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Michigan was the first university in the world to promote the peaceful uses of atomic energy by dedicating its WWII memorial to the Michigan men and women who gave their lives for their country to a major research institute containing one of the first nuclear reactors on a college campus and the world’s first academic program in nuclear science and engineering.

One of the most significant initiatives of the University of Michigan following World War II was the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, a major nuclear research program established by the University and funded by private gifts as a memorial to the 468 members of the Michigan family who had lost their lives in the war. Interestingly enough, it was a student committee that pressed the University to action on the matter and urged the Regents to accept the idea of the Phoenix Project after it was first developed and approved by student government. The students sought to commemorate the memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice by attempting to develop a project that would aid all mankind in living in a war-free world rather than to attempt to build “a mound of stone the purpose of which might soon be forgotten.”

In May,1948, the Regents adopted a resolution that “the University of Michigan create a War Memorial Center to explore the ways and means by which the potentialities of atomic energy may become a beneficent influence in the life of man, to be known as the Phoenix Project of the University of Michigan.” Under the leadership of University President Alexander Ruthven and Albert Lang, president of the General Electric Company, the Phoenix Campaign quickly grew into a well-organized national effort that raised $6.5 million for a research building, a research endowment, and thanks to a one-million-dollar gift from the Ford Motor Company, a nuclear reactor (called the Ford Nuclear Reactor). It is noteworthy that the membership of the fund-raising committee included three students who were all veterans of World War II.

Ruthven called the Phoenix project “the most important undertaking in the University’s history.” The University was paying tribute to the sacrifices of its men and women during the war by accepting the momentous responsibility of studying the peaceful applications of atomic energy. Even President Eisenhower highlighted the importance of the Phoenix Project: “Few causes are more urgent today and more noteworthy of your support. In war or in peace, the atomic research being done at the University of Michigan will strengthen America.”

It was against this backdrop of hope and fear that the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project came into being. Named after the Phoenix bird of Egyptian mythology, which was consumed by fire every 500 years and arose revitalized from the ashes, the Project thus symbolized the growth of the benevolent atom out of the flames of war. At the time, the program's goals sounded highly idealistic. Atomic energy was under government monopoly, and appeared to be an extremely dangerous force with which to work on a college campus. Few could debate the point, however, that if the undertaking succeeded, the program would be an unusually fitting memorial to those who gave their lives for their country during War II. As a living productive effort, the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project would find ways over the years to employ the atom to aid mankind, rather than to destroy it.

Students, naturally, have been the primary beneficiaries of the Phoenix Project, both on the graduate and undergraduate level and in a number of disciplines such as nuclear engineering, chemistry, environmental health and physics. Research by U-M faculty has also been spurred by the proximity of the Phoenix Memorial Laboratory and the reactor to the University campus and has contributed greatly to a broad range of fields including nuclear power, nuclear medicine, radiological sciences, and fundamental nuclear physics.

Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project (upper left)

Although all programs in the University were involved in the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, the College of Engineering had a particular responsibility to develop both instructional and research programs in nuclear energy. A professor of electrical engineering, Henry Gomberg, was named as the first director of the Phoenix Project. It is interesting that the actual plans for the nuclear reactor in the Phoenix Laboratory were classified during the early phases of its construction, and the associated Department of Nuclear Engineering that would utilize the facility was the first such program in the United States. It is also important to note that some 50 years later, the Phoenix Laboratory, the Ford Nuclear Reactor, and the Department of Nuclear Engineering all continue to make significant contributions to nuclear energy research and application, including the first observation of gravitationally induced quantum interference, seminal experiments involving neutron scattering, and the first demonstration of low enrichment (non-weapons-grade) uranium fuel for research reactors, a major contribution to anti-proliferation efforts. The Phoenix Project enriched University life through the visits of distinguished scientists such as Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe. It also provided support and facilities for the hundreds of nuclear engineers and scientists who have studied and trained in the Phoenix Laboratory. The Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project was recognized in 2001 by the American Nuclear Society as “a unique and pioneering atomic research program, as a permanent memorial to the University’s soldiers who fought and died in World War II, and as a symbol of the University of Michigan’s commitment to the peaceful and socially responsible use of science and technology.

The Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project