Episcopal priest, nuclear physicist, author, teacher, and administrator—ORAU founder Dr. William G. Pollard balanced all of these roles during his 40-year career.
A native of New York state, Pollard moved to Tennessee with his family at the age of 12. He received his B.A. from the University of Tennessee (UT) in 1932, the same year he married his wife Marcella, and began a graduate fellowship in the fall at Rice University. His studies culminated in the receipt of his Ph.D. in physics from Rice in 1935. Throughout his career he also received honorary doctorates in science, divinity, law, and humane letters from 12 colleges and universities.
Pollard began his career in 1936, serving on the physics department faculty at UT. But World War II and the development of the atomic bomb forever changed Pollard’s life.
In 1944, Pollard’s reputation in physics took him to Columbia University for two years to work as a research scientist on the Manhattan Project. The cover name for his department was Special Alloys and Metals Laboratory, but it was here that staff of one of the most important units of the Manhattan Project conducted research on the gaseous diffusion method of extracting uranium-235—the explosive in atomic bombs-from common uranium. Pollard and his fellow researchers were told very little about the purpose of their work, and it was only after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that they realized the significance of their research.
Shortly after the end of World War II in 1945, Pollard and his family returned to Tennessee, and a casual conversation turned into a valuable undertaking that would affect the rest of his life. At a dinner party one evening, a fellow physics professor at UT reflected to Pollard that since the war was over, it would be nice if university researchers in the Oak Ridge region could have access to the federal government’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which had far more elaborate facilities and equipment than any school could hope to have. This idea sparked Pollard’s interest.
Often seen with a pipe in his mouth, Pollard was always very involved with the programs administered by ORINS.
A committee to investigate the possibility was formed with Pollard at its helm, and he began many trips back and forth between Washington, D.C., Knoxville, and the regional universities. He successfully built the necessary support of both the federal government and 14 southern schools, and the result was the formation of the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies (ORINS) in October 1946. Pollard served as acting director of the new organization until one year later when he was elected executive director, a position he held until his retirement in 1974.
As ORINS grew rapidly over the next several years, Pollard found himself growing spiritually. Although he had never considered himself “religious,” Pollard had regularly attended the Episcopal church with his wife and four sons, but an experience he had while still in New York changed his view of religion. He once recalled for a reporter how disturbed he felt immediately after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, saying that his initial exuberance following the bomb-drop on Hiroshima was replaced with a feeling “close to terror.”
He remembered the events of that evening: “When I got back to Mount Vernon—it was a Thursday—I picked up a newspaper and saw on the religious page that I had just enough time to get to a service in New Rochelle. I walked out of the house alone and took a trolley to Trinity Episcopal Church. This time there were no little boys along. As the service progressed, I became conscious of a feeling that it wasn’t just an empty rigmarole, and when I got back home, I was no longer disturbed. I slept calmly that night.”
Dr. Pollard became an ordained Episcopal priest in 1954 and served as priest associate of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Oak Ridge until his death in 1989. As a priest and nuclear physicist, Pollard was able to resolve in his mind the somewhat complex relationship between science and religion.
It wasn’t until Pollard and his family had settled in Oak Ridge that he began to become more involved in the church. As the leader of ORINS, he considered the new organization his primary responsibility, but Pollard could not turn his back on the needs of the religious community that was trying to form in the relatively unsettled Oak Ridge area. Through his involvement in the development of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and participation in the services, Pollard himself grew more and more interested in theology.
Following rigorous studies, Pollard became an ordained Episcopal priest in 1954 and served as priest associate at St. Stephen’s until his death in 1989. Throughout his studies, Pollard had to resolve in his mind a complicated marriage of science and religion. As he struggled with the issue, he came to believe, to put it simply, that science was a way of investigating the wonders of God’s creations.
In one of his sermon’s Pollard cited the Genesis passage where God says to man and woman: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth.” For Pollard, dominion over the earth included man’s ability to control fire, metals, and finally nuclear energy—the focus area of his research. He did not even build a nuclear fallout shelter in his home during the 1960s, saying that should such an event occur, he would prefer to be ministering to those suffering rather than hiding in a shelter.
Even after his retirement, Pollard remained active in developments at ORAU. Shown here in 1982, Pollard is standing in front of the William G. Pollard Auditorium being constructed in his honor on ORAU’s main campus.
With total devotion to both ORINS and St. Stephen’s, Pollard often worked seven days a week. Because his combination of careers was so unusual, he also received a good deal of attention from both academia and the media. This resulted in several lectures on the relationship of science and theology, and these led to the publication of several books, including Chance and Providence as well as Physicist and Christian.
Pollard retired from his post as director of Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORINS’ name changed in 1966) in 1974, but because of his keen interest in nuclear energy, he continued for the next two years to remain active in the organization’s Institute for Energy Analysis. Following a long struggle with cancer, Pollard died the day after Christmas in 1989 at the age of 78.
To learn more about Dr. Pollard, read Atomic Deacon, a 1951 Time Magazine story hosted at Time’s website.