The Magazine of the University of Minnesota Duluth

Volume 22 • Number 2 • Summer 2005


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Nate Ballou / Kathy Telza


            When Nathan E. Ballou played the tuba in the Duluth State Teachers College band and studied chemistry with Professor John C. Cothran, he had no idea that within one year he would be deeply involved in a secret race between the United States and Germany to see which country would develop the first atomic bomb. In an amazing series of events, Ballou found himself working on the Manhattan Project in the summer of 1942.

            Here's how it happened. After graduating from DSTC in spring 1941, Ballou attended the University of Illinois to work on his doctorate in chemistry. He remembers "sitting in his dorm room on a Sunday afternoon in December, listening to the radio with some of my classmates." They heard the announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor. "We realized that it would affect us, but we weren't sure how." War was declared, and the draft was instituted, but it took a while for things to go into motion. Ballou received a student deferment in order to finish out the school year. Shortly after that, a recruiter from the government interviewed students who might be interested in war-time work. Ballou was interested and was hired, but at the time, he didn't know what exactly he would be doing. He left the University of Illinois and went to work in a research lab at the University of Chicago.

            "As we got into the job, the nature of the work was revealed," he said. "We were working on the atomic bomb project." It was called the Manhattan Project. The groups were assembled to work on all of the different aspects of creating fuel. The name didn't reveal anything about the nature of the project. The two efforts of the project were to produce plutonium in a nuclear chain reactor and to separate the uranium-235 isotope from the more abundant uranium-238 isotope. Ballou worked in one of the groups in the plutonium program.

              The first objective of the plutonium program was to produce a nuclear chain reaction by the end of the year. The world's brightest scientists assembled in Chicago. "We worked with the luminaries," said Ballou. "Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, and Glenn Seaborg. They were all there, even Arthur Holly Compton, the Physics Nobel Prize winner."

              The scientists established the practice of evening lectures and each presented their specialties. "Szilard, Fermi, Seaboard, and Compton all gave lectures. We became radiochemists together. In the evening we learned, and during the day we did laboratory work."

            There was a tremendous drive to get the bomb. "We knew the Germans were working on it," said Ballou. "They started a year ahead of us. Werner Heisenberg, Otto Hahn, and Fritz Strassman, the leading German scientists, were in Germany conducting fission research. There were speculations about how they would do it. We were using graphite as a moderator, to slow the neutrons down. We thought the Germans would use heavy water as a moderator because they had captured the heavy water plant in Norway."

            Ballou was put in a group under Charles D. Coryell to separate fission products. "Our group discovered a large number of unknown radioisotopes," said Ballou. "It was fascinating because so much needed to be identified." It is complicated to describe the work Ballou conducted. Physicists and chemists know that atoms of a particular chemical element may have many isotopes with the same atomic number but different atomic weights. If an isotope is radioactive, it is referred to as a radioisotope. In Coryell's group, Ballou examined fission product radioisotopes that had been produced in cyclotron irradiations of uranium. A cyclotron accelerates particles (protons) around a circular race track in a magnetic field with periodic pulses of an electric field.

            These high-energy particles strike a target such as uranium and produce fission products, which are dissolved and the radioisotopes of each element are separated into pure forms. Then Ballou and others in the group analyzed them to measure the half life, decay routes, and radiation characteristics of their beta- and gamma-rays. "We were responsible for identifying and characterizing hundreds of fission product radioisotopes," Ballou said. "In addition, we needed to determine the fission yield of each radioisotope. What were the most important radioisotopes? How did their yields compare? We had to provide the quantitative data."

            The work of Ballou and others in Coryell's group supported parts of the plutonium program. These included the chemical process to be used for separating purified plutonium and evaluation of radiation properties and hazards of products of nuclear reactor operations.

            Fermi built an experimental "pile" to demonstrate the feasibility of a controlled nuclear chain reaction. He assembled the components (6 tons of uranium and 250 tons of graphite for use as a moderator) in a squash court in the abandoned University of Chicago stadium, and on the afternoon of December 2, 1942, the pile achieved a self-sustaining nuclear reaction.

            From that time until the war's end in the summer of 1945, experiments for the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory consumed Ballou's life. Each week, he worked from Monday morning until Saturday at noon. "We would even have to come in on Sunday or in the evenings if we were following the decay of a radioactive product," he said.

            Ballou stayed on at Oak Ridge for a few months after the war to finish up his research and in early 1946, he went back to graduate school to work on a Ph. D. at the University of Chicago. "One of the nice things about that arrangement was they allowed us to use our wartime research as our thesis. That was a big advantage." Because of his wartime research efforts, Ballou received a National Research Council Fellowship. "I didn't have to teach," he said. "It was very comfortable." Ballou did have to study hard for his coursework and preliminary chemistry exams. Each preliminary exam was a full day, and he took four of them: organic, inorganic, physical, and analytical.

            The fission product research done by Ballou and others in Coryell's group was collected and published as part of the National Nuclear Energy Series, which was an account of the research done in the Manhattan Project.

            Ballou went on to take a postdoctoral fellowship with Glenn Seaborg at the University of California at Berkeley. A year later, he was hired by the U.S. Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory (NRDL) in San Francisco. His task, one at which he worked for about 20 years, was to look into radiological problems that the Navy might have in the nuclear age. His team looked at the radiological situations arising from explosions of nuclear devices that were occurring in the U.S. nuclear testing program at the atolls in the south Pacific Ocean. He also continued his research in identifying and characterizing new fission product radioisotopes.

            During this time he attended a deep underwater explosion of a nuclear device. "We traveled far into the Pacific, to an area with little sea life," he said. Several members of his team from the laboratory were stationed on the carrier as observers. "The detonation was so deep, there wasn't a mushroom cloud," Ballou said. "First a shock wave traveled up to the surface and threw a fine spray several hundred feet into the air. We could feel the shock wave hit the ship. Then a bubble worked its way up to the surface and burst."

            In 1959, Ballou took a year and a half break from NRDL and was loaned to the Belgium Nuclear Energy Center, about 50 miles from Brussels, to take over the direction of the chemistry department. At that time, Belgium had control of what was known as the Belgium Congo, in Africa, where there were large uranium deposits. "I was able to expand my knowledge and experience in the nuclear field, as well as to provide some assistance to their research programs," he said. "It was also a chance to live in Europe."

            In 1969, Ballou left the naval laboratory and took a job at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory operated by Battele in Richland, Wash. It is the job he still has today, working more than half time, at age 85.

            "I'm working on Department of Energy problems now," he said. Ballou still conducts research in radiochemistry, mass spectrometry, and new analytical techniques. "I work with post docs, and I really enjoy that," he said.

            Einstein's relativity theory marked, above all, the point from which there was no return. The harnessing of the atom in the 1940s changed the nature of war forever, but it also offered a new source for electrical power generation, and improved medical diagnostic techniques. Nuclear technologies have stirred emotions and controversy, but the engineering achievements related to their development remain among the most important of the 20th century, and Duluth State Teachers College alumnus, Nathan Ballou, was right there making those achievements happen.

            "I'm deeply grateful to the college and to the devoted teachers who gave me such a good start to a full and satisfying career," he said.

Nathan Ballou


-- Cheryl Reitan, with Dr. Bilin Tsai and Tricia Bunten



            When Kathy Tezla decided to honor the memory of her mother, Olive Anna Fox Tezla, it wasn't a surprise that she chose to do it by making a gift to UMD.

            Both Kathy and her mother had strong ties to the university through Kathy's father, Albert (Bill) Tezla, now retired, who taught English at UMD from 1950 to 1982.

            Kathy had lots of opportunities to become involved. Even as a child, while attending the Lab School on the lower campus, she took swimming lessons in the Physical Education Building. "UMD was a huge part of our life," Kathy said. "My whole family watched my brother, Michael, perform in school plays in the Old Main auditorium, as well as other college plays on both the upper and lower campuses."

            As UMD made history, the Tezla family was there. They were all in attendance when the Tweed Museum opened. They saw the legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham perform in the Romano Gym, and they heard the late CBS News commentator Eric Severeid give the UMD commencement address. "The faculty parties, the art exhibition openings, and seeing my father march at commencement are some wonderful memories. When our father was director of convocations, he would take my brother to the UMD movies." The Tezlas also traveled. The whole family accompanied Bill on his research trips to Vienna, Budapest, and London.

            When they were in Duluth, Kathy's mother, Olive, was active at UMD. "My mother enjoyed entertaining so we always had students around," Kathy said. "She wanted to make their lives pleasant,   and I think they appreciated it." In addition, Olive took studio art and jewelry classes at UMD. Olive also developed a strong interest in the Tweed Museum of Art and volunteered there for many years.

            While Olive was busy at UMD, Kathy's career took off. "Early on I knew that I wanted to be a librarian, and Rudy Johnson, former director of the UMD library, hired me every summer throughout my undergraduate years -- exposing me to all facets of library work. I worked for Lorrie Bissonett, helping her dismantle the Lab School's Library and getting it ready to be moved up to the upper campus." Initially the children's collection had its own area, but now it has been integrated into the rest of the UMD book collection. "It was bittersweet to lose the ambiance, the wonderful wooden bookcases, and the sense of a library space just for kids. At least the teaching value of the collection for the Department of Education was recognized and thus the collection was moved intact for future teachers to continue to use."

            Kathy spent time at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, working in special collections and rare books in the Wilson Library and earning her master's degree in Eastern and Central European History. Her next adventure was a position at the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress at the Hungarian and East German Desk. She went on to receive a degree in library science at the University of Michigan that ended with a position in the library. From Michigan, Kathy took off for Atlanta where she worked in the collection development at the Emory University Library and finally landed back in Minnesota as head of collections at the Carleton College library.

            There are many Tezla family stories that prove how much Kathy and her parents love music. Kathy tells of taking the Northstar train from Duluth to attend concerts at Northrup Auditorium. Kathy also remembers her mom and her dad telling the story of how they met. Olive was a ward nurse at a Chicago hospital. Bill became her patient after he underwent emergency surgery for appendicitis. At the time, he was doing his undergraduate work at the University of Chicago. From his bed, Bill asked Olive, "Do you like classical music?" and their long life together began with dates to Chicago concerts.

            Kathy has sung in choruses all through school. While the family lived in Budapest, Kathy was invited to join the internationally famous University of Budapest Béla Bartók Choir. She has stayed in touch with the group, occasionally performing with them and honored with lifetime membership in 1964.

            Given all of these ties to the arts, to UMD, and to music, Kathy made a decision. "I had been thinking about a tribute to my mother," she said. "My dad already set up the Olive Anna Fox Tezla Scholarship Fund and I have contributed to that, but I wanted to do something special myself." Kathy bought a seat in the UMD Weber Music Hall. A plaque honoring her mother has been placed in its lobby. "I was thrilled when UMD opened the Weber. Because Mom was so interested in the arts and because the hall was such an incredible space for music, I knew it was the perfect tribute. She would be just tickled pink. Now, when I attend a concert, it will be as if Mom and I are listening together."

Olive, Kathy, and Bill Tezla

-- Cheryl Reitan

            Naming opportunities are available in the Weber Music Hall, the Marshall Performing Arts Center, the UMD Library, the Labovitz School of Business and Economics, the College of Science and Engineering, and Intercollegiate Athletics. For information contact the Office of Development, 218-726-7989, or toll free 1-866-726-7110, or e-mail


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