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Staff Biographies

Joseph W. Kennedy

Joseph Kennedy lived only 40 years, but made significant contributions to the field of chemistry. He was born May 30, 1916 in Nacogdoches, TX to Joseph and Mattie Kennedy. In 1935, he received his BA from Stephen F. Austin State Teachers College (now University). For the next two years, he attended the University of Kansas, winning an MA as well as acceptance into the University of California, Berkeley. In 1939, he was awarded his Ph.D. in chemistry.


Kennedy began teaching chemistry at the University of California upon graduation. The following year he, along with Glenn Seaborg, Edwin McMillan, and Arthur Wahl, discovered plutonium. In 1942, Kennedy joined the team at the University of California's radiation laboratory, but only stayed a year. Kennedy, on the verge of his 27th birthday, was among the first wave of Project Y recruits, coming to Los Alamos in March 1943 to head the Chemistry and Metallurgy division. Ironically, Kennedy's greatest achievements were managerial rather than technical: "The amount of technical work involved has been very small; the principal problem has been to establish and maintain a sufficiently strong laboratory to handle the jobs supplied by other divisions." These crucial jobs included purifying plutonium, fabricating plutonium and uranium metal, and handling polonium and radio-lanthanum.


After the war, Kennedy joined the chemistry department of Washington University, St. Louis. He was eventually named head of the department. In 1955, the Atomic Energy Commission awarded him and his co-discoverers of plutonium a whopping $400,000. Unfortunately, Kennedy would have little time to enjoy his prize. After a battle with cancer lasting little more than half a year, he died on May 5, 1957.




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