Nuclear Half-Lies

Mallinckrodt's workers were poisoned and the government said it would pay. So far, those promises haven't been kept.

The first time Christopher Davis told his wife he had trouble breathing, he had been working on the water heater in the laundry room. Evelyn told her husband to make an appointment with a doctor, but neither of them was terribly worried.

Until that day in 1967, life for the Davis family had been fairly uncomplicated and uneventful. Davis had a good job as a funeral-home chauffeur, one of the jobs he had since leaving his position at Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in 1960. Evelyn stayed home with the two youngest children. Sharon, the eldest, was already grown, married and starting a family; seven-year-old Denise's biggest worries were staying out of trouble with her six-year-old brother, Christopher Jr., and navigating parochial school.

Life was pretty good, Evelyn recalls, until Christopher Davis started gasping for air. Doctors would discover lung cancer, beginning years of medical procedures that broke Davis and ruined the family financially. First came radiation therapy, but the cancer had spread too far. Then doctors removed Davis' left lung, and from that point on, he was forced to rely on an oxygen tank. Later, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia, though doctors spared him that news, delivering it instead to Evelyn.

Brian Stauffer
Denise Brock founded United Nuclear Weapons Workers of St. Louis after the government didn't deliver on its promise to help Mallinckrodt workers
Mark Gilliland
Denise Brock founded United Nuclear Weapons Workers of St. Louis after the government didn't deliver on its promise to help Mallinckrodt workers

Evelyn recalls that her husband's legs turned black and looked charred; she believes it was a side effect of the leukemia. Doctors debated amputation, but decided against it. "I'd take his elastic stockings off at night and his skin would rip off with them," she remembers.

The disease that ravaged his body destroyed the life he worked hard to create.

They had to sell the comfortable two-story home in Pine Lawn along with the furniture. The family bought a trailer, eventually moving it to Lincoln County, where daughter Sharon lived with her family. Evelyn worked as a secretary for an insurance company, took a job in a factory and after spending so much time in the Lincoln County Memorial Hospital with her husband, accepted a job handling patient accounts. She'd go to work on one floor in the hospital and visit her husband on another.

As Denise and her brother grew, so too did their responsibilities.

Instead of learning from his father how to throw a football, hunt or fix up cars, Christopher Jr. was taught how to regulate oxygen flow and mastered the art of putting tubes up his father's nose.

Denise says being home alone with her dad made her "apprehensive." She feared making a mistake with his oxygen, a mistake with fatal consequences.

"If he slept too soundly, I'd almost be afraid to walk in the room, in case there was a dead body," Denise recalls. "I'd go in there and shake him real hard, saying prayers in my heart -- 'God, please don't let him be dead.'"

Holidays were celebrated at the hospital. Family reunions took place at Christopher Davis' bedside. As a child, Denise would sit on the hospital room floor while her father's seven sisters gathered round and listened as a priest read the Last Rites, the Roman Catholic sacrament for the dying.

When Denise was a senior at Buchanan High School in Troy, her father's care became all-consuming. Sixteen-year-old Christopher Jr. quit school and stayed home with his dad while his mother worked. Denise waited tables and planned to get married. By mid-April, her wedding invitations had been mailed.

On April 27, 1978, Denise went into her father's bedroom before catching the bus to school. "I went in his room and I shook him and said, 'Bye, love you.' He looked me right in the eyes and said, 'Goodbye, I love you.'"

After Denise left and her mother went to work, Christopher Davis sat up on the couch, clutched his chest and died in his son's arms. Denise received the news from her brother and immediately left school for the hospital to say goodbye to a man who was already gone. When the family returned home, they set to work straightening furniture that had been knocked down by the paramedics, reminders of the last-ditch effort made to keep Davis alive.

A few days later, Christopher Davis was buried in the cemetery just across the street from the trailer.

When Christopher Davis went to work for Mallinckrodt's uranium division in 1945, he was joining one of the pioneers of America's Atomic Age. The St. Louis company's role started three years earlier -- just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In April 1942, Dr. Arthur Holly Compton, a noted physicist who'd later become chancellor of Washington University, requested a meeting with Edward Mallinckrodt Jr., president of the chemical company that bore his name.

Compton was one of the scientists assigned to work on a top-secret project for the Manhattan Engineering District. Its objective: Build an atomic bomb before the Nazis. But the scientists needed a large amount of purified uranium, and Compton hoped Mallinckrodt could help.

Refining uranium ore was dangerous: In addition to the risk of radiation exposure, the volatile process, if not carefully controlled, could cause explosions. Already three companies had refused to handle the work, Compton confided, but Edward Mallinckrodt didn't turn down the challenge. And during the 51 ensuing days, Mallinckrodt engineers hastily assembled a processing plant at the downtown St. Louis facility. The secret project was code-named "Tube Alloy."

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