Stewart Bloom

Stewart Bloom of Alamo, California died Aug. 5. He was 93.  

Bloom was born Aug. 22, 1923, in Chicago, Illinois, the elder of two sons of Hungarian Jewish immigrant parents. His brother, Irving Bloom, of Danville, California, died in 2003.  

An experimental nuclear physicist, Bloom received his bachelo'rs and doctoral degrees in physics at the University of Chicago, studying under Nobel Laureates Enrico Fermi, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Edward Teller and Gregor Wentzel. He worked as a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1958, and was a professor in the UC Davis Department of Applied Science at Livermore until his retirement in 1990.

In December 1941, on learning of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor while a freshman at Chicago, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, and was assigned to the Army Air Corps as a B-24 tail gunner. Before being shipped to Europe, however, he was transferred to the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) to study electrical engineering at City College of New York, and then to the Special Engineering Detachment (SED) at Columbia to learn to operate magnetic mass spectrometers. This was his introduction to the Manhattan Project.

In 1944, the 15 men of SED were sent to the Philadelphia Navy Yard for training at a top-secret facility experimenting with uranium hexafluoride, a source of the uranium-238 isotope needed to fuel an explosive nuclear chain reaction. Private First-Class Bloom was among those present on Sept. 2, 1944, when a cylinder of the highly pressurized gas exploded, reacting with steam to produce hydrofluoric acid, one of the most corrosive chemicals. Two civilian engineers were killed in the blast and another SED G.I. was severely wounded. Having miraculously escaped injury, Bloom helped drag wounded comrades to the showers to rinse off the corrosive and radioactive material, actions for which he received the Army Commendation.

After the Philadelphia incident, Bloom was assigned to the Manhattan Project’s plutonium producing Clinton Pile reactor at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where he served through the end of the war. In a lecture nearly 60 years later, he recalled a visit in late 1945 from some fellow servicemen returning home from Okinawa, who had requested the stop in Oak Ridge to express their thanks: “Our unit played host for a couple of days drinking beer together rather soberly, considering the terrible things that had happened and that could have happened. When I say soberly I am referring quite seriously to our mood not necessarily to our state of inebriation.”

In the summer of 1946, after his discharge from the Army, Bloom joined his brother Irving for a job and some relaxation at Baron’s Resort in South Haven, Michigan. One day, the brothers headed to the beach where they met up with the daughter of family friends, then 17-year old Sally Shuman. As Sally recalls it, “Stewart’s cousin Genie came too. I guess [Stewart] fell in love with me right away, because the following week he gave me a gift, a gold bracelet with his Phi Beta Kappa Key, not one week later.  Meanwhile Genie said to me, ‘don’t get to like my cousin too much because he’s not the marrying kind.’  And I thought, ‘little do you know.’  We got married the following year.”

A few years after the war, having completed his Ph.D. and gone to work as a researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Bloom received a surprising visit from the FBI. The investigators wanted to know everything he might have known about a friend and fellow ASTP/SED veteran called George Koval. Koval, they explained, had been a deep-cover agent of the GRU -- a “plant” by Soviet military intelligence -- and, according to historians, probably one of the most important atomic spies of the 20th Century. On this point, Bloom and everyone else involved in the case was sworn to secrecy for more than half a century.

But Koval’s story was revealed to the world in 2007, a year after his death, when Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded him the Gold Star of the Hero of the Russian Federation. According to the Kremlin, Koval was “the only Soviet intelligence officer” to infiltrate the Manhattan Project’s most secret facilities, whose work “helped speed up considerably the time it took for the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb of its own.”  

Among many honors and awards for his experimental and theoretical work in nuclear physics, Bloom received a Guggenheim Fellowship at the University of Cambridge, where he worked with Nobel Laureates Max Perutz and Wolfgang Pauli, a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Paris, a Heineman Fellowship at Israel’s Weizman Institute and was a visiting researcher at CERN, the European Organization for nuclear research, in Geneva, Switzerland. He authored dozens of scholarly publications and served as a consultant to the RAND Corporation and the RDA Corporation.

Bloom was a passionate classical musician and an avid sailor. He was first violinist in the University of Chicago Symphony Orchestra and continued to play for pleasure into middle age, when he took up classical guitar following a back injury. He instilled a love of classical music in all his children and grandchildren, and his vast, meticulously organized collection of records, cassette tapes and CDs ensured the Blooms’ home was always filled with melodies.

His sailing adventures ran the gamut from a single-handed dinghy that he loaded on top of his compact car, to renting larger boats for family excursions on the San Francisco Bay and other bodies of water. Once, on Long Island Sound, his boat ran aground on a shifting sandbar. When daughter Karen hopped out to push, the wind picked up and the boat sailed off, with Bloom unable to turn it around. The family was quickly and gratefully reunited when another passing vessel spied the youngster standing knee deep in the middle of the Sound.

Bloom was known for his quick wit and uncommon sense of humor. He relished telling and listening to jokes of all kinds. Instead of asking “How are you?” he might query, “Have you seen any pink elephants today?” Those closest to him always got the joke, but strangers could be thrown for a loop -- especially in his later years, when one perplexed nurse called for an immediate brain scan.

A beloved father, grandfather and great-grandfather, he is survived by his wife of 68 years, Sally; daughters, Dr. Karen Rojansky and Lisa Bloom Cohen; and son, Dr. Ernest Bloom. In addition to his wife and children, Bloom is survived by six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Bloom will be remembered best of all by his family, friends, former students and colleagues and anyone fortunate enough to have known him, for his nobility of character. He was an honest and righteous person, never selfish and always ready to share his time, wisdom or modest possessions.

The Bloom family will conduct a private ceremony at Oakmont Memorial Park in Lafayette, California. Donations in Stewart Bloom’s honor may be made to the Jewish National Fund.