Francis T. Bonner, a chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project to build the world’s first atomic devices and was founding chairman of Stony Brook University’s chemistry department, died Feb. 15 at Stony Brook Hospital. He was 94.
The cause was pneumonia, said his son, Michael Bonner, of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Bonner, a young doctoral candidate in chemistry at Yale, got a “cryptic” phone call from Columbia University shortly before he was due to report for military duty in 1944, he recalled in a 2007 memoir. “Just don’t show up. We’ll take care of it,” said Willard F. Libby, a Manhattan Project scientist — later a Nobel Prize winner — who told Bonner to start work on the upper floors on Columbia’s Pupin Hall.
There, Bonner joined an urgent, top-secret operation so massive it is estimated to have employed 600,000 scientists, technicians and laborers at various sites across the United States before producing Little Boy, the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 5, 1945, according to historian Robert S. Norris.
The scientists in the Special Alloy Materials labs at Columbia worked on a method of isolating uranium isotopes by gas diffusion through a metallic barrier. Elements of this work are still secret, Norris said in an interview this week. “You’re passing a highly toxic gas through a filter, through something we still don’t know about” that is corrosion-proof and permeable by atoms, he said. “This was one of the main puzzles late in the game.”
Work was so tightly compartmentalized that, at the time, Bonner knew nothing about Los Alamos, nuclear reactors or plutonium. He was, he wrote, “greatly surprised” by Little Boy’s detonation.
Bonner, like many of his fellow scientists, grew deeply ambivalent about the work. An undated statement he edited from the Association of Manhattan District Scientists archived at The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, in Manhattan, alludes to “the possibilities of atomic energy for the advance of our civilization or its utter destruction.”
Bonner joined Stony Brook University as chair of its chemistry department in 1958. After a yearlong hiatus in 1964 at Centre d’Etudes Nucleaires at Saclay, near Paris, he worked at the university until 1992, when he retired.
Francis Truesdale Bonner was born Dec. 18, 1921 in Salt Lake City, the youngest of seven children. His father, Walter Bonner, was head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Utah from 1914 until 1945. His mother, Grace Gaylord Bonner, was a former schoolteacher.
Her son graduated from the University of Utah in 1942. He received a master’s degree in chemistry from Yale University in 1944 and a doctorate in 1945 with a dissertation on the thermodynamic properties of carbonic acid.
Bonner is survived by his second wife, Jane Carlberg, of Setauket.
His first wife, the former Evelyn Hershkowitz, died in 1990. Besides their son, he is survived by a daughter, Rachel Levi of Kfar Tavor, Israel. A daughter, Alisa, died in 1974.
A memorial service is planned noon Sunday at the Bates House in Setauket.