Winnipeg Jewish Review  
Site Search:
Home  |  Archives  |  Contact Us
Features Local Israel Next Generation Arts/Op-Eds Editorial/Letters Links Obituary/In Memoriam

Louis Alexander Slotin (date unknown)

Louis Slotin working in the lab
source: Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada

Louis Slotin Park is located at the foot of Luxton Park
Slotin family collection

Winnipeg's Dr. Louis Slotin & the Atomic Bomb: Why Was Dr. Slotin Left out of Oppenheimer?

by Myles Shane, posted here Sept 1, 2023


After immersing myself in the enthralling world of Christopher Nolan's film, "Oppenheimer," which delves into the history of the atomic bomb, I couldn't resist the urge to dig deeper through a Google search for more enlightening insights. Among the wealth of information, a captivating figure emerged, Dr. Louis Slotin, a Canadian physicist with deep involvement in the construction of the formidable "A" bomb. To my astonishment, I discovered that Slotin hailed from Winnipeg and also identified as Jewish. Yet, perplexingly, Nolan chose to omit his compelling tale from his opus. The question lingered in my mind. Why was this significant persona overlooked? How could a former Winnipeger, who contributed immensely to such a momentous event, be left out of the narrative? Curiosity became a driving force, and I felt a compelling need to explore and unearth the untold story of Dr. Slotin.

Locating Dr. Slotin's descendants seemed like a challenging task at first, but it turned out to be surprisingly straightforward. In a serendipitous twist, I discovered that both his nephew and two nieces resided in Winnipeg, ready to share their stories. Israel Ludwig, a respected Winnipeg lawyer, had a remarkable connection to my late father, Fred Shane. As a psychiatrist, my father had served as an expert witness on various occasions for Ludwig, strengthening their bond. Dr. Slotin's nieces, Beth Shore and Isle Slotin, also proved to be invaluable sources of insights and memories about their famous uncle.


Louis Slotin, the eldest of three children, was born to Israel and Sonia Slotin, Jewish refugees who fled the pogroms in white Russia and settled in the bustling city of Winnipeg. There, Israel ventured into the world of business, eventually becoming a partner in the renowned abattoir, East West Packers.

In the vibrant neighborhood of Winnipeg's north end, on Alfred Avenue  Louis was already displaying an extraordinary intellect that set him apart from his peers. From his early days at Machray Elementary School to his formative years at St. John's High School, it was evident that he had an insatiable thirst for knowledge.


“My uncle was an extremely bright person. I didn’t know him personally as he passed away before I was born. What family tells me was that even as a young student, people recognized him as being extremely bright,” said  Ludwig, whose mother was Louis’s sister Bertha.


Ludwig fondly remembers being told how Louis and his friends, bound by their shared passion for mathematics, gathered at a local grocery store. Their discussions on intricate formulas and equations were so enthralling that they would write them out on butcher wrapping paper found in the store. These curious minds, lost in the world of numbers, would use up all the paper in the store, leaving behind a trail of intellectual curiosity.


At just 16, Louis embarked on his academic journey at the esteemed University of Manitoba. It was there that his exceptional intellect shone brightly, earning him coveted University gold medals in both physics and chemistry during his undergraduate years. By 1932, he proudly graduated with a B.Sc. degree in geology, and the following year, in 1933, he achieved his M.Sc. degree.

In a touching tribute Beth Shore shared her sentiments in the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba Endowment Book of Life book of life. With heartfelt pride, she spoke about her Uncle Louie's remarkable story that she wished to preserve for future generations. “His insatiable hunger for knowledge led him to attain a Masters of Science degree before venturing to King's College in London, England, where he pursued his Ph.D.”



In the sacred classrooms of King's College, Louis was not merely a scholar of science; he was a maestro of the boxing ring. The thunder of his fists echoed through the corridors as he claimed victory in the college's amateur bantamweight boxing championship.  As well, he also received a doctorate in physical chemistry from King's College in 1936.


In 1937, the newly titled Dr. Slotin was unsuccessful in obtaining a job with Canada’s National Research Council. It has been suggested that bureaucratic antisemitism may have played a part in the NRC’s decision not to hire him. Like many before him, Slotin looked south.


Later that year, Slotin earned the prestigious title of "Research Associate" at the University of Chicago, where he wholeheartedly immersed himself in the captivating world of atom-smashing cyclotrons. However, the project encountered financial hurdles, leaving Slotin with little choice but to work with minimal compensation for an arduous two year period. Despite these challenging circumstances, Slotin's indomitable spirit was fortified by the unwavering support of his father who's regular contributions served as a lifeline, empowering Slotin to endure and persevere through these trying times. Interestingly, Isle, whose father was Louis’s brother Sam, shared that she had heard from her father about the complexities of the situation. Since Louis was Canadian and Jewish, he apparently did not receive appropriate compensation for his work, making his dedication and determination even more commendable.

According to a 1962 document from the University of Chicago, Slotin was present on December 2, 1942, during a momentous event when the group of scientists working under the late Enrico Fermi achieved the world's first self sustaining nuclear chain reaction in a pile of graphite and uranium beneath the West Stands of Stagg Field.

Yet, amid the triumph, a darker reality lurked on the horizon. As the atomic age dawned, the Manhattan Project emerged from the shadows, summoning Slotin to a destiny far grander than he could have imagined. The clandestine endeavor to harness the raw power of the atom beckoned him, a call to arms in a time of war and desperation.

Ludwig recollects, “When Fermi got drafted into the Manhattan Project, he took my uncle with him and my uncle was eventually promoted to the work they were doing at Los Alamos.”


At Los Alamos,  the location where the secret works of the Manhattan Project took place Slotin was tasked with developing the combat core for the 'Gadget', the name of the bomb before it exploded in the Trinity nuclear test.

Only months before Truman gave the order to drop the Atomic Bomb on Japan, in the clandestine world of Los Alamos Slotin walked the tightrope between scientific discovery and cataclysmic danger. With criticality testing at the heart of his work, he dared to push uranium and plutonium cores to the brink of a deadly chain reaction.


On the pivotal date of July 16, 1945, all eyes were on Dr. Slotin, who stood at the heart of an awe inspiring spectacle, the theater of nuclear alchemy. With utmost precision, he expertly crafted the core for Trinity, a groundbreaking feat as it marked the world's first detonated atomic device. In this momentous act, he assumed the role of the "chief armorer of the United States," shouldering the immense weight of being entrusted with the control of the most formidable and terrifying weapon ever conceived.

In an unforgettable climax, Trinity was ignited at a test site in the vast deserts of New Mexico. Its resounding success reverberated throughout history, ultimately leading to the catastrophic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a mere month later. Dr. Slotin's pivotal contributions to this groundbreaking endeavor forever altered the course of human history and catapulted him into the annals of those who wielded the unimaginable power of nuclear science.



In the aftermath of winning WWII, tragedy struck on August 21, 1945, as fate claimed Harry K. Daghlian, a promising laboratory assistant and one of Slotin's closest colleagues. Within the crucible of a critical mass experiment, a heavy tungsten carbide brick fell upon a 6.2 kg delta phase plutonium bomb core, unleashing a destructive force that sealed Daghlian's destiny. The young man's body became a canvas for silent destruction, as he languished in a hospital bed, his life seeping away. Amidst the grim specter of radiation poisoning, Slotin stood as a sentinel of hope, his unwavering dedication driving him to spend countless hours by Daghlian's side.



A year after the devastating bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dr. Slotin's team had one remaining core intended for a third atomic bomb, but Japan's surrender abruptly halted the war. The core was preserved and repurposed for vital nuclear fission research studies.

Feeling a profound shift in his perspective, Dr. Slotin no longer wished to be associated with projects designed for destruction and promptly submitted his resignation notice, as revealed by Ludwig. Opting for a different path, Slotin expressed a strong desire to return to the University of Chicago, where he sought to explore the potential of radiation in battling cancer and other medical applications to combat diseases.



On an historic day, May 21, 1946, Louis Slotin walked alongside his successor, Alvin Graves, through the sanctified halls of the laboratory buildings. It was a passing of the baton, a pivotal juncture where Slotin entrusted Graves with the keys to his specialized realm, the enigmatic "critical assembly."

As the clock neared 3:00 PM, the duo stood in the heart of the laboratory, surrounded by a palpable air of anticipation. The critical assembly loomed before them, like a gateway to both boundless knowledge and formidable danger. Dr. Slotin, with his encyclopedic knowledge and legendary expertise, prepared to impart the wisdom amassed through years of intense study and experimentation.

Dr. Slotin carefully explained the delicate intricacies of the critical assembly, unveiling the mysteries of nuclear reactions. The legacy he sought to pass on was not just scientific knowledge but a deep sense of responsibility that came with wielding such extraordinary power. Graves commented that he had never seen the assembly demonstrated. Dr. Slotin offered to run through it for him. From the other side of the room, Raemer Schreiber, Dr. Slotin's colleague, agreed. However, he encouraged him to proceed slowly and with caution.





Tick by tick, the tension mounted, and the specter of danger lurked just inches away. The scientists knew all too well the deadly consequences of misjudgment. They had witnessed the devastation unleashed upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now they stood on the precipice of unlocking the secrets of the universe's most formidable power.

With meticulous precision, Dr. Slotin  delicately lowered the beryllium dome over the plutonium sphere, using his screwdriver to maintain a safe gap for the escape of neutrons. However, fate had other plans during the demonstration, causing the screwdriver to slip, allowing the dome to fully cover the core.

Instantly, a surge of heat washed over the room, accompanied by a brilliant blue flash, as the plutonium sphere unleashed an invisible burst of gamma and neutron radiation. The Geiger counter in the lab began to click frantically, filling the space with an unsettling sound. Reacting swiftly, Dr. Slotin bravely used his bare hand to push the beryllium dome off and onto the floor, promptly terminating the critical reaction that had just begun. With a solemn tone, he remarked, "Well, that settles it."

In the wake of the accident the corridor outside the scene of the incident became a hub of uncertainty and concern, as Louis Slotin, at the epicenter of the incident, sought to piece together the unfolding events. With a steadiness that belied the turmoil, Dr. Slotin sketched a diagram, meticulously marking the positions of each scientist at the precise moment of the accident. This crucial exercise aimed to estimate the amount of radiation exposure each one had endured, a haunting reminder of the dangers lurking in the world of nuclear science. Dr. Slotin’s heroics saved all of the scientists in the room that day.





In the aftermath of the solemn demonstration, the witnesses were swiftly transported to the Los Alamos hospital, where the gravity of the situation began to unfold. Louis Slotin, displayed alarming signs of distress. He succumbed to bouts of vomiting, a telltale sign of the immense strain his body endured. The scientific community later learned that his hand had been subjected to an astonishing dose of over fifteen thousand rem of low energy X rays. Moreover, Louis' whole body exposure to neutrons and gamma rays,  measured around twenty-one hundred rem, a staggering dose that surpassed the thresholds known to be lethal for humans. Amidst the agony, Louis' left hand took on a surreal waxy blue hue,and large blisters emerged, accentuating the severity of the damage. The medical team at his side, well aware of the immense suffering he endured, took every measure to alleviate his pain.



Shore recalls hearing about the haunting news sending shockwaves through her family. “On May 23, 1946 the Slotin family received a phone call telling them that the American government was sending an aircraft to pick them up to go to Los Alamos as there had been a terrible accident in the laboratory.”




One of Dr. Slotin’s close friends at Los Alamos, physicist Philip Morrison, who watched him die and did much of the post accident radiation calculations, wrote that “medical and nursing care were good, in fact a bit overwhelming.” Nurse Annamae Dickey came every day, or sometimes twice a day, to take blood samples. Morrison reported that, “she had a hard time concealing her distress when Louis pressed her for the results of her count.”


Isle fondly remembers her grandparents speaking of the tragic events that unfolded in Los Alamos. Louis' mother was taken aback by his appearance. The severity of his condition came as a shock and Isle believes they were not fully informed of the specifics prior to their arrival.


On the fifth day, Louis' medical report revealed, his white blood cell count dropped dramatically. His temperature and pulse began to fluctuate. Louis suffered nausea and abdominal pain and began losing weight. He had internal radiation burns, what one medical expert called a  three-dimensional sunburn. By the seventh day, he was experiencing periods of mental confusion. His lips turned blue and he was put in an oxygen tent. Eventually, he sank into a coma.





In a heartfelt letter dated June 3, 1946, Philip Morrison, now Professor Emeritus of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shared a touching anecdote about Dr. Louis Slotin's father with his fellow scientists.

The morning after Louis's tragic passing, Morrison discussed the necessity of an autopsy with Mr. Slotin, Louis’ father. Though it went against the family's traditions, Mr. Slotin understood the significance of contributing to scientific knowledge. He granted permission for the autopsy, stating that Louis had been a scientist throughout his life. Despite potential criticism upon his return to Winnipeg, he stood by this decision, honoring his son's lifelong dedication to science.”

In a poignant and significant act, Louis’s father took measures to ensure his son's burial was conducted in utmost accordance with his religious beliefs. Isle distinctly recollects her father (Sam) shared with her a secret about Louis’ burial.  The heartfelt task entrusted to Isle's father was to ensure that Louis' final resting place would be graced by his sacred prayer shawl, known as the tallit. However, upon arriving at the funeral home, he encountered an unexpected obstacle in the form of a sealed lead coffin. The government's concerns over radiation exposure to citizens was evident, making it impossible for him to open the coffin, thus preventing him from fulfilling the cherished request. Overcome with sorrow, Isle's father made a compassionate decision. Reverently, he placed the treasured tallit on top of the lead coffin, which was then carefully nested within a wooden casket. This gesture allowed him to honor his brother's memory while respecting the safety protocols in place. Shielding his father from the heartache of the situation, Isle's father (Sam) chose to keep the truth close to his heart, cherishing the profound bond that connected their family.


Finally, his body returned to his hometown, Winnipeg. Remarkably, he became the first Canadian to be laid to rest with an American flag adorning his coffin. At 35 years of age, he had been transformed into a local and national hero. As a testament to his exceptional life, two thousand mourners gathered, in front of the family’s house on Scotia Street, united in celebrating the heroic legacy of Louis.


In 1993, Shore and her cousin Ludwig embarked on a pilgrimage to the sacred grounds of Los Alamos, drawn by the works of their late uncle.  “We were invited to Los Alamos and with the local historian, Roger Meade, visited the places Uncle Lou had lived and worked. The U.S. government released all his previously top secret documentation and personal effects and as we sifted through his research we discovered that his original exploration back in the early '30's was the very beginnings of radiological therapy. To this day there are scientists who are continuing the research he began.” Shore explained.



In a poignant tribute, the Winnipeg Tribune featured a photograph capturing the moment when Slotin's casket was carefully transferred from the plane to a hearse. The accompanying caption, "Hero's Body Home," spoke volumes about the profound impact Dr. Louis Slotin had made in the hearts of many, and how his legacy would forever be remembered.



Subscribe to the Winnipeg Jewish Review
  • RBC
  • Titi Tijani
  • Jewish Federation of Winnipeg
  • PC Party
  • Sobey's
  • Jewish Federation of Winnipeg
  • Orthodox Union
  • Karyn and Mel Lazareck
  • Booke + Partners
  • Pitblado
  • Accurate Lawn & Garden
  • Coughlin Insurance Brokers
  • Munroe Pharmacy
  • Jim Muir
  • Daniel Friedman and Rob Dalgleish
  • Artista Homes
  • Fetching Style
  • Munroe Dental Centre
  • Cavalier Candies
  • Ronald B. Zimmerman
  • Viscont Gort
  • Safeway Tuxedo
  • Karyn & Mel Lazareck
  • MCW Consultants Ltd.
  • Red River Coop
  • Winnipeg Beach Home Building Centre
  • John Wishnowski
  • John Bucklaschuk
  • Tyler Bucklaschuk
  • Ingrid Bennett
  • Gulay Plumbing
  • Nick's Inn
  • Taverna Rodos
  • Holiday Inn Polo Park
  • Bob and Shirley Freedman
  • Elaine and Ian Goldstine
  • Josef Ryan
  • Western Scrap Metals Inc.
  • CdnVISA Immigration Consultants
  • Simmonds and Associates
  • Doheny Securities Limited
  • Canada Awakening Ministries
  • Fair Service
  • Dr. Marshall Stitz
  • Shindico
  • Astroid Management Limited
  • Piston Ring
  • Commercial Pool
  • Robin Shapiro Photography
  • Broadway Law Group
  • Sorrento's
  • Roseman Corp
  • Laufman Reprographics
  • Equitable Solutions
  • CVA Systems
  • Chochy's
  • Amalgamated Drywall
  • Ambassador Mechanical
  • Renew Mobility
  • Abe and Toni Berenhaut
  • Grant Kurian Trucking
  • Shoppers Drug Mart
  • kristinas-greek
  • The Center for Near East Policy Research Ltd.
  • Sarel Canada
  • Santa Lucia Pizza
  • Roofco Winnipeg Roofing
  • Center for Near East Policy Research
  • Nachum Bedein
Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.