12 June 2020

Where Have You Gone, Edgar Sengier?


Edgar Sengier was a Belgian engineer who operated a mine in the then-named Belgian Congo at the early 20th century. His employers, the Union Minière du Haut Katanga, initially mined copper, but at some point the firm discovered a vein in a settlement called Shinkolobwe that yielded two substances of astonishing purity. One was radium, a radioactive element which was so infamously used in the dials of wristwatches, with horrifying results. The other? Well, let’s just say that when Sengier’s people informed him how Substance #2 could be used, the world was on the brink of World War II. French scientists wanted Sengier’s ore, but then France was swallowed by Germany. Sengier quietly packed half his stock—about 1,000 tons of this mysterious ore—in barrels and had them shipped to a warehouse in Staten Island, New York. The barrels sat idle for two years. Nine months after Pearl Harbor, Col. Kenneth Nichols—No. 2 in command of the Manhattan Project—paid a visit to Sengier’s New York office, asking if it was true the firm had located ore that could be processed into U-235. The Belgian engineer smiled. “I’ve been waiting a long time for your visit!”

"Where can I get U?" — Actual text message from Col. Kenneth D. Nichols, circa 1940.
(Atomic Energy Commission file image)
That, in a nutshell, is how the US and not Hitler ended up with a critical stockpile that ensured its success in the race for the bomb. Sengier, a man who went down in history simply by waiting for others to catch up to his foresight, popped into my head this week when I interviewed someone about the US’s medical preparedness for our protracted Covid future.

The fellow on the phone was an exec at a major international firm that manufactures medical supplies. (Yes, I am intentionally being vague.) Not ventilators. Not masks or gowns. But nearly everything else a medical office or hospital needs to do its job. By one estimate, this firm produces more than half of a specific medical tool used on the planet.

The corporate headquarters are based in the US, but operates factories over the globe. The execs have been largely quarantined at home for the last three months, but the firm has been running their assembly lines the whole time, tweaking how they do business to keep employees safe and the endless stream of supplies coming. In some cases, they have actually re-routed employees from areas of the business with low demand—making, say, kits for various types of elective surgeries—to areas with high demand.

Moving employees like this is easier said than done. For example, they arranged visas for employees to travel 100 miles from their homes and places of work in one Asian nation to another nation across a border. “ Commuting” was deemed impractical, so the firm is putting these folks up in hotels in the second nation so they can work in shifts. Anything to meet demand.

“First, every hospital in the world needed supplies,” the exec told me. “So we ramped up production to meet that demand. And when we caught up with that, then the federal governments of various countries started contracting with us directly to beef up their national stockpiles. So now we’re doing that.”

For another writing project, ages ago, I interviewed a former military doc who told me that most military stockpiles he’d seen were always in need of upgrading or replacement. Supplies expire and go bad. Medical tech, especially, becomes obsolete or deteriorates sitting unserviced in warehouses, waiting for a use date that never comes. No one wants to have product sitting around in a warehouse. But it’s what you do if you want to be prepared. You rotate in, you rotate out. If you're organized, that is.

But what was troubling our biotech executive the day we talked?

“There’s one country that hasn’t asked us to stock their national stockpile yet,” he told me, his voice dropping. “A big one. Can you guess which one that is?”

I didn’t have to guess. Both of us are Americans, and we both chuckled awkwardly at the same time. And then the naive little man inside me piped up: “Couldn’t you do it on your own? Just make ‘em and store ‘em somewhere?” Even before the words were out of my mouth, I felt stupid. This is why I’ll never be a businessperson; I cling too much to hope.

“Can’t,” the exec said. “We have enough trouble keeping up with demand as it is. And we’re sure as hell not gonna do it for free.”

Duh. Logical me understood that completely. But naive me, writer me, fought against it. And my brain kindly coughed up the name of that Belgian engineer.

To be sure, Sengier’s firm was paid. So far as I’ve been able to determined, they supplied the US with 4,200 tons of uranium, and plutonium as well. (The price for the uranium was $1 a pound. I have not located a price for the plutonium, enriched at Hanford.) After the war, Sengier received the Medal of Merit from the US, its highest civilian honor, and other accolades—Honorary Knight Commander, OBE, from the UK, the Legion of Honour from France, five distinct medals from Belgium alone—from nations grateful that he’d kept that uranium out of the hands of the Nazis.

Sengier (center) receives his medal from Manhattan Project director General Leslie Groves (right).
(Atomic Energy Commission file image)

And yes, we can spend days debating the wisdom of creating those first nuclear weapons. I have had those conversations. My wife spent seven years writing a nonfiction book about the Manhattan Project, and for seven years the faces and voices of the few surviving chemists, engineers, and rank-and-file workers she interviewed were in my mind nearly every day. We can also spend an equal amount of time talking about the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources and its people by centuries of colonizers.

But...

Those bombs, and the ones that followed them, were tools of death, but medical supplies are tools of life. Call me crazy, but US stockpiles have been known to dwindle. And it dismays me to learn that Sengiers are apparently in short supply.

3 comments:

janice law said...

Most informative!

Eve Fisher said...

Excellent article. I'm not going to debate the Manhattan Project, either.
But it is sad, beyond sad, tragic that we all know who the big country is that hasn't asked yet for the stockpile to be stocked. And it's ours.

Anonymous said...

Sengier remains a man of mystery. He and his company grew rich in the radium trade in the 1920s and 1930s. Even in 1939 radium traded at about $12,000 a gram — down from $80,000 in the early 1930s. (Talk about medical supply!) His company, incidentally, was bifurcated — head office remained in Brussels while Sengier sat with his thousand tons in New York. Was there perhaps a link via the Spanish legation in Guatemala?