Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project Records and Publications

Bentley Historical Library banner

Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project Records and Publications

The materials in this online repository form part of a larger Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project record group held by the Bentley Historical Library. For a more complete index to the materials, please consult the online finding aid for the:

Researchers may also be interested in the Energy Institute (University of Michigan) Web Archives.

For questions or more information, please contact the Bentley Historical Library's Division of Reference and Access Services

Intended as a living memorial to former students, faculty, and staff who died in World War II, the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project is dedicated to the study of peacetime applications of atomic energy. This online collection consists of audio recordings; additional materials are available at the Bentley Historical Library.

In 1947, a War Memorial Committee appointed by the Regents of the university and chaired by Dean of Students, Erich A. Walter, launched a mission to gather ideas and suggestions from prominent individuals around the world for a living memorial to the 583 students and faculty who lost their lives in World War II. On May 1, 1948, the Regents approved the recommendation of the committee for a research center that would become a "comprehensive, non-classified, university-wide program of study of the peaceful applications and implications of atomic energy, as it affects society, education, industry, technology, and the whole body of scientific knowledge." (Box 4, Background Material, "The Phoenix Associates of the University of Michigan.") The program was given a name that evoked powerful symbols of hope and new life arising from the ashes of war. Within ten years, the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project was foremost among educational institutions of the world in exploring and developing peaceful uses of the atom.

The official beginning of a "chain reaction" appeal to Michigan alumni to raise funds for the research center was on October 2, 1950. Signaling the opening was a full day and evening of meetings and rallies held in cities and towns around the world "linked by telephone broadcast." "Using the Atom to Strengthen America" was the theme of this first Atom Day. Atom Day subsequently became an annual tradition and a vehicle for bringing together prominent speakers and dignitaries to report to the public and industry on activities of the program.

The original fund-raising campaign was highly structured, well organized, and infused from the start with the energy and the commitment of a broad base of Michigan alumni nationwide. Fourteen national regional committees were established with Chester H. Lang at the head as National Executive Chairman and university president Alexander Ruthven actively participating. In the first ten years, 30,000 individuals and 350 commercial firms contributed a total of $8 million to support the project. Also in its first decade, the project sponsored 185 research investigations by faculty members in fifteen of the university's seventeen schools and colleges. From these studies, more than 400 technical publications were published. A key factor in the success of the project was the broad participation encouraged across campus, an aspect promoted and maintained from the start under the leadership of physicist and dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, Ralph A. Sawyer, the first director of the project.

As early as 1951, substantial research was under way in the study of food preservation, the preservation of metal surfaces, and age determination of pre-historic organic materials. It wasn't long before the Phoenix Project began to play an exemplary role at the university in atomic law, atomic medicine, and radiochemistry. In 1952, the Survey Research Center began a study on the impact of atomic energy on the American public, the law school began a broad investigation of the legal implications of the Atomic Energy Act, and a memorial fund for cancer research was created in honor of Alice Crocker Lloyd, former dean of women. In subsequent years, investigations expanded to scores of disciplines ranging from anthropology to zoology.

A 1952 annual report noted that financial goals were reached and surpassed and that construction on a building would begin the following year. It would house facilities for safe handling and storage of high-level radiation sources containing laboratories for work in radiochemistry, engineering, botany, the health sciences, physics, and other fields. In 1955 bids were opened for a nuclear reactor to be built in a special unit at the north end of the Phoenix Laboratory funded through a $1 million Ford Motor Company donation. The reactor, the first ever requested for construction by an agency other than the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and one of the most powerful sources of nuclear fission outside the facilities of AEC, was dedicated on Atom Day in 1956. By 1957, the program included seven laboratories for atomic research built or equipped with Phoenix funds: Phoenix Memorial Laboratory, Ford Nuclear Reactor, Alice Crocker Lloyd Radiation Center, Alice Lloyd Memorial Center, Phoenix Radioisotope Laboratory, Plant Nutrition Laboratory, and Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory.

In 1957, the Regents provided authorization for seeking $2 million in undesignated funds to be used for continuation of what had become the largest academic teaching and training program in the world in the field of nuclear research. Equipment and research had usurped most of the original $8 million, and discussions were inaugurated for a second campaign, geared toward implementing a five-year plan, this time in collaboration with the Development Council. (One of the early derivatives of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project campaign was the establishment of an ongoing fund-raising organization for the university. Early in 1951, the project's National Executive Committee submitted a resolution to the Board of Regents recommending such a unit, and in May of 1952, the Development Council was formally organized. Campaign efforts were thereafter designed collaboratively.)

The project garnered national and international attention as funds supporting research led to fundamental scientific discoveries, most notably Donald Glaser's development of the liquid bubble chamber, which makes possible rapid, easily interpreted photographs of rare atomic interactions. Dr. Glaser, who received the Nobel Prize in 1960, conducted his original research under the auspices and with the financial support of the Phoenix Project after other agencies had rejected his idea. Glaser, by then professor of physics at the University of California, returned to Ann Arbor in 1961 to give the first Phoenix-sponsored Dewey F. Fagerburg Memorial Lecture, a venue designed to feature distinguished contributors in the nuclear energy field. The following year, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer was invited to the podium, speaking before one of the largest audiences ever in attendance at Rackham Lecture Hall.

Over the years, the laboratories were visited by hundreds of scientists, individuals, and government officials. In 1955, University of Michigan scientists participated considerably at the International Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva. Worldwide interest in these issues led to the founding of the International Cooperation Administration (ICA), an arm of the AEC. Under a contract with ICA, Phoenix became the primary consulting agency for providing expert advice to foreign countries initiating atomic energy programs.

From the mid-1960s, the Phoenix Project and its associated facilities were overseen by a director reporting to the university's vice president for research and an executive committee composed of faculty members from across campus. Faculty executive committee responsibilities included budgeting and long-term planning. The committee was charged with relating the work of Phoenix to the university's instruction and research programs. By 1996, the number of research projects funded and completed had reached 816. However, the actual share of university users of the reactor had dwindled to about twenty-five percent, with industry and government accounting for the rest. At the same time, since the early 1980s the budget to run the Ford Reactor came primarily from the university itself with little support from the government or the AEC.

In the late 1990s, with federal funding for nonmilitary nuclear research at low ebb, universities across the country began to shut down their reactors. In December 2000, University of Michigan Regents announced that because the operation continued to drain over $1 million a year from the university budget, formal processes were under way to decommission the reactor. Former university president James J. Duderstadt (who himself was attracted to the university's engineering school because of the Phoenix Project and was at the time of the announcement a key advisor to the secretary of energy and chair of the Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee) began with a host of other scientists, to lobby for federal funds to keep academic reactors running.

Although the Ford Reactor, a cornerstone of the Phoenix Project, was officially decommissioned in 2003, the Project itself was continued with a new purpose. In 2004, the Phoenix Project was given new life as the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute (later shortened to the Energy Institute), and was charged with spearheading the University's efforts in interdisciplinary energy research, policy, and education. In their vote to broaden the Phoenix Project's charter beyond atomic energy, the University's Board of Regents expanded the Project's scope to encompass all forms of energy, and ensured the continued legacy of the Phoenix Project by noting that the Energy Institute would promote "research on the development of energy policies that will promote world peace, the responsible use of the environment, and economic prosperity."

Please note:

Copyright has been transferred to the Regents of the University of Michigan.

Access to digitized sound recordings may be limited to the reading room of the Bentley Historical Library, located on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan.

Recent Deposits RSS Feed

View more

Search Deep Blue

Advanced Search

Browse by

My Account


Coming Soon

MLibrary logo