Leo Szilard at work in Memorial Hospital, 1960.
UC San Diego Library
biography / science

The Nuclear Fail

Physicist and writer Leo Szilard was vital to the creation of the atomic bomb. He also did everything he could to prevent its use.
By all accounts, Leo Szilard loved being in the hospital. In 1960, he was sixty-two years old and dying of bladder cancer, or so it seemed at the time. Although he had liked his life, dying did have its privileges. In room 812 at Memorial, he could hold appointments from bed, like a child king; he had prompt meals, daily pampering; hourly respite from loneliness. And, though he had gone without a permanent address for nearly a decade, he now had a constant influx of visitors: the nurses who indulged his banter and let him take his own temperature; the doctors who tolerated the proffering of his medical opinions. Cancer, miraculously, had given Leo a social life.

It had also, paradoxically, given him time. Propped up on his deathbed with his mind at leisure, Leo could cultivate new hobbies, like researching poison. “How terrible it is that you can’t walk into a drugstore and buy something to kill yourself without pain,” he lamented to his colleague, the physicist and Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe. Barbiturates were good, but cyanide was better, if you could curb the choking sensation. He began a patent for a so-called “suicide kit”: a hand pump that could diffuse a painless dilution of cyanide fumes, making dying as easy as breathing.

Around that time—in the hours he wasn’t napping, or amusing nurses, or trying to covertly direct his own radiation treatment—he began writing a book.

That book, a collection of eight addled, antic parables about nuclear war called The Voice of the Dolphins, would go on to be hailed by at least one of Leo’s contemporaries as a “science fiction classic.” The cyanide pump, on the other hand, was a morbid failure. So, in his way, was Leo. 

Leo is best remembered, when he’s remembered at all, for his contributions to a different kind of deadly device. In 1939, he sent a famous letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “In the course of the last four months,” he wrote, “it has become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium.” The letter, cosigned by Leo’s old friend Einstein, was the beginning of the Manhattan Project. 
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