Zinn and the rabid dogs

At the beginning of 1954, the Director of the Argonne National Laboratory, Walter Zinn, may well be one of the busiest scientists in America. Just weeks earlier, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his epochal “Atoms for Peace” speech and Zinn is the country’s point person for development of reactors for peaceful purposes. He is also crucial in a never-ending push to build more plutonium-producing reactors for nuclear weapons fuel. The several thousand people in his laboratory are heavily involved in myriad reactor designs and Zinn is not the hands-off kind of manager. Constantly on the move, shuttling between his laboratory campus near Chicago, the halls of Washington, and a new reactor testing site in remote Idaho, surely Zinn needs to prioritize his time.


On January 15, Zinn writes to J. T. Bobbitt, Assistant Laboratory Director:

I note certain stray dogs on our site. With the rabies problem in Cook County, I wonder if it would not be correct for the Laboratory to take action to rid itself of these creatures. Please look into this matter.

Archival work is tedious but one of its pleasures is unearthing small gems. I can’t use this morsel in my book but doesn’t it say so much about Zinn, his roving mind, his meticulousness? Isn’t this memo fascinating?


Zinn, Walter H. 1954. Zinn to Bobbitt, Jan. 15, 1954. Folder “Reading File, January 15, 1954″, Box 94, Laboratory Director’s Reading File, 1949-1957, RG 326, National Archives Building, Chicago, Illinois.


  • Is there a thing about pioneering, laser-focussed, truly ground-breaking scientific minds and second-string brainpower necessary to turn ideas into reality? Was Walter Zinn the former or the latter? Was his attention to all detail, however apparently irrelevant to the primary purpose of his work, a measure of a intellect or of his inability to avoide distraction? Was he a technical leader or a technical manager? No idea, I guess I will simply have to wait and see…

    • Yes, I won’t say too much because Zinn features heavily in this history for over three decades. I will comment that Zinn was somewhere in between your “former” and “latter.” He wasn’t one to come up with new theories but he was a superb experimentalist. So yes, he did turn the major new science behind nuclear fission into groundbreaking, beautifully designed experimental reactors. That said, his nemesis, Admiral Hyman Rickover, was scathing about the gap between scientists like Zinn and engineers like himself.