Monday, April 21, 2008

Waldo Cohn, nuclear and genetic pioneer

Waldo Cohn was both a remarkable scientist and a remarkable person. I have previously posted about his leadership in the school desegregation controversy in Oak Ridge, which lead to the peaceful desegregation of Oak Ridge Schools in 1955. Waldo's was a biochemist, but pioneering physical chemical research on plutonium during World War II made an important contribution of nuclear technology. The ion exchange method Cohn developed had wide applications including the processing of fission products, rare earth separation, and in nucleic acid research.
In 1963, the American Chemical Society honored Cohn for his "pioneering work in ion exchange chromatography which has made possible much of the progress that has been made in two completely different fields of chemistry since World War II."

Dr. Cohn pioneered the use of radioisotopes as tracers in medicine and was influential in starting the production of radioisotopes for scientific research and medicine at Oak Ridge. He set up a system for radioisotope distribution.pioneered the use of radioisotopes in medicine.

He applied his plutonium research methods to the study of the components of the nucleic acids DNA and RNA, and his research made a major contribution to the understanding information transfer from nucleic acids to protein molecules.

Alvin Weinberg stated about his long time friend Waldo Cohn:

"The main task (in 1943) was to produce gram quantities of the nuclear explosive, plutonium. The techniques developed there were transferred to the huge plutonium-producing nuclear reactors at Hanford, Wash.

"To manufacture plutonium, one had to 'cook' uranium in an atmosphere of neutrons in the nuclear reactor at Clinton Lab. In this process uranium atoms were split to create radioactive 'fission products.' Cohn set about to identify the chemical species of fission products. He applied to this process a technique known as 'ion exchange chromotography.'

"After the war Cohn realized that this technique could be applied to the characterization of the components of the nucleic acids, DNA and RNA. Cohn's technique ultimately led to Crick and Watson's structure of the genetic materials, DNA and RNA. For this achievement Cohn received the Chromotography Award of the American Chemical Society and he was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

"Cohn was also the first to organize and promote the use of radioactive radioisotopes produced in nuclear reactors. The widespread use of radioisotopes is perhaps the most important scientific byproduct of the Manhattan Project."

Dr. Cohn's obituary in the Oak Ridger noted his many civic, artistic and political contributions to the Oak Ridge community:

"Cohn was politically involved both nationally and locally. He was one of the organizers of a petition signed by a large number of scientists urging that a nuclear bomb first be detonated in a test blast before being used on human targets. Immediately after World War II he became active in urging international control of nuclear weapons."

"Locally he was one of the leaders of a group of local Democrats who worked to make basic reforms in the organization and operation of the party in Anderson County."

"He was a strong proponent of the development of nuclear power and often spoke out against what he thought were exaggerated fears about the dangers of radioactive materials to the public. , , ,"

"Less than two months after joining the staff at Clinton Laboratories, he placed a small notice in The Oak Ridge Journal, weekly newspaper published by the Manhattan Engineer District, inviting all Oak Ridgers interested in playing in an orchestra to a meeting. Nine other musicians responded, two other strings and seven woodwind players. In a 1983 interview he told Juanita Glenn of The Knoxville News-Sentinel, "I didn't want to join an orchestra, I was just looking for someone to play duets."

"Cohn had studied the cello since age 11, although at first he hated carrying the large instrument. Before his 16th birthday he had been invited to join the Berkeley Community Orchestra."

"That initial group of interested early Oak Ridge musicians grew into a string orchestra of 19. At first they rehearsed in the Cohn living room but soon moved to the auditorium of the original Oak Ridge High School, which was located on the knoll off Kentucky Avenue overlooking Blankenship Field and which, before it was demolished, had become Jefferson Junior High School."

"The early musician group named him their conductor and gave their first concert as the Oak Ridge Symphonette in June 1944. Then, within weeks, they became the 65-member Oak Ridge Symphony, which gave its first concerts on Nov. 3-4, 1944."

"Besides the Symphony and his service on the early Advisory Town Council, Cohn was a regular reader for Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, reading primarily scientific texts. In more recent years he also volunteered regularly at the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau, where he would answer visitors' questions about the wartime atomic bomb development and the later research at the ORNL Biology Division, from which he had retired in 1975."

Waldo stepped down as conductor of the Oak Ridge Symphony in 1955 when he received the first of his two Guggenheim Fellowships, this was for a year's study at Cambridge University in England. Dr. Cohn also received a Fulbright Research Scholarship.

Cohn continued to play the cello in the Oak Ridge Symphony until ill health forced him to stop a couple of years before his death in 1999.

I had a brief visit with Cohn about 1998, because I wanted to capture his memories of his 1954 recall election from Oak Ridge City Council. He was by then in poor health, but his stories of the recall period were lively and illuminating. Cohn was very charismatic. He was handsome, and had an air of distinction about him.


Barton Cohn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barton Cohn said...

I Google searched my grandfather, Waldo E. Cohn, and found this blog about him. Thank you for the kind words...

Barton Cohn

Charles Barton said...

Waldo was a remarkable person. Is Mark or Don your father?

Barton Cohn said...

Marc is my father. Don is my uncle.

Charles Barton said...

Marc probably not remember me, but Don might. Thell Don that Charles Barton sent his regards, the next time you see him.


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