Igor Kurchatov (1903 - 1960)

Igor Kurchatov
Igor Kurchatov

Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov was born on January 8, 1903, in Simsky Zavod, Ufa Guberniya (now the city of Sim, Chelyabinsk Oblast). He studied physics at Crimea State University, graduating in 1923, and shipbuilding at the Polytechnical Institute in Petrograd. In 1925, he moved to the Physico-Technical Institute, where he worked under Abram Fedorovich Ioffe on various problems connected with radioactivity. In 1932, he received funding for his own nuclear science research team, which built the Soviet Union's first cyclotron.

With the outbreak of World War II, Kurchatov joined a group that was working on protecting ships from magnetic mines. In 1943, under Ioffe's recommendation, he was appointed director of the Soviet atomic weapons program. This project remained a relatively low priority until information from spy Klaus Fuchs and later the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki goaded Stalin into action. Stalin ordered Kurchatov to produce a bomb by 1948, and he put ruthless Lavrenty Beria in direct command of the project. On August 29, 1949, the team detonated First Lightning (the west named the test Joe-1), its initial test device (a plutonium implosion bomb) at the Semipalatinsk Test Site.

Kurchatov subsequently worked on the Soviet hydrogen bomb program, but later worked for the peaceful use of nuclear technology and advocated against nuclear bomb tests. With the success of the atomic bomb project and greater awareness of the destructiveness of nuclear weapons, Kurchatov grew increasingly alarmed by the possibility of their use. But it was witnessing the 1955 test of the first Soviet superbomb that was a turning point for Kurchatov. Both he and Andrei Sakharov began to feel a deep sense of responsibility for the consequences of their work, and they both began to argue against further testing.

During the atomic bomb program, Kurchatov swore he wouldn't cut his beard until the program succeeded, and he continued to wear a large beard (often cut into eccentric styles) for the remainder of his life, earning him the nickname "The Beard." Kurchatov died in Moscow on February 7, 1960, from a blood clot in his brain. His body is buried in a place of honor in the Kremlin wall.