Duluthian Phillip Merritt and the Manhattan Project

Emblem (unofficial)

Unofficial emblem of the Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project, named for the Manhattan District (the U.S. Army’s designation for the project), ran from 1942 to 1946. It was a research and development project undertaken by the United States with the assistance of Canada and Great Britain with the goal of defeating Germany in the race to develop an atomic bomb. It led to the production of the first nuclear weapons during World War II. Bombs were tested in the desert of New Mexico in July of 1945 and then dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9 respectively, leading to the surrender of Japan and the end of the war. Duluth native Phillip Merritt played a key role in the success of the project.

Phillip Merritt

Phillip Merritt —  image from the Geological Society of America

Phillip Leonidas Merritt was born in Duluth on February 8, 1906. His father was Alva L. Merritt, the son of Lucien F. Merritt, one of the eight Merritt brothers whose discovery of iron ore in the 1890s opened up mining on the Iron Range. His mother was Ruth Merritt, the daughter of Leonidas Merritt, the undisputed leader of the “Seven Iron Men.” Alva and Ruth were married in Duluth on November 12, 1895. Phillip grew up in a home at 4603 Oneota Street. He


Childhood home of Phillip Merritt

attended Denfeld High School for his freshman year and then attended a private school for the remainder of his high school years.  He began as a student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis in 1924 and completed an undergraduate degree in geology in 1928.

After graduation, Merritt traveled to Africa as part of a team of geologists searching for copper, employed by the Rhodesian Selection Trust, a mining company working in Northern Rhodesia. This job earned him mention in Seven Iron Men, the classic book about the Merritt family’s discovery of iron ore on Minnesota’s Iron Range. At the end of the book, which was published in 1929, author Paul De Kruif lists younger Merritts who are making their names in the world, and mentions that “Lon [Leonidas] has a grandson who—a geologist of all things!—is hunting minerals in Africa.”

In late 1929, Merritt returned to the United States and was accepted in the graduate geology program at Columbia University in New York. He received his Master’s degree from Columbia in 1930 and his PhD in 1934. When Merritt graduated with his doctorate, jobs were scarce because of the depression. He accepted a position with the country of Colombia’s Department of Mines, and spent the next two years working on various geological projects in that country. He returned to the U.S. in 1936 for a job as a mineralogist and geologist for American Cyanamid Co. in New York, where he worked until 1942.

That was the year Merritt would meet Col. James C. Marshall, who had been assigned to set up the Manhattan Engineer District (code name for the Army’s part of the Manhattan Project) in August of 1942. Col. Marshall was the brother-in-law of Beatrice Wolff, the woman Merritt would marry four years later. Learning of Merritt’s education as a geologist, and that he had worked for more than a year in Africa, Col. Marshall recruited him to help with the search for uranium. He had Merritt commissioned as a captain in the Corps of Engineers. A 1984 memorial to Merritt by the Geological Society of America describes his duties with the project:

“From 1942 through 1946 he traveled from his New York station, generally in civilian clothes and in greatest secrecy, to wherever uranium-bearing ores or concentrates might be obtained: to Canada’s Eldorado mine at Great Bear Lake, to the famous Shinkolobwe mine in the Belgian Congo, and to the vanadium mines of the Colorado Plateau. Known domestic reserves of uranium ores were almost negligible: expediency was the word.”

Due to Merritt’s efforts during the war years, the United States obtained about 9.1 kilotons of uranium for the atomic bomb project. For his service, Merritt was given in 1946 the Army’s Legion of Merit Medal for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the United States.” In 2001, he would receive the University of Minnesota’s Outstanding Achievement Award, given to graduates or former students who have “attained unusual distinction in their chosen fields or professions or in public service.”

On November 2, 1946, Merritt married Beatrice Wolff in New York City. They would remain together until his death in 1981. Also in 1946, he was hired by the Atomic Energy Commission as assistant director of the raw materials section. The commission had just been formed to oversee and control the peacetime development of atomic science and technology. Merritt would work there until 1954, when he left to become senior geologist at E.J. Longyear Co. in New York City. He later became a consultant and moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. He died there on November 14, 1981.

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