Martin Kamen

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Sep 5 07:48:02 MDT 2002

NY Times, Sept. 5, 2002

Martin Kamen, 89, a Discoverer of Radioactive Carbon-14, Is Dead

Martin D. Kamen, one of the scientists who discovered radioactive carbon-14 
and in doing so helped lay a foundation for deciphering the chemical 
processes in plants and animals, died on Aug. 31 at his home in Santa 
Barbara, Calif. He was 89.

"The whole world changed," said Dr. Arthur B. Robinson of the Oregon 
Institute of Science and Medicine, who was a doctoral student of Dr. Kamen. 
"Before that, nobody could make any progress with biochemistry."

Carbon-14 also revolutionized archaeology, allowing precise dating of bones 
and artifacts.

Dr. Kamen was unable to bask in recognition for the discovery, made in 
1940. Four years later, he was summarily fired by the University of 
California at Berkeley, because of suspicions arising from a dinner he had 
with two officials from the Russian consulate. Over the next decade, he 
fought recurring rumors and accusations that he had leaked atomic bomb secrets.

At first, he found all academic positions closed to him and worked for a 
while as an inspector at a shipyard. The House Un-American Activities 
Committee summoned him to testify in 1948. The State Department refused to 
issue him a passport. The Chicago Tribune in 1951 published articles naming 
him as a suspected spy. He attempted suicide.

In his autobiography, "Radiant Science, Dark Politics" (1985), Dr. Kamen 
said his wife, Beka, found him lying on the bathroom floor, bleeding from 
cuts to his face and throat. "Fortunately," he wrote, "the knife I had 
seized had been dull."


Dr. Kamen's troubles began during the Manhattan Project. While assigned to 
a project in Tennessee at what is now Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he 
asked a colleague to produce some radioactive sodium that he needed for an 
experiment, he said in his autobiography.

When he opened the container with the sodium, he was surprised that it was 
glowing purple — much more radioactive than could be produced in a 
cyclotron. He immediately realized that an atomic reactor must have already 
been built at the laboratory, he wrote. Because of security, Dr. Kamen was 
not among those told of the reactor.

In his excitement, he blurted out his realization to Dr. Lawrence, who was 
visiting the laboratory, and to Dr. Lawrence's Army escort. "Lawrence 
strode on, dissembling any interest in the news," Dr. Kamen wrote, "but 
shortly afterward I heard that an investigation had been instituted to find 
out the source of the leak to me."

Later, back in California, Dr. Kamen met two Russian officials at a 
cocktail party given by the violinist Isaac Stern, a friend. The consulate 
vice counsel asked Dr. Kamen for help in obtaining experimental radiation 
treatment for a colleague with leukemia, Dr. Kamen said. He made inquiries. 
In appreciation, the official invited Dr. Kamen for dinner at Bernstein's 
Fish Grotto.

Because of the earlier incident at Oak Ridge, Federal Bureau of 
Investigation agents observed the dinner. Dr. Kamen was fired almost 


Louis Proyect

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