William G. Pollard, nuclear physicist, Episcopal priest, and founder of Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU), was a native of New York state. Pollard moved to Tennessee with his family at age twelve. He received his B.A. from the University of Tennessee in 1932, the same year he married his wife Marcella, and began a graduate fellowship at Rice University. He earned a Ph.D. in physics from Rice in 1935. He also received honorary doctorates in science, divinity, law, and humane letters from twelve colleges and universities.
Pollard began his career in 1936, serving on the physics department faculty at UT. In 1944 he undertook two years at Columbia University as a research scientist on the Manhattan Project and conducted research on the gaseous diffusion method of extracting uranium 235–the explosive in atomic bombs–from common uranium.
After the end of World War II, Pollard and his family returned to Tennessee, and a fellow physics professor at UT suggested to Pollard that university researchers in the Oak Ridge region have access to the federal government’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This idea sparked Pollard’s interest, and he headed a committee to investigate the possibility. He built the necessary support of both the federal government and fourteen southern schools to create the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies (ORINS) in October 1946. He served as the organization’s executive director until his retirement in 1974.
Pollard regularly attended the Episcopal church with his wife and four sons without considering himself particularly religious. Immediately after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, though, he experienced a feeling “close to terror,” countering his initial exuberance following the bomb-drop on Hiroshima. After Pollard returned to Oak Ridge, he became more involved in the development of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and participation in its services. As the leader of ORINS, he considered the new organization his primary responsibility, but he found himself more interested in theology.
Pollard was ordained in 1954 and served as priest associate at St. Stephen’s until his death in 1989. Throughout his studies, Pollard had to resolve in his mind a complicated marriage of science and religion. As he struggled with the issue, he came to believe, to put it simply, that science was a way of investigating the wonders of God’s creations. Because his combination of careers was so unusual, he also received attention from both academia and the media. Lectures he delivered on the relationship of science and theology led to publication of several books, including Chance and Providence and Physicist and Christian.
Pollard retired from his post as executive director of ORAU in 1974, but he worked for several more years as a distinguished scientist in the organization’s Institute for Energy Analysis. Following a long struggle with cancer, Pollard died in 1989.