The metal trays built to handle thick copper electrical conduits still hang from the ceiling, although they are now empty and lead nowhere.
The doors to the two chambers are 7 inches thick of solid steel and weigh about 6,800 lbs. (slightly over 3 tons) each, said Randy Davis, facility operations specialist for the CRC, who stands in the doorway of the crystal counter room.
Many leading medical facilities in the early 1960s had two complementary counter modes: plastic scintillation and crystal; NIH was no exception. The chambers, each 8 feet wide, 8 feet tall and 12 feet deep, were built by Dixie Manufacturing Co. Inc. of Baltimore, a firm that no longer exists.
In the 1950’s, radioisotopes were becoming widely used to solve major biological problems. Although radiation detection methods were primitive, incredible discoveries were being made. At NIH, Dr. Howard Andrews, chief of the Radiation Branch, NCI, discussed giving radioisotopes to humans and then detecting their presence throughout the whole human body. Technically, this was an ambitious undertaking. NIH decided to build a “whole body counter” room in the 3rd sub-basement (B3) of Bldg. 10.
The location was chosen because it was likely to have a low background radiation level. The walls and ceiling were thick concrete under at least 12 feet of dirt. Nevertheless, Andrews wanted to have the walls and ceiling further thickened with radiation-absorbing material.
Steel was the most cost-effective material, but all steel that was commercially available was created after World War II and was therefore
exposed to the atmosphere after the atomic bomb explosions. Andrews learned that the U.S. Navy was dismantling old pre-WW II ships and it was arranged to have slabs of the hull steel (over 6 inches thick) brought to NIH to clad the room.
Extensive architectural plans were drawn up for the major renovation needed to build the room. Andrews was asked for his input throughout. Designers wanted to know how much electrical power he would need for the room since a great deal of electronic equipment was going to be installed. However, it was just at this time that vacuum tubes were being replaced by transistors; all of the new equipment required far less power than previously. So little, in fact, that Andrews guessed that 10 amperes would be more than enough. But to be on the safe side, he requested 20 amperes.
The NIH architects who were preparing the plans to send out for bid felt that the scientists always underestimated their needs and would later demand increases. So they decided to make it 50 amperes. In the meantime, Andrews decided to take a sabbatical in Puerto Rico for a year while contract-bidding, award and construction were taking place. By the time he returned, the work would be mostly done.
The steel plates arrived at a Bldg. 10 loading platform
near a freight elevator. USN markings were still visible on some slabs. But the weight of the plates exceeded the limit of the elevator lift cables. The solution? Raise the elevator cab to a higher
floor and then lower the plates by crane down through the now-empty shaft to B3.
Above, the crystal counter room still has copper cladding
throughout. Each panel is almost a quarter-inch thick. Davis estimates each one weighs 40 pounds. The light fixtures are the originals.
Below, the door hinges are substantial, with rivals few places nowadays except for bank vaults.
During the initial construction, one or two bare light bulbs dangled from the ceiling of the dimly lit room. Workers trafficked back and forth in the corridor with various pieces of equipment. Soon there was a lot of noise from swearing workmen
as they struggled with steel plates, moving them around in a space not much larger than the chamber itself. There were jerry-rigged A-frame hoists with chain-hung pulleys used to manipulate
the slabs. It was like building a house from the inside out. The top of the steel vaults was covered
completely with many centimeters of borax (like bags of cement) used to absorb neutrons.
As the room was being remodeled, long metal trays (to accommodate electrical conduits) were hung from the ceiling along the outside hallways; they were almost a foot wide, hanging about a foot below the ceiling. The trays ran down the hallway, turning to adjacent hallways and eventually
disappearing into a concrete wall. Sometime later, several thick copper rods, each several inches
across, were placed in the trays. On his return from Puerto Rico, Andrews was perplexed when he saw the copper rods. The contract managers told him the rods were to carry electrical power to the whole body counter room.
It seems that the final contract that went out on bid had the 50 amperes increased to 70 amperes, but a misprint changed it to 700 amperes. But then the contract managers discovered that the rods were only rated for 600 amperes, so the contractor
was forced to change them to those rated for 700. Otherwise, Andrews was told, the contractor
could claim it was a change in the contract and demand further payment. Copper was relatively
cheap in those days.
By early 1962, the room was finished and in use.
Until the 1980’s, the Clinical Center’s nuclear medicine department (NMD) used the facility for radiation biology studies and to monitor NIH employees who were using certain radioisotopes. It was then detailed to the Radiation Safety Branch to continue detecting any contamination of NIH researchers.
In the early 1990’s, the room reverted to NMD for storage of patient records and surplus equipment.
Later the area was remodeled by the imaging
physics section for small animal PET and single-photon instrumentation projects. In 2004, the CC turned over Rm. B3B25 to NIBIB, whose Laboratory of Molecular Imaging and Nanomedicine
now occupies the space.
But the steel plates remain, still protecting the area from enemy gunfire.
(Editor’s note: Kempner was at NIH from 1958 to 2006 in NIAMS as a section chief. Draper was at NCI from 1960 to 1968.)