Interview with William Bair

Dublin Core


Interview with William Bair


Richland (Wash.)
Hanford Site (Wash.)
Hanford (Wash.)
Nuclear weapons plants--Health aspects--Washington (State)--Hanford Site Region


An interview with William Bair conducted as part of the Hanford Oral History Project. The Hanford Oral History Project was sponsored by the Mission Support Alliance and the United States Department of Energy.


Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities




Those interested in reproducing part or all of this oral history should contact the Hanford History Project at, who can provide specific rights information for this item.



Date Modified

2016-05-19: Metadata v1 created – [J.G.]


The Hanford Oral History Project operates under a sub-contract from Mission Support Alliance (MSA), who are the primary contractors for the US Department of Energy's curatorial services relating to the Hanford site. This oral history project became a part of the Hanford History Project in 2015, and continues to add to this US Department of Energy collection.

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Robert Bauman


William Bair


Washington State University - Tri-Cities


Northwest Public Television | Bair_William

Robert Bauman: Let's start by just having you say and spell your name.

William Bair: Okay. William Bair, B-A-I-R.

Bauman: Great, and my name is Robert Bauman, and today is August 14th of 2013, and we're conducting this interview on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. So I thought maybe we could start by having you first tell us what brought you to Hanford, how and when you arrived here.

Bair: Okay, well, actually it's kind of ironic because I wouldn't be here or anywhere if it were not for the atomic bomb and the plutonium that was produced here at Hanford. I was in the infantry during World War II in Czechoslovakia, and when the war was over in Europe, we were shipped to the Pacific. We had been trained for amphibious warfare, and when problems got tough over in Europe, they shipped us to Europe instead. So we were prepared and trained for Pacific warfare. And we got down to the Pacific, of course, the bombs had been dropped, and instead of going into Japan as an invasion army, we went in as an army of occupation. I have a few things I remember, but I think I should tell people that is when we got down to the Pacific, as far as I could see, there were ships. The ocean was just covered with ships prepared for the invasion--unbelievable. And then when we get into Japan, we had an opportunity to see what they had prepared for us. The division I was in was responsible for destroying a lot of the munitions, particularly naval munitions that had been stored and ready for the invasion. And a friend and I were sent up in the mountains in Japan. We took over a warehouse that was just full of rifles and all kinds of small arms. So the Japanese were really prepared for us. And I think people should know that, that if we had an invasion, if we had to go in through an invasion, there would have been a terrible loss of life from both sides. The Japanese people would have suffered immensely, and certainly the invasion forces would have suffered. So if anybody wants to argue the point for whether the bomb should have been dropped, I'm happy to take them on. Okay, how I got here--after I got out of the service, I went to Ohio Wesleyan University, got a degree in chemistry, and happened to walk by a bulletin board when I was a senior. I read a notice for fellowships in radiological physics. And I really didn't know a thing about radiological physics. I had applied for graduate school at Ohio State University and was accepted there, but I thought, well, I'll just check this out. So I had to take an exam and pass it and was notified that I had gotten a scholarship or a fellowship at the University of Rochester Medical School. What the training really was health physics. It was the first fellowship classes being funded by the Atomic Energy Commission, at that time, for training in health physics. So I took that for the first year and had some summer training at Brookhaven National Laboratory. And one of the professors, Newell Stannard, by name, asked me if I wanted to stay on as a graduate student and, sure, why not? I still had some GI Bill time left, and so I decided to use it, and so I was there working on a PhD until 1954 and then looking for a job. Well, one of my lab mates had worked here, Hoyt Whipple, he worked for Parker and had left there and gone back to Rochester. Turns out, his father was Dean of the Medical School at Rochester, so I thought he had an interest in going back there. But anyway, I checked around. I had an offer at Oak Ridge, another at Yale, and one out here. And actually it wasn't always the positive, the comments I got about here, but they offered more money, and my wife was pregnant at the time, so that made a big difference. And so that's how I got out here.

Bauman: Oh, okay. Now I want to ask a little bit more about that program at Rochester. So this was a fairly new program?

Bair: Yes, I was in the second class.

Bauman: Okay. And so were you one of the first doctoral students there?

Bair: Well, the radiation biology was totally new. In fact, when I started that program, they did not have it authorized, and I was in the physiology department at medical school for a couple years until they got it authorized. Now I did receive the first PhD in Radiation Biology there and, I think, in the world. Dr. Stannard always claimed that that was the first one in the world, so I won't argue with him.

Bauman: [LAUGHTER] You said you arrived in Hanford in 1954.

Bair: Yeah, in September '54.

Bauman: And what were your first impressions of the area?

Bair: Well, it was kind of interesting. At first, having come from Rochester, New York and lived in Ohio before that, I was amazed to see the big river here with no trees along the shore. I think my first impression, it seemed impossible. So anyway, it was obviously a company town, and that didn't bother me. It wasn't unattractive. Nothing was really negative about it, I can remember anyway. I think that the most negative comment I took back to Barbara was the fact that—the lack of trees. Her father actually was supportive of me coming here because he had been a comptroller at the General Motors plant in Rochester, New York, so he was a company man. So when he found out that General Electric was operating this plant, why, nothing wrong with that.

Bauman: [LAUGHTER] He approved.

Bair: Right, he approved.

Bauman: So you mentioned Richland was a company town sort of place. What was the housing situation at the time? Were you able to find housing right away?

Bair: Well, no, all the housing was controlled. There were two types of housing. One, certainly, owned by the government, built by government. Then there was another, I think maybe, two developments, one called Richland Village. Do you know where Richland Village is located?

Bauman: Mm-hm.

Bair: That had just been built. It was built, I think, by a private company, but I think underwritten by the government in some way. And so we took one of those. In fact, we didn't have a chance at one of the government houses. But after a year there, we did have anopportunity to move into a B house in South Richland, and we lived there until the houses were sold. I can't remember what year that was, but--and we actually bought the B house and converted it to a single unit because we had, by that time, two boys and another one on the way, I think, so we needed more room.

Bauman: And do you remember how much you paid for that B house?

Bair: I don't, but not very much--$4,000 or $5,000 maybe. I don't know. I think we sold it for $15,000, so we made a little money on it. [LAUGHTER]

Bauman: So when you came to Hanford then, what sort of work were you doing? Where were you, and what part of the area were you in?

Bair: Well, I was I trained as a radiation biologist, and so I was hired by Frank Hungate to work with him in cellular level studies. Actually we were trying to understand the mechanism for radiation causing health effects. And so it was really a pretty basic research. It was genetics, mutagenesis kind of studies I was doing. The theory that we were looking into was whether a radioisotope and carbon genetic material, when it decayed, it would become another element. And in that process, whether it would actually cause a mutation. We had no really positive, but we had some very successive results, but it didn't, certainly, make a big impact on the field. And then, after I was there two years--Barb and I'd agreed that we would stay at least two years; that we felt that was had to--you make a commitment. It's got to have some--we weren’t about to jump ship right away just because of the dust storms. I did have an offer from the University of Illinois back in Champaign, and it would be setting up a new program there on the campus. Fortunately or unfortunately, whichever way you want to look at it, Barb and I went back for an interview in August. Have you ever been to Illinois in August?

Bauman: I lived in Illinois for a couple of years, so, yes.

Bair: Oh, okay. Humid, hay fever season--Barb and I were a mess. [LAUGHTER] And so we came back, and I did receive an offer from them. But about that time, the person who was leading the inhalation toxicology program out here at the site died, and so they were replacing him. And since I'd been at the University of Rochester, where much of the pioneering work had been done on inhalation of uranium, things like that, they assumed that I knew something about it. And they offered me the job to stay on and manage that program. Well, with the hay fever situation—it was a good job. I hated to turn it down, in a way, but we did, and so we stayed.

Bauman: Do you remember the name of the person who ran the inhalation toxicology before?

Bair: Ralph Wager.

Bauman: Wager.

Bair: Wager--W-A-G-E-R. He was a physician. I had I met him, but he didn't live much longer after I got here. I think he was a very capable person.

Bauman: So how large was the inhalation toxicology program? How many people were involved in that?

Bair: When I took it over, there was three and a secretary. [LAUGHTER] And I was the only PhD. The other two were--one had a master's degree. I'm not sure the other one did. And then I think that's all. So we started out scratch. These were good guys. Really, I couldn't have been better off. I couldn't have asked for better people to start out a program, even though they didn't have the degrees. Lou Temple had studied histology. He was very good. He would qualify for a lot of pathology work. And Don Willard was a, I think, he was probably a primary chemist, but he was a--do you know the term Rube Goldberg?

Bauman: Mm-hmm.

Bair: Okay, he was a Rube Goldberg. You'd tell him what you wanted, he’d make it happen. He could do all kinds of things with nothing, in the shop or the lab or whatever. And we were inventing new territory. There was no technology, no publications showing us how to develop the technology, to build the technology, to expose animals to highly radioactive materials, which we had to do. And so he was largely responsible for putting all that stuff together. And engineers would look at him and shake their head, the trained engineers, but they couldn't do it. He could. [LAUGHTER] But we had a lot of help from other people on site. There were aerosol physicists working in other programs; they were able to help us. One good thing about the lab at that time was that they really believed in statistics, and they had statisticians assigned to us. And I'd come from the University of Rochester, where they really did preach the value of statistics in doing your research. You talk to a statistician before you start your experiment. You have them involved in designing your experiment, and that way they are way ahead of the game when it comes to interpreting the results. So anyway, that's how we got started. We had a certain advantage, in sense. We had, at that time, a program out there where we had military veterinarians coming in for training programs. So that gave us an opportunity to have an extra set of very qualified hands, and so we had and several veterinarians working with us on the program. And I think that--I can't remember the first one I hired. I think I hired a physiologist, a PhD physiologist. Then I needed a veterinarian because, I think, the military program was closing down. And I had a friend at Ohio State University. He had been a fraternity brother at Ohio Wesleyan, so I called him. He was at the vet school at Ohio State, and I asked him if he had any graduates who might be candidates for a job. Well, he had several, and so I went back to Columbus to interview these guys. And one, Jim Park was, I thought, the best one. He didn't have the best grades, but he was just came across as being the person I wanted. But there was a little bit of a problem, I thoughtpossible problem. He came from my hometown. And you know, you hire somebody from your hometown, it doesn't work out. The town, probably 8,000 or 10,000 people, word gets around. So anyway, I decided to take a chance. He decided to also take a chance, and it was probably one of the best decisions as a manager I ever made because he worked out very well. In fact, he worked on until he retired. In fact, he just died this last January.

Bauman: It was Jim Park?

Bair: Jim Park, yeah.

Bauman: So what was the home town? Where was it?

Bair: Bellefontaine, Ohio. Do you know that area?

Bauman: I do not know that area. I was born in Ohio, but I don't know where that is.

Bair: Okay, well, it's between Lima and Dayton, right in a straight line.

Bauman: So you said that this group started out very small. How much did it grow during the time that you were--

Bair: Well, during the time I managed that, which was probably ‘til about '68, I know we must have had--I can't remember--maybe ten, 15 people probably. I'd had foreign scientists visiting. I had one from Turkey, another from Japan during that period. That's probably about right.

Bauman: And so, the inhalation toxicology program, I guess, could you explain what sorts of things you were doing? Experiments and studies, whatever--

Bair: Sure, well, it turns out that the most common—the most frequent way people were being exposed on the plant—the workers being exposed on a plant to things like plutonium, particularly, was by inhalation--airborne plutonium in the processing plant and everywhere else they worked with it. And so not much was known about plutonium at the time, essentially nothing, because it's a new element. And there'd been injection studied at Berkeley, California at University California, Berkeley and other places, where they took amounts and injected it into experimental animals intravenously and sometimes just through the skin. These were not really duplicating the kind of exposure that people were having, because the people were breathing it. And so we had to do some research to find out where it goes and what the effects might be. At that time, we--I say we, meaning the scientific community--suspected that things like plutonium would cause lung cancer, but there was no experimental evidence, and no human subjects, there were no human exposures that had ever resulted in lung cancer. The main evidence we had for radiation causing lung cancer occurred in miners, particularly starting in Germany and Czechoslovakia. The hard rock miners were developing lung cancer beginning way back in turn of the century. And it wasn't until the 1920s they finally identified it was radon, the radioactive radon gas. It was causing lung cancer in these miners. So then, of course, with the development of the atomic energy program in the United States, there was a lot of uranium mining going on, and they were already beginning to see evidence of increasing lung cancer in some of the miners down in Utah and places like that. So there was reason to be suspicious, but there was no experimental evidence that it would happen. And so our studies there actually with beagle dogs showed that actually you could inhale enough plutonium to cause lung cancer. And I say enough, because we certainly showed that very small amounts would not do it. You had to reach some--I can't--you want to use the word threshold, but we don't know whether that's right, but some level amount before we would see those kinds of effects occurring. Our first studies were with mice. We actually put radioactive material and injected it into their trachea, and we had no effects there in those cases. As I said, we had the Air Force and military veterinarians on site. One of them was Jack Healey, who was then returned back to Sandia base. And then Air Force was very interested in plutonium for obvious reasons, because they carried weapons around that contained plutonium. And they contracted us to do some studies on the early effects of people inhaling plutonium oxide, the weapons grade plutonium. And they wanted us to use beagle dogs. Beagle dogs were an ideal experimental animal. They had been used at Cornell University in studies there. There was a big study at Utah, in which they were actually injecting plutonium and uranium and thorium into beagle dogs. Down at Davis, California, a veterinary school there, they had a large program using beagle dogs for external radiation. So beagle dogs were an ideal animal for research. So we did sign the contract with the Air Force to start the study with beagle dogs. And I think about two or three years in the study, we found the first lung cancer. And the lung cancer was rather unique because it was rather—it occurred down deep in the lungs where the plutonium was located. Plutonium is an alpha emitter. The radiation from plutonium only travels a few cell diameters. So wherever that material is located, the tissue around that's going to be pretty heavy irradiated. So if you have too much there, you're going to kill the cells. But if you don't have enough there, you're lessening the chance of having the kind of reaction that would result in the cancer occurring down the road. We'd had other findings. We found that one of the early effects of inhaling something like plutonium was a decrease in the circulating lymphocytes. And I don't think we ever have worked out the mechanism for that happening, but amongst all these animals that had a sufficient amount of plutonium would show an early decrease in the circulating lymphocytes. Now I'll just stop here a second. I mentioned Frank Hungate who hired me. He was working there, working at the time, and we had discussions about that and thought, well, maybe this could be used in some helpful way. Thought that if you could use this in some way to knock down the lymphocytes and knock down the immune system in organ transplant people or even treat leukemia patients, it would be worth looking into. So Frank Hungate did develop an implantable blood irradiator that had radioisotopes in it and that you could actually implant into a person and run the blood vessel through it, so you're irradiating on a continuous basis the circulating blood. He had that and implanted it in dogs and in goats. He had had considerable interest from the commissions, but not enough money was put up to take it much further than that. So it never got into clinical trials. Anyway, that's a spin-off from that kind of research. Another we found, too, is that the plutonium was very insoluble, and so it was just like an insoluble metal. And it would accumulate when it was inhaled into the lungs. The clearance mechanism would actually move that plutonium into the lymph nodes. There are a number of lymph nodes throughout the lungs of man, but most of the effective ones are right around the bifurcation of the bronchi. And we found that the concentration of plutonium in these lymph nodes was, after a short time, was much higherthan the concentration in any of the tissue of the lungs. So this was a mechanism to protect the individual because we never saw any primary cancers originating in lymphatic tissue in any animal. So we had thousands of animals in our experiment. So that was a very interesting finding. And while I'm on the subject of plutonium, we also did some studies with plutonium-238, which is another isotope of plutonium. The 239 is used in the weapons, and the 238 is a shorter half-life plutonium. The plutonium-239 has a half-life of about 24,000 years. So, in a sense, it's not very radioactive. But plutonium-238 has a half-life, I think, of something like 80 years. It's very reactive--radioactive. In fact, it's so radioactive that it's hot, thermally hotAnd if you take a particle of it—and we did see this frequently—and have it in a plastic, like Plexiglas, it would actually melt down into that, it was so hot. We did experiments with some of those particles, and they essentially melted tissue, but I don't think we ever saw any serious effects of the material. But the interesting thing about plutonium-238 was when you had the same form, oxide form, insoluble form, and animals inhaled it, it did not remain in the lungs or lymph nodes very long. More of it started to become soluble and move to the liver and other tissues like the skeleton. Well, at that time, this is in the early '60s, NASA and the Air Force were using plutonium-238 as a heat source in thermoelectric generators. They use them in space vehicles. They use solar panels for some of them, but this was a source that could be totally contained in a space vehicle. In fact, a number of those out in space are powered with plutonium-238. But they'd had—when they first started that program, they had a failure or two. I think one of them is called a SNAP device. I don't remember what that stands for—Space Nuclear something Program. But it burned up on reentry out in the Pacific, and the fuel at that time was pretty soluble, and it just spread all over the Earth. Everybody inhaled it--very small amounts. It's like fallout from weapons testing. And when we began to show them what the problem was with plutonium-238 oxides, they decided they’d better change their fuel source. And from there, they developed another one. It was actually a ceramic that was almost indestructible. It would withstand high temperature fires. So we did contribute to--our results did contribute to the space program and to the use of plutonium-238 as a heat source in these thermoelectric generators.

Bauman: I was going to ask you about—so, how were these inhalation experiments conducted in terms of the dogs? How were they--how did they inhale the—I guess what were the specifics of that?

Bair: Okay. All right, well, like I said already, we had to develop all this technology. And the important issue—well, several important issues--one, we had to do it without contaminating ourselves, and the second is we wanted to be able to control the amount they inhaled or at least to be able to measure it. First thing, it meant that in order to protect ourselves, we had to do it within a glovebox containment of some kind. So we had to work through gloves and all that kind of stuff. So then first, we started working with rodents, and we started mostly with mice and then rats. We got a plastic cylinder. We had good shops here at Hanford. They would build a plastic cylinder, probably that much in diameter, any height we wanted. And then we'd drill holes all around. The aerosol would be administered at the top, and we had a continuous airflow through it, and the exhaust would go through several different kinds of filters to make sure that none of it got out. Then we found that in order to contain the rats, for example, there was nothing better than the old fashioned Coke bottle. You know what I talking about--the Coke? Okay, well, we cut the bottoms off the Coke bottles, and that expanded area just was ideal for the lungs area of the rats. So we could put the rat in the bottle, put a rubber stopper in the back, and they were totally comfortable and could breathe very easily. And then we just plugged these bottles into these holes in the chamber. And then, of course, we collected aerosol samples during all this time, so we could actually get some idea of how much they were breathing. And then we also collected samples that we could characterize in terms of particle size. And that's one of the findings we did come up with, and we found that the particle size, the size of these particles, had a lot to do where the material deposited in the lungs and how long they stayed there and so forth.

Bauman: So how did that work with the dogs then?

Bair: And with the dogs. We taught the dogs to sit with a mask on their face, and the mask then was connected to the chamber. And the dogs were in their own little glovebox, actually, attached to the main glove box, which had the aerosol chamber around it. Dogs are really lovely to train. You can train them to do anything, if you want to, and we had so many veterinarians around. And actually the lifespan--the average lifespan of our dogs, even the ones on experiment, far exceeded the average lifespan of dogs in the public sector because they had so much care, and they had--well, some of them had weekly physical exams and 24/7 care.

And so how long were you involved, then, with the inhalation toxicology, running that program?

Bair: Well, I think about it was about 1968 when Dr. Kornberg moved to another position. Dr. Kornberg had been hired by Herb Parker in 1947 to come here and take over the management of the biology program. This included the health and environmental sciences. And in about 1968, he took another position in the laboratory, and by that time, Battelle had come in and replaced General Electric. And I was fortunate enough to replace Dr. Kornberg as manager of the biology department, and that's when my hands-on research kind of went down the tube.

Bauman: [LAUGHTER]So how large of a department was that then in 1968?

Bair: I don't know. I would say--I think I have it on my cheatsheet, okay?

Bauman: That’s fine.

Bair: Actually, I didn't think about that. Yes, 214 people, or 200 people. And started out with a size of a group, I said here was two, and it grew to about 21 when they left the program.

Bauman: And so you said you weren't really doing research yourself then.

Bair: No, I was shuffling papers then. But I still wrote papers and certainly was working with the scientists who were doing the hands-on stuff, obviously.

Bauman: Yeah, so what sorts of things was the department doing in general?

Bair: When Battelle came in, things changed quite a bit. Before that, almost all of our research was directed toward Hanford production problems. I should mention a few, if it's okay. I think some of the most important work had to do with developing biokinetic models for the radionuclides. We had to develop--the protection was based on dose to people and individual organs. So, they had to develop models to describe where the radioactive materials would go when they went into the body. So a lot of work was done to develop these models. Another big program was in studying the ingestion of radioactive materials like plutonium. It was necessarily to know what percentage, what fraction of the material that you ate and went through GI tract would be absorbed. It turns out that you can eat a lot of plutonium without having very much of it go into your body. I think I tried to duplicate with some material, oncea big chunk before you'd ever have any health effects resulting from it. It's just so insoluble. Then another major program was developing methods to treat people who might be contaminated. We called it decorporation, trying to remove the—particularly plutonium—traces in the body's tissues. It's there. It's staying. You have to go to extreme means sometimes to get it to move out and excrete it. And that's what you want to do because you're reducing the dose in the process. So that really started pretty early on in the early '50s and then by John Blue and several others. Morris Sullivan came on about same time I did, and he kind of latched onto ingestion route of intake, studying the absorption across the gut wall, and also effects of ingestion of radioactive materials. That contributed a lot to the models used today. You'll see his papers referenced in many of the publications. Then the other was, as I mentioned, decorporation. The program was started on a small scale before I arrived, and another scientist, Vic Smith, arrived shortly afterwards. He was from Montana. He was a chemist and still here, incidentally. He went on and started working on that program and was very successful, and it was very important. It really paid off when we had that accident out at the 200 Areas, when a man by McCluskey was exposed to a big dose of americium. Vic Smith synthesized the DTPA, the drug to treat this man. So it really couldn't have been more timely. We had a guy here who could synthesize the drug and tailor fit it to the treatment. And actually today, it is the recognized treatment for any intake, accidental intake of many heavy elements like plutonium. 

Bauman: And so you wereyou directed the biology department beginning in 1968?

Bair: Yeah, I think it was about that time.

Bauman: How long did you do that, then?

Bair: I'm using my cheatsheet here. I can't remember. Yeah, it's about 1973. Okay, 1973, then it changed. The department was actually--I can't remember if it was still the AEC then or not. I think it might have been. They wanted somebody whose full attention would be paid to their programs here. So--[COUGH] excuse me. Maybe I should take a break and you can edit this out. They wanted somebody, I said, to have a full sense, a full-time responsibility of paying attention to their programs. And so Ed Alpen, who was the director at that time, convinced me that I should be the one to do that. And initially, I actually went back and worked half time at Germantown headquarters. That was not a good time for us. We had two boys in high school and another one in junior high school. It was a tough time for Barbara especially, because I would fly back to Washington, work for two weeks, come back here for two weeks, back and forth, and back and forth for—gosh—over a half a year. And then, finally, I took the position. By that time, they had a replacement for me as manager of the bio department, because I was actually doing, I think, three jobs at the time. And so then I was full-time director of the Life Science program, which included the environmental programs, the atmospheric sciences--everything that they funded. And I did that for several years—for a long time actually. Well, the title changed and some of the other things changed with it, but I did essentially that same job until about 1986, when they reorganized and the Life Sciences Center was formed, and I assumed responsibility for the Life Sciences. And that included toxicology, health physics, epidemiology, molecular biology, did I say toxicology?—some radiological physics. It was a broad-base health, medical program. It included considerable medical research too.

Bauman: That must have been a fairly large group.

Bair: I think I had something like 500 people.

Bauman: And you did that until when?

Bair: I did that until—well, I was trying to retire, but, why, they wouldn't let me retire until they got a replacement. And so I think I did that until '94, I think it was. I should send say something about Bill Wiley. Do you know the name?

Bauman: Sure, yeah.

Bair: Bill Wiley was a biologist. He was a molecular biologist. And I was manager of the biology department at the time, and his supervisor, his boss of that section, was moved to Seattle, up to the Battelle Center at Seattle. Yeah, it was the doings of people back in Columbus, the Indians, somebody over there. So he went over there. So I needed a replacement, so I twisted Bill Wiley's arm to take that job. He didn't want do it. [LAUGHTER] But I finally convinced him, that was the thing to do. And so I really lost a good scientist, but obviously the laboratory at Hanford got a darn good manager, and that worked out well. Eventually, I think he resigned himself to it, and was happy it went that way.

Bauman: So I was going to ask you a few questions. At some point, Hanford shifted from focus on production to focus on cleanup.

Bair: Mm-hmm.

Bauman: I was wondering how that shift impacted the sorts of things you did, or the people who were working with you at all?

Bair: No, I pretty much--I don't remember much of that happening until after I left. I know there was some concern out at the Tank Farm because there was some toxic gases coming off, and they were interested in our helping to try to identify them. But the cleanup hadn't really gotten--at least we were not involved in the--

Bauman: If I go back a little farther, President Kennedy visited Hanford in 1963.

Bair: Who?

Bauman: President Kennedy.

Bair: Okay.

Bauman: I wondered if you had memories of his visit at all—were you here, did you go to that?

Bair: No, I don't really--no, I don't remember much about that time. I can't remember. I remember his coming, but I don't remember--I didn't see him. [LAUGHTER]

Bauman: Okay. What do you think were the most challenging aspects of the work you did at Hanford, and then what were sort of the most rewarding parts of it?

Bair: Well, probably the most challenging probably was not the science. It was what you had to put with as a manager. [LAUGHTER] I think I was happier as a scientist than I was as a manager. I probably ticked off a lot of the people who were providing support. Because I was probably not—they probably didn't view me as the most cooperative in many ways. But it was frequently frustrating. I know I had considerable issues with the team at salary time, because people in the salary administration didn't always agree with my assessment of performances of some of my staff. So I had to fight a lot of battles there. I had some successes. One of them I have to tell you about is that during the '60s, we were out at 100-F Area; the biology labs were out there. And during the '60s we were really trying to get new laboratories built in the 300 Areas. And we had everything going great for us, a design and everything, and all we needed done was the final authorization, the money. And it was around Christmas time. I don't remember exactly which year it was now--probably, I can't remember, '68, '69 maybe, '70The local Kiwanis Club met at our house for a Christmas party. And Sam Volpentest was there. Do you know the name Sam Volpentest? And he came up and said, Bill, how's that new laboratory coming? And I said, it wasn't. I said that Nixon had sequestered the funds. You know the name sequester, that word? I don't think I'd heard it. I'd never heard it before that, or I don't think I've heard it since then until recently. But the money was sequestered by Nixon. Well, Sam said, well, you know, I'm going to be in Washington next week. I'll see what I can do. And I think it was within two weeks, that money was turned loose, and we got our building. He made a believer out of me, and probably a lot of other people though the years. So, I felt that was a success.

Bauman: Any other events that stand out to you as look back at your years at the Hanford or incidents or strange occurrences or unique things that kind of happened?

Bair: Well, I know we had a few threats of a union strike. And since we were way out there, we spent a few nights sleeping on the autopsy table because we had to have somebody there in case something happened. But it wasn't until much later though, that we had any union members, the animal caretakers, I think, not until after we moved in here did they join the union. So most of the people working out there, scientists, scientific staff, were not union. But the craftsmen were, so we dealt with them. We had no problems working with those people. We just had to obey the rules. I remember one situation. We were—well, we talked about beagle dogs. I'll tell you how we got those. At first we tried buying them. And when you buy anything in the government, you have to go out and bid, and the lowest bid wins. Well, I remember one shipment of dogs came inbeagle dogs came in. Those dogs are about that high. They had the longest legs of any beagles I'd ever seen or could even imagine. I don't know what they were called. So we shipped those back. But after a few episodes like that, we decided we had to raise our own dogs, so we developed our own colony. We had three strains of beagles. We got some from Davis, California. Actually, Washington State had a beagle colony over there, I forgot to mention that. And we got another source from I can't remember where else. We had three strains, so we can minimize the inbreeding, and we did have a geneticist down in Portland who would guide us in our breeding program so we wouldn't have any problems that way. Let’s see. What else was I going to mention? I can't remember now what else.

Woman one: Bill, can I ask you something?

Bair: Yeah.

Woman one: So Gary Peterson always tells me to ask you about the alligators out there?

Bair: Oh, jeez.

Woman one: [LAUGHTER]

Bair: Gary was a neighbor. Of course, I knew him when I worked out there too. He was one of the guys I used to bug. Well, there was an aquatic physiologist out there who had gotten some alligators. He was going to do some radiation studies with them. But before he could get started, he left for another job. But while he was there, he did have alligators in the pond out behind the lab out there. It was not too far from the Columbia River. And I think one of them got loose, went into the Columbia River, and some fisherman found it, turned it into a sports' shop downtown, and it was displayed and all that kind of fuss, all that kind of stuff. And then when he left, being a radiation biologist, I knew that nothing was known the sensitivity of alligators to radiation. So I said, well, rather than having them destroyed, I'll take them. So I volunteered to take them, used the same facilities. Except I thought that we ought to beef it up a little bit. So there was a chain-link fence around it, and we had plywood put around also and wired to it. And then, for some reason, those alligators were able to squeeze those boards apart and get loose. Well, there were five of them that had got loose. Three of them were irradiated, and two of them were controls. Well, I talked to, I think, probably Gary Peterson. He was in public relations at the time. And we agreed that it would smart this time, rather than let somebody find them, we will report it to the media. So we did. But at the time, it was not very good because we were still working for General Electric at that time. So that dates it then for us. That night a Vice President from General Electric arrived in town. He got up the next morning and looked at the newspaper. There it was--big headlines--alligators released to the Columbia River by General Electric scientists and all that kind of stuff. And he raised hell. He jumped on W. Johnson, who was the plant manager. He jumped on Herb Parker, who worked for him, and he jumped on Harry Kornberg, who was my boss. So guess whoso I was ordered to put out a search team on the Columbia River until we found those alligators, and we did. I had a crew go out every day. And every week, every Friday, I had to turn in a report. They went to W. Johnson what we did to find the alligators. Well, at that time, the reactors were operating. So water along the shore was still pretty warm from the cooling water, and so the alligators kind of hung along the shore. I think we caught all but two. I think there was one control left and one irradiated. I figured the irradiated one died. But sure enough, in process, I think another alligator crawled up by a fisherman. I can't remember now. But I think maybe by the end of the year, we had gone out. We never found anymore alligators, and so there was still those two missing. And I finally got a note back from Parker saying I could relax the hunt for the alligators. But, you know, in subsequent years, I had calls from people. I had a call from some Wildlife guy over on the other side of the river. That was back--gosh, that must have been in the '80s. He wanted to know what I knew about alligators in the Columbia River. I said nothing,” and hung up. [LAUGHTER] And then there was another one, I think, more recent than that. I can't remember now. But that's the story of the alligators. Well, actually, it was interesting, also, the alligators were really not very sensitive to radiation. But we did find that the sensitivity varied with the temperature at which the alligators were kept. If you put them in warmer water, the effects were magnified, were increased. So their metabolism had a lot to do with the effects occurring in these cold blooded animals, which no surprise there.

Bauman: So what was the time period when this happened?

Bair: Well, it was the early '60s, so it was before General Electric. So it must have been like '63 probably.

Bauman: I wanted to ask you another question, too, about these inhalation studies. You mentioned earlier that beagles were sort of ideal for this. What made them ideal? Was it their trainability?

Bair: Their size. Their trainability. Because an awful lot of data had been collected by other laboratories on their physiology and biochemistry, diseases, everything. So we didn't have to do all that background work. We had it already--the pathology, everything. All we had to do was to go to the literature. So they were made to order. Another animal would have been more ideal in terms of respiratory tract. Believe it or not, a horse's respiratory tract is more like man's than most of the other species. We looked into getting miniature horses, but, well, that didn't go very far. They were going to be too expensive. I should say--you didn't mention anything about the swine, about the pigs we had out there. One of the early studies out there, of course, was studies on radioiodine. I'm going to mention sheep first. When Parker came here, he knew that there was going to be a problem with radioiodine being released because he'd seen that happen on Oak Ridge. And so he had the experimental animal farm, which was led by Leo Bustad. We haven't mentioned Leo, but I should, because he was a graduate veterinarian from Washington State University, and he was hired here in '48, I think, by Parker. He worked here until the mid '60s, and then he went down to Davis, California for several years, quite a few years. Then he became dean of the Vet School over at WSU. So roundabout--and, in fact, there's a building with his name on it, the vet school. Anyway, his first job was to do studies on the uptake and effects of radioiodine in sheep. And the sheep, because they were raising animals in the area, and there was obvious concern about what would happen if they got into the sheep. There were also cattle. They did a study with cattle. Those were very important studies because there were claims later on from people and farmers, sheep farmers in Utah about sheep being exposed to fallout. While the results from the lab here from Leo’s studies really proved that it was not radiation. They were eating a toxic weed that caused the death of those sheep. The farmers, I don't think they believe us yet. But that's really what happened. We also did studies with pigs, because, as Leo said, you could take the GI tract of a pig and put it next to a GI tract from a man, and you'd never be able to distinguish the two. They looked exactly the same, so they did ingestion studies with pigs. Now, they have developed a miniature pig that would weigh, when it was full size, about 180 pounds. A standard man—a standard man for most calculations, is considered to be 180-pound man. And then he also developed a miniature white pig for skin studies. So he could—white skin is obviously better for skin studies than a normal pig color skin. Anyway, I need to mention those two studies because they were very important.

Bauman: So those were in inhalations?

Bair: They were not inhalation. We did try an inhalation experiment with sheep, with iodine-131 at one time, and only once. A sheep has no control over its bodily functions. It was a mess.

Bauman: So you were involved with that program until about 1968. How long did the inhalation studies continue?

Bair: They continued--in fact, they developed into a very profitable toxicology program, inhalation toxicology program at Battelle, and I think it's just now recently closed down. So it got off to a good start and had a long run.

Bauman: And how about the animal studies in general, how long did those continue? Was there ever any sort of opposition to that from the public at all?

Bair: No, actually, we fared very well. Our veterinarians were very astute about those kinds of situations. Our public relations people, Gary Peterson and his people, they would talk to us before they responded to anything, so we worked together to avoid problems. And we thought we would have, when we moved our dogs into the 300 Area because you could hear them bark on certain days. But we never had a [INAUDIBLE]. None of these outfits got to us, and they were over in Seattle. They caused problems over there--PETA and those people.

Bauman: Obviously security was a very important part of Hanford site. I'm assuming you had special security clearance. I wonder if security impacted your work at all?

Bair: No, it really didn't. I think the first impact was when people came here for an interview. We were interviewed at the hotel. And we never saw where we were working until we got here. Have you ever been out to 100-F Area?

Bauman: A long time ago.

Bair: A long time ago. Okay, well, it looks like a prison. No windows. So first the first thought when you go in there, your first day of work, you know, what am I getting into? But inside it was a really good lab. But that was a first impression. The security, of course, we had the security clearance, and we had to have every paper we published cleared by the security people. Parker, I think, he read everything that we published, and then the security people went over itThe only thing that they objected to was anything that referenced the amount of radioactive material that went into the river, concentrations of radionuclidesin the Columbia River, any releases or anything like that. Because they felt that that was a possible way of somebody finding out how much plutonium was being produced. I don't know how, but I'm sure there were people monitoring the temperature and things like that.

Bauman: You mentioned earlier--you mentioned Herbert Parker. Are you involved with the Parker Foundation, and or have you been?

Bair: Well, I founded it.

Bauman: Right, so do you want to talk about that some?

Yeah, I knew Herb from the day I arrived here, and he was a tough managerreally tough. He didn't give you any slack. [LAUGHTER] Things had to be just right, and people who did stupid things had a tough time with him. But he insisted on quality, integrity. He really, really had high standards for everything we get did out there. And he supported our research fully. As I said before, I think he read everything we wrote, so he knew what was going on. He also was a strong supporter of a symposium series that we put together, back in about—it started about 1960. We had an annual symposia in biology and included the environmental sciences, too. He was a strong supporter of that. I worked with him. He was my boss at one time. I worked with him very much in the Institutional Review Board, setting up a human subjects kind of a review. So when he died, I felt that he ought to be recognized in some way, and I knew, of course, that he has interest in education, and so I talked to a couple people at PNNL, the controller of the time, I think it was--I can't remember who it was. [INAUDIBLE], I thinkand decided to go in and set it up as a not-for-profit. It wasn't associated with Battelle or anybody else, a not-for-profit foundation. We went to the state and got all that approved and so forth. Then the whole idea was to have an annual lecture sponsored by the Parker Foundation to coincide with the symposia each year. And so we did that for a number of years. Then, when I retired, I felt that there was a good chance that Battelle was not going to be around forever because their contract was limited. And Battelle was helping us fund the lectures, so their money, their support was helpful--very important, actually. So I talked to Doug Olesen, who was head of Battelle at the time and he agreed that there ought to be some way of being sure it was maintained in perpetuum some way. So I talked Jim Cochran, who was--he wasn't called Chancellor, I don't think, was he?

Bauman: Dean, it was Dean.

Bair: Dean, yeah, and I was amazed at his enthusiasm. [LAUGHTER] I thought I was going to have to sell something, but I didn't. And Ron Waters, at the time, was on board. He had replaced me. So we talked to Jim, and he explained, and the rules haven't changed to this day, as far as I know. He told us that we had to get $25,000 before we could actually have it identified as a separate entity within the foundation, and so that was our initial goal. So that's taken off, and a number of other people have joined the board, and several of them have died, of course, through the years. And I'm hopeful that it will continue, because not only for the fact that I want to see Parker continue to be recognized for what he did here, but I think it has an opportunity to provide some real benefits to the WSU and the community. So it's kind of, in a sense, now a dual thing. We have the fund which is associated with the WSU foundation, but then we also have the foundation as a state—whatever the terminology is. So we can operate independently if we need to. If we want to do something that WSU may not want to be associated with, I don't what it would be, but anyway.

Bauman: Most of the students I teach now were born after the Cold War ended.

Bair: Mm-hmm. Probably that’s true.

Bauman: And I teach a course on the Cold War.

Bair: Oh, great.

Bauman: For some of them it's something they did not live through at all. So I wonder if you could talk about, especially in thinking about future generations or even the current young generation, who wouldn't really have lived through the Cold War, what do you think is important for them to know about working at Hanford, especially during this Cold War period?

Bair: Well, there was certainly visual evidence of the Cold War, because when we moved here, they had anti-aircraft guns sitting out here, and they eventually had missile sites and all that. But as far as the program's concerned, I think the only thing that reminded us of it was the security and the classification. But during that period, I attended meetings in Vienna and other places and interacted with Russian colleagues and exchanged publications, information, without any problems at all. I do remember that one time that I came back from a meeting where I had met with Russian colleagues, and I don't know whether it was the CIA or some agency wanted me to come down and talk to them about my impressions of the Russian side of it all. And I didn't think it was appropriate, because I thought that was essentially making spies out of scientists. We squared off. They understood my position, and I understood theirs, so it was noI think that for the most part, scientists are pretty much engaged in the science itself. Because we were doing things that no one has ever done and first time, really. Every experiment was publishable, which is unbelievable. But through the years, I really had some wonderful opportunities, many of them associated with the Cold War. Infact, I was involved with the Chernobyl accident. I guess I was part of the Cold War. Well, I can tell you about that, if you want me to.

Yeah, if you would.

Bair: Okay. Well, when the Chernobyl accident occurred, we had, at that time, the atmospheric sciences people had a couple of airplanes here. And I heard some indication that that cloud from that accident was coming this direction. So we put those planes up to collect samples all the way down the coast. And since that was part of my program at the time, I had a lot of interest in the possibility of doing that. And I had full support of the people back in headquarters. People downtown here weren't all that enthusiastic about it, but I had support from the people who were paying the bill. And so we got some the first information about the fallout from Chernobyl coming down to the United States here. And then I was involved in meetings in Vienna and also at Chernobyl and looking at the health aspects and predictions of health aspects. I chaired a committee for the DOE at that time of scientists looking at the health environmental aspects of it and put out a report or so.

Bauman: So you essentially worked at Hanford for almost 40 years, roughly.

Bair: Well, I started in '54, and '64.

Bauman: Ended upin like '94, something like that?

Bair: That’s right, '54 to '94.

Bauman: You must have seen a lot of changes take place. I'm wondering, what were some of the more significant changes you saw take place both at Hanford and maybe even in the community of Richland itself?

Bair: Well, I think the biggest change in Hanford, and then I'd say, several ways--maybe I can just start. One change is that when General Electric was here, we had one management, one boss. It was the plant boss, okay? And I’ve looked at since then, can anybody count the number of bosses we have here in this place now? I don't know how they keep track of everything that's going on. It's so spread out and soSo fortunately, I haven't had to deal with any of that, but I've just seen it happen. It seems like it’s impossible. And I mentioned that to Doc Hastings once, and he said, well, it's a lot more complicated now. Well, you know, I think about what could be more complicated than building reactors and producing plutonium and separating it all out for the first time? So anyway. Then the other thing, of course, from the Battelle standpoint, is that the program has diversified. So we've had people doing all kinds of things, and it started during my time. We had big chunk of the artificial heart program at one time, using pigs. In fact, people don't know this, I'm sure, that some of the basic research done for ultrasound--you go in for a ultrasound these days--some of the basic work was really down here by Mel Sycoff, who was a biologist who did work on neonatal and fetal systems, and John Dykeman and Percy Hildebrand, they were the engineers setting up the system. That was the basic work for it. I don't know what happened. I assume Battelle must have gotten some patents and sold them to somebody. Then also some of the veterinarians got involved with the material sciences. People who developed the tooth implants and also implants for joints. They developed a complex metal void system. It was like a metal sponge with lots of holes in it. I can't remember whether it was zirconium or what kind of metal it was now. But so the bone tissue would grow into it, and you wouldn't have to use glue and cements like they use now. Same thing with tooth implants, same kind of system. So the bone would actually grow in. And they had implanted these in pigs. Now can you imagine any human having a stronger bite than a pig?[LAUGHTER] So those really were very well supported tooth implants. So there was a number of outgrowths of the program that paid off.

Bauman: Is there anything that I haven't asked you about or anything you haven't had a chance to talk about yet that you would like to talk about?

Bair: While I was managing these programs, I did get involved in a number of activities off-site. [INAUDIBLE]. Well, I'll mention a couple of them. I got involved in the Marshall Islands situation. You know, the Marshall Islands where they conducted the weapons tests? There was one particular island where they had done these one-point detonations where they did--it was called safety shots where they were just detonating a weapon and spewing plutonium all over the place. It was not a nuclear detonation. It was just a chemical detonation, in a sense. So the Army was involved in trying to clean that up, and so I got involved in chairing a committee that was going to advise them on how they should do that and so forth. So that was a kind of an interesting experience. I got to ride helicopters all around the islands out there and sleep in the admiral's quarters. [LAUGHTER] Actually, they built a dome over one of the craters, after they hauled the contaminated dirt and dumped it in one of the craters. Then they filled it in with concrete. Anyway, I went out there one day in a helicopter and landed on top of it--that dome. So I had some cool experiences that way. And the Marshallese were concerned about their health and the health of their children as a result of being exposed to all that. So the Department of Energy wanted to write some booklets to try and explain to them what the health risks were. And so I, with two other people, Jackie Lee from Los Alamos, and a scientist from DOE, we co-authored three books, one on Bikini, one on Eniwetok, and one on the Northern Marshall Islands, trying to describe in the Marshallese language what the risk was for those people living there and their descendants and so forth, and try to explain what happened. We worked with a missionary from the Marshall Islands. She was aI can't remember what church. She had translated the Bible into one of the languages out there, so she worked with us. And also we had an editor from here, Ray Ballman, who lives across the river here. He actually has a PhD in French. That didn't make him able to speak Marshallese, but he understood how you translate. And so the book was actually written in Marshallese and translated into English. So we the books actually had the Marshallese language version and in paragraphs below that, the English. I don't know whether it to helped the Marshallese understand the situation or not, but it was, I think, a worthwhile effort and certainly very interesting to work with those people. I have a lot of respect for those Marshallese people who were essentially pushed off their land.

Bauman: What time period was this, 1950s?

Bair: This was--I did this work in the 1980s.

Bauman: Oh, in the 1980s.

Bair: Yeah. The lawyers, by that time, had gotten out there and stirred things up, so the Marshallese were really very, very concerned about everything.

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Hanford Sites

200 Area
300 Area
100-F Area

Years in Tri-Cities Area


Years on Hanford Site


Names Mentioned

Stannard, Newell
Whipple, Hoyt
Bair, Barbara
Hungate, Frank
Parker, Herb
Wager, Ralph
Park, Jim
Blue John
Sullivan, Morris
Smith, Vic
Alphen, Ed
Wiley, Bill
Volpentest, Sam
Peterson, Gary
Kornberg, Harry
Olsen, Doug
Cochran, Jim
Waters, Ron
Sycoff, Mel
Dykeman, John
Hildebrand, Percy
Lee, Jackie
Ballman, Ray


Bair, Bill.jpg


Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities, “Interview with William Bair,” Hanford History Project, accessed May 25, 2022,