Sunday, January 20, 2008

George Parker - A world-class experimenter

I am sure that my father will be pleased to learn that I have posted his tribute to George Parker on the Internet. I had not realized prior to reading this tribute that George Parker, like my father was a native of the northern border of East Tennessee. Parker was from Johnson City, and my father grew up in Jellico. Parker was a scientist who died with his boots on. He was still making discoveries in 1997, and is listed as a co-author of a number of ORNL publications as late as 1994. George Parker died on September 6, 1997 after a career at ORNL that lasted more than 50 years. He retired in 1996, but continued to work as a consultant, until he was too sick with to work any longer. .It is quite clear that George Parker was an icon at ORNL, and was perhaps the world's greatest authority of fission products release during his lifetime. Thus the articles that George Parker wrote with my father on nuclear safety, carried his great authority along with my father's very considerable authority. (Cross posted on bartoncii.)

By C.J. Barton, Sr.

Many people in this area are undoubtedly grieved, as I am, by the passing of George W. Parker.

One of my regrets in regard to George is that I never got around to writing the George Parker story that I discussed with Barbara Lyon when she was editor of the ORNL Review. The following is a substitute for the story that I envisioned at that time.

George got his start in working with fission products at the University of Chicago. I have heard it said that when criticality was first achieved in a pile there, George was in a nearby laboratory stirring a pot containing some fission products. He soon transferred to Oak Ridge, close to his former home in or near Johnson City, and started the career in what became the Oak Ridge National Laboratory that would span a period of more than half a century.

Lots of fission products soon were produced in the Graphite Reactor and George became involved in work with some highly radioactive materials. George never was one to worry about exposure to radioactivity, and his former co-workers George Creek, Paul Lantz, and Bill Martin have told some pretty hairy tales of their experiences. One health physicist told me recently that when they started getting after George about the high [radiation] exposure levels on by his badge, he began leaving it in his office.

I first met George in the early spring of 1949, about six months after I started work in the Chemical Development Division at Y - 12. He and his associate, Paul Lantz helped me to develop the radioactive tracer techniques that made possible the rapid progress of research on the separation of hafnium from zirconium and the eventual availability of caddying for the nuclear reactor submarine.

This help was typical of George. He never was too busy to assist others who came to him for help. He not only had a store of experience with radioactive materials to draw on, he had over the years stashed away a fabulous collection of equipment that he would share with others.

George was one of the first experimenters to recognize the importance of measuring the release of fission products from overheated reactor fuel and he started such studies in 1955. A fire in a British Magnox reactor that occurred about 1957 demonstrated the importance of this work, and when I joined George's group in 1960, his attention was focused on uranium metal fuel such as that used in Magnox reactors and the Graphite Reactor.

I helped some in that research and I recall carrying hot samples to Hugh Parker's analytical laboratory on the end of a 10-foot-long rod. However, we learned that I could make my most important contribution to George's program by writing,

We co-authored a chapter on fission product release from overheated reactor fuels that was published in Volume 2 of "The Technology of Nuclear Reactor Safety" that was edited and published by MIT. That was considered to be a rather prestigious document at the time it was published in 1973.

George's reputation and wide acquaintance among foreign experimenters enabled us to provide an international flavor to the three symposiums on reactor chemistry that we organized and helped to hold in Gatlinburg in the early '60s. We enjoyed the contacts that these meetings provided as well as the fellowship with a wide variety of experimenters.

After several years in which my principal mission seemed to be to present George Parker's work in a readable form, I moved on to other work. George was a big help to me when I established a glove box labo­ratory in one comer of Building 4501, where his work was located, and which he helped to design.

We had lunch together most days, a custom that started when we worked together. The fellowship that we enjoyed in these lunches was enhanced at times by the presence or experimenters from abroad who came to work with George for varying lengths of time. Their presence demonstrated the extent of George's international reputation.

In summary, George was a uniquely talented person whom I considered to be a world-class experimenter. He had an unusual ability to visualize studies that needed to be done, design equipment needed to do the job and get it constructed, and then to perform the necessary research.

His reputation as an experimenter was well enough known among the people who controlled the purse strings that he was able to continue as an ORNL employee long beyond the normal retirement age.

Finally, I have lost a valued friend and the scientific community has lost an exceptionally gifted experimenter.


Ann Wallis White said...

My mother is one of George Parker's younger (84) sisters, and was heartened to hear this when I read it to her over the phone. Thank you. Ann-Wallis White

P. Parker said...

The first time I learned of my Uncle George's genius was when I saw a photograph of him that accompanied an article in National Geographic Magazine. My father, John Manville Parker, was George's elder brother. There were 13 children in the family, several of whom were brilliant. I learned from George's elder sister, my Aunt Dorothy Boynton Parker, that George also raised and trained homing pigeons and that they ranked among the best. It seems he excelled in many of the paths he chose. Thank you for recording such a genuinely warm tribute to him. Patricia M. Parker


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