used in the pharmaceutical industry and other places. At least we sold some to some of those companies from the private Battelle herd. Anyway the emphasis there in the animal area was on the hot particles and the iodine. We were beginning to get interested in plutonium because there was a potential for people being exposed at the plant of course. The environmental people were going out and collecting samples from the field. Wayne Hanson, Bob Genoway was another one. They would get on a big Dodge pickup like vehicle they had a seat mounted up there and they would go out shooting jackrabbits. I have photographs of some of that. So they collected samples that way to see if any radioactive material was being picked up by those animals. Essentially monitoring the environment that way. They also had plant studies going on to try to determine whether the radioactive material if any of it that was released was causing any or would cause any problem with plant growth. Before I arrived back in the ‘40’s they had a farm across the river over at Ringgold that they farmed. They did that over there because it was far enough away from the site that it would not be contaminated. So they did some studies over there. So the biology program was pretty extensive when I arrived. The river problem was actually chromium because they used chromium in the cooling water to prevent to reduce corrosion in the reactor. So they were concerned about chromium toxicity in the aquatic in particularly in the salmon. A lot of work was done on that. There was a small group looking at fairly basic kinds of effects and that’s the group I was hired into. My boss was Frank Hungate who is no longer here. He’s in Seattle. I looked at microorganisms looking at potential genetic effects of radioactive materials. We were interested primarily in whether when you have a radioactive material when it decays it becomes another element. Sulfur-35 becomes a chlorine. So if you have radioactive sulfur in a biological molecule and all of a sudden becomes chlorine what happens? Could that trigger a mutation? So that was the first thing I actually worked on.

TODD: Excuse me sir. In microorganisms? What particular?

DR. BAIR: Ecoli was one of them and we used various yeast. Anyway our objective was to determine was that particular mechanism was the potential for causing mutations. We had some results that weren’t all that exciting.

TODD: That’s typical science isn’t it?

DR. BAIR: Oh yeah that’s right. And I don’t think anyone is looking at that area now. But after I had been there 2 years the man who had been hired. He was a physician. Ralph Waggert had been hired to develop a program looking at potential effects of breathing radioactive materials. He was working with 2 people: Lewis Temple his son is actually a physician here in town Edward Temple. Another one was Don Willard and another one was Victor Smith. And Victor Smith lives in Kennewick and Don Willard lives in Kennewick also. Ralph Waggert died suddenly and I was selected, elected, drafted or whatever to take over responsibility for that program. The reason I was asked to do it the University of Rochester had led the field in developing the technology for studying radioactive materials in the air radioactive aerosols. They had the aerosol technology program there. They began to do the studies. They were really leading the field. Primarily in uranium. A lot of uranium was being used in those days for the weapons program of course. And a lot of that dust was spread around in those big plants out here, in Oak Ridge, and other places. So the University of Rochester had this large program going on to study the toxicology of uranium. So since I was at Rochester some of that had to have rubbed off on me. I was supposed to have absorbed some of that. Well I had some classes.

TODD: Well it was so brand new the whole concept.

DR. BAIR: Well true. But anyway I was drafted to take responsibility for that program. And I learned a lot. I learned a lot from Lew Temple and Don Willard and the people who were already working in it. But we found from some of our first studies we actually were the first to prove that if you gave animals enough plutonium in the repertory tract if they inhaled enough you could eventually get some cancers. And I have to tell you that the idea that you can easily produce cancers, lung cancers, by inhaling plutonium is wrong. It was a long trial and error period to get just exactly the right dose. You could give them enough plutonium that the radioactivity would actually damage the lungs so severely that it would kill the animal. And of course if the animal died in a month or two months it wouldn’t live long enough to demonstrate a cancer. So we had to work hard to develop techniques that would really show if plutonium would cause a cancer. And we did finally find that you could give enough but not too much that you would begin to find a few lung cancers in mice and rats. I think probably the most important study along that line was with dogs. And this was, you asked about dogs earlier. At this time it was kind of rare for us to do work for other agencies we were working for the Atomic Energy Commission. But the Air Force was interested in the effects of plutonium because they were carrying bombs with plutonium in them. They asked us to do a study looking at the effects of being exposed to large amounts of plutonium aerosols. So we did that and we had a few dogs on the lower dose end that lived you know 2 years. And so we just we kept them.

TODD: What kind of dogs were they?

DR. BAIR: Beagles. Now we chose beagles because back in Cornell I was a graduate student. Cornell University had developed a beagle colony. They were looking for an animal species that would be useful for relating to potential human effects and I don’t even know what they were studying at the time. But they found that the beagle was a very good animal for this purpose. So they developed background information on beagle dogs. And that helped us because we didn’t have to do a lot of that it was already done. So we selected the beagle dogs for that study. We bought from licensed dealers we didn’t go around getting pets from anybody.

TODD: That’s pretty important that you did not go around taking people’s pets.

DR. BAIR: We eventually got some beagle dogs from I believe Washington State University and also from down in California at Davis. They had a beagle colony down there. But anyway we eventually had about 3 or 4 different groups of beagles and we set up our own colony. We raised our own dogs. WE were self-contained in a sense. And I might just add while were on this subject. Our dogs we had I forget just how many veterinarians we had working out there. Those dogs and of course the other animals too they had the full time attention of veterinarians and specialized animal care people. The dogs and all the animals were in probably the best facilities and certainly received better care than any animals in the community. They had the regular health check-ups and received all the inoculations they needed. And besides that they were well fed and cared for. We had probably some of the oldest beagle dogs out there that you’ve ever heard of. I think we had some living 18, 19 years because they were even though they had plutonium.

TODD: Well if you take good care of dogs there going to last longer just like human beings.

DR. BAIR: You know what the average life span of our dogs out there far exceeds the average life span of pets by many years. But anyway we did one of I think our first major observations out there was the fact that some of these dogs did eventually develop lung cancer so we continued to use beagle dogs to get some idea what the dose would be for a human. Trying to extrapolate from a dog to humans.

TODD: This was with plutonium dust did you ever do any with uranium dust here?

DR. BAIR: We did some with uranium ore dust somewhat a little later and radon. I don’t know whether you know about this or not but one of the earlier observations back in the early ‘40s was the fact that uranium miners were beginning to show up high instance of lung cancer. And it was difficult to know early on whether it was due to radon, whether it was due to uranium ore dust, with the residue from explosives they used in mines, the oil from the jack hammers the drilling equipment that they used all these factors arsenic all different things were in the mine. Historically back in the late 1800s over in Germany and Czechoslovakia they found that there was a high instance of lung cancer in hard rock miners. They were not I can’t remember now what they were mining at the time but arsenic was considered one of the factors.

TODD: Arsenic yes.

DR. Bair: And it wasn’t until the late ‘20s middle ‘20s that it was lung cancer. You know if you go back many years you never hear of lung cancer…consumption all various different kinds of things. But I think it was in the ‘20s that they diagnosed their problem as lung cancer and begin to feel that maybe it was radioactive material but you know radioactive materiel was not very well known in those days having only been discovered at the turn of the century. But anyway we did do studies with uranium and with trying to understand what in your mine environment was causing the problem. We eventually did find that radon was causing the problem. We also did some studies that combined radon with smoking because most of those miners smoked. The results are still kind of iffy. You couldn’t expose the dogs or rats or hamsters or any of the animals we used to this ore dust and have them smoke at the same time. So we either had to expose them to cigarette smoke before or afterwards. I think we exposed them afterwards had a little more effect more enhanced effect than if they smoked before they were exposed to the radon and ore dust. Anyway there was some evidence of enhancement by smoking.

TODD: Now you were doing that particular one with the beagles also.

DR. BAIR: We did that with beagles. We did that with hamsters primarily hamsters and beagles. We did studies with some of the fission products: cerium, strontium strontium-90, with iodine

TODD: That’s iodine-131.

DR. BAIR: Right. One of the things that we tried to test. One of the AEC atomic energy commissioners I think his name was Wilson. He was I believe a physicist. He wondered if you had in a rector containment vessel a release of iodine-131 if you immediately released a large amount stable iodine if this would not reduce the effect on the people that were breathing it. We do know that if you saturate the thyroid with stable iodine it won’t pick up near as much of the radioactive iodine but you gotta do this before hand. His idea was if you did this simultaneously. And we did find in some studies that yes you could reduce the uptake of radioiodine in the thyroid if you also got a big dose of stable iodine. But here again you are talking about something that itself can be toxic. Anyway I don’t think that they ever utilized that but we did show that under certain circumstances it was feasible.

TODD: Ok I’m going to change the subject just a little bit. Now you are going to add some things about the plutonium dust and americium.

DR. BAIR: Right. Back in the early ‘60s we were working with plutonium-239 the plutonium isotope that’s used in the bombs produced in the reactors. It’s the main product here. About that time Merle Eisenbud at New York University asked us if we hadn’t considered doing some studies using plutonium-238. Plutonium-238 is a very high activity plutonium. It’s much more radioactive than plutonium-239. It’s a very hot material. Thermally hot actually. It was beginning to be used in space flights and satellites as a fuel. It’s a thermal-electric fuel. They can use it to produce electricity. It’s a heat source used to produce electricity in the satellites. And it’s also used in some of the weapons systems I understand as part of the triggering system or something. I don’t know exactly. So we began to look at that and we went to my old laboratory in Ohio to get some plutonium-238. The first studies were very interesting. We found where as plutonium oxide is very insoluble, very insoluble the plutonium-238 is mush less insoluble than plutonium-239 oxide. If you put 239 oxide in your lungs it just stays there in the lymph nodes a long time. But if you inhale plutonium-238 even though it’s supposedly an insoluble oxide it begins to disintegrate primarily probably because of its high specific activity. It’s unstable physically unstable so the particle begins to break apart in smaller pieces and thus becomes more soluble. You know a greater surface area. So anyway this was a discovery we made here and I remember going back to the Pentagon and telling them about this. I was in a meeting with several admirals and generals from the Air Force, and the Army, and the Navy telling them they could not use plutonium-239 as a surrogate for plutonium-238 in their planning. They didn’t believe me. You have 2 isotopes same material they should be the same. But they did not. Anyway I had a couple of meetings back there trying to convince them. I did convince them of course that that was the case. But that had an impact on a lot of things. For example I was on a committee advising the space and the military people on this program putting these snap devices they called them in the satellites. Initially when they began to make these things they put the plutonium-238 in the oxide soluble form thinking that if they had an accident it would just burn up. And they did that. They had an accident and they just burned up. So what happened was we had plutonium -238 scattered all around the world. So anyway one of the things we did as a result of our studies we convinced them and the committee I was working with knew part of this or was part of this we convinced them that they should design their thermal electric system containing plutonium so that the plutonium was in a very insoluble form. So they then produced a ceramic form of plutonium-238 oxide which they use today. So if they have an accident and it comes back it’s going to come back in one chunk. And they have had a couple of those that have dropped in the oceans with no more worldwide contamination of plutonium-238 from that source. I want to say something about americium I want to tell you about some of these things that I feel I made an impact. Back in I think it must have the 1980s I received a call from 60 Minutes. This woman said, “You know we’re interested in doing a segment of a show on americium-241 because we know it’s used in smoke detectors. So we’re concerned that these smoke detectors after people get through with them they through them out in the trash and they go out in the dump and the source gets scattered all around. Well I told her I said, “You know I don’t think that’s a good idea. Because if you think about the lives that are saved by people using smoke detectors, Then you could begin to consider how infinitesimal the risk is, the health risk to people getting those materials and actually getting enough of it in their body. They could not get enough from one smoke detector to cause any problems. Well after several phone calls she called back and she said, “You know we agree with you, we will not do that show.” So I feel I made a real contribution (Laughter)

TODD: Well you know it’s funny when we tell people, everyday people that americium in the smoke detectors. We’ve had people say I am going to get rid of my smoke detectors. And that’s just silly.

DR. BAIR: Well if 60 Minutes had done that show it would have been terrible. And they didn’t do it.

TODD: Ok we’re going to get to the alligators now.

DR. BAIR: Ok back in about early 1960s we had an aquatic physiologist out there Bob Schifman who was planning to do some experiments to see how sensitive alligators were to radiation. In the radiation biology field we’ve done an awful lot of studies with various species. What you do is you can’t do these studies on people so you’ve got data from many species and then you begin to put man into this whole scheme of things. Where does he fit? He was going to do this study with some alligators. Well they had them in a can …should I show you a photograph now? This shows the 100-F area and down at the bottom is a picture of the Aquatic Biology area with some pens, fish pens. And Bob Schifman kept the alligators in these fish pens. I think he had 20 or 30 alligators maybe. Well one day a fisherman over at Ringgold well he picked up an alligator’ He was fishing on the bank and an alligator crawled up. So he took this alligator and displayed it at BB and M sports store. It’s no longer there. The people from the laboratory soon recovered that. . They came and got it of course. But anyway there was an alligator that had gotten loose in the Columbia River and a fisherman had found it.

TODD: Excuse me. How big was the alligator?

DR. BAIR: Well they were probably from 30 to 36 inches maybe 40” maximum. Bob Schifman took a position somewhere else so the alligators were sitting there and they were going to be destroyed. So I said oh we can’t do that. I’ll take over that study and I’ll go ahead and do it. So we did. We did a pilot study to find out how sensitive they were. We had to get this study going. Nothing had ever been done so we were starting from scratch. We exposed a group of 20 or around 21 or 22 alligators.

TODD: Now these were still about 3’ long?

DR. BAIR: Yeah about that size. So these alligators had gotten out through that fence. How we don’t know but they squeezed through there and headed right for the Columbia River.

TODD: What did you expose them to?

DR. BAIR: X radiation. And the timing was not good for what subsequently happened. We put them in the same ponds out there and I knew that obviously one had gotten away before. So the ponds are surrounded with chain link fence about 4 feet high. And we had plywood panels wired to the outside of that and overlapping so there would be no alligators getting out. Well that was not good enough because one morning our animal care-takers came out there and the first thing they saw was tracks going down to the river.

TODD: Now these were alligators that had been exposed?

DR. BAIR: Except for one. One was a control that was not exposed. The other 3 were exposed to radiation and we knew the doses and everything. We thought well we don’t want fisherman to find these alligators. So we got in touch with our management and with PR and they put a note in the paper saying that these alligators had escaped so people would know about it. But we were still working for General Electric Company then. That was before Battelle came in. And as happened that morning one of the vice presidents from General Electric was in town. So he picked up the newspaper. I think it was an evening paper in those days and there it was. He jumped on W.E.Johnson who was the plant manager. And W.E.Johnson obviously turned to Herb Parker who turned to Harry Konanberg who jumped on me. But we had already begun looking for the alligators. Going along the river. And we actually by that time we had found 2 of them. At that time the reactors were operating and the water from the reactors going back into the river was warm. And so the water along the shore was pretty warm and that’s where we found the 2 alligators.

TODD: What time of year was this?

DR. BAIR: I think it was July/August that time frame. Then they weren’t satisfied even though they knew we were doing this. Herb Parker sent a note to Harry Konanberg asking for a weekly report on what we had done to recover those alligators. So everyday I put out a crew looking for alligators. We searched as far down the river as Finley looking for 2 alligators.

TODD: You searched as far as Finley.

DR. BAIR: We did. We of course didn’t find them. But just the same I had to put a crew out everyday from I think the beginning of September until January. And every Friday I had to turn
In a report to Harry Konanberg who sent it on to Parker who sent it on to Johnson the status of our alligator hunts.

TODD: But you only found 2? So you still had 2 you were still looking for?

DR. BAIR: Still 2 outdoors. Well anyway finally January I talked to our aquatic people and they convinced me if there were any alligators out there the water’s too cold for them. So I sent a note to Konanburg and to Parker that we have done everything we could and we’re not going to find them. He agreed that we could cease our alligator hunts. We did expose some more to complete that study the following summer. Well actually we did that winter. But this time we housed them inside the greenhouse which is shown there on that the thing. Well the greenhouse was near the ponds and in there we could control the temperature. The water in the ponds at this time of the year was too cold for the alligators. So the next phase of the study we did with the alligators housed inside of the greenhouse. There was no way that they could get out of there and of course they didn’t. And actually we finished the study the following summer with another group of alligators. We didn’t loose any of those. But alligators was not a very popular subject among the management at that time. You know it was very serious then. I tell you it was serious because I’d only been there a short time and I was young in my career and it was not a nice thing to have happen. You know we look back now with a bit of amusement but it was not funny at the time.

TODD: Well the public is so paranoid about some of these types of things that I can imagine that you could get some pretty good stories about irradiated alligators there. And they would grow very large. Quite the old Woody Allen movie.

DR. BAIR: I’ve had 2 calls since then think back in about the 70s. A fisherman reported that
had gone in a bar and said he had seen an alligator in the river. I had enough evidence to show that they wouldn’t survive. Then I think about in the 80s maybe it was in the 90s I guess shortly before I retired I had a call from a fish and wildlife person. He said, “Do you know anything about alligators in the Columbia River?’ I said, “No sir.” That was the end of the alligators. I hope.

TODD: Yeah well they would have gotten to be pretty good size if they had lasted long. Ok now what were going to do.

DR. BAIR: (showing photograph) This shows the equipment we used for exposing the alligators to X-radiation. Alligators were placed in this circular plexi-glass box and the box was placed on a turntable. The box was rotated underneath the X-ray beam to insure that the alligators received uniform exposure to the radiation.

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Bair, William Transcript T.2010.52.04.pdf


CREHST, “William J. Bair,” Hanford History Project, accessed April 21, 2024, http://hanfordhistory.com/items/show/4623.

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