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Physicist worked with Fermi, went on to be a lawyer

Obit phoJulius TabPh.D. brilliant man with remarkable career. He earned both his Bachelor Science degree his Ph.D. Physics from University

Obit photo of Julius Tabin Ph.D., a brilliant man with a remarkable career. He earned both his Bachelor of Science degree and his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Chicago.

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Updated: October 22, 2012 6:15AM

A physicist who worked on the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Julius Tabin disregarded advice from government nuclear officials to avoid having children after being exposed to high doses of radiation as he gathered soil samples after the first tests of the bomb.

His kids don’t seem to have suffered for it.

One son, Cliff, is a professor who chairs the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. He also recruits Harvard instructors to teach at a medical school he helped found in Nepal.

His other son, Geoff — an opthalmology professor at the University of Utah — is the fourth person in the world to have scaled the highest mountains on all seven continents. And he performs surgery in Africa and in the Himalayas to restore sight to the poor.

The sons say their father’s Zen-like approach to life freed him to make decisions without fretting over the past or worrying about the future.

Maybe it came from having gone through the crucible of the Manhattan Project, in which some of the finest minds of a generation gathered to create the atom bomb that would be dropped on Japan in World War II. Mr. Tabin worked for the brilliant Enrico Fermi, who previously had created the first controlled nuclear reaction in an old squash court under an athletic field at the University of Chicago.

At Los Alamos, accidental radiation exposure cost some scientists their lives, or their health — at least temporarily. When Fermi disapproved of procedures he thought were reckless he urged his team, including Julius Tabin, to go out with him for hikes, Mr. Tabin would later recount to his sons.

Mr. Tabin and the other young scientists strode alongside Fermi in the New Mexico desert, transfixed as Fermi used his computer-like mind to retrieve and process data and free-associate answers to complex problems.

Mr. Tabin, 92, a Glencoe resident, died Aug. 25 at Highland Park Hospital.

One of the last surviving physicists from the Manhattan Project, he reinvented himself in the post-war era as a lawyer who specialized in patent and copyright law regarding the use of nuclear power for medical and other peacetime uses.

Some smart people tend toward introspection. Mr. Tabin’s intelligence manifested itself in playfulness and engagement — in scientific challenges and in the world around him.

Growing up in Chicago, he used his puzzle-solving talents to get himself double-promoted in school. The city schools had lost some records, so Mr. Tabin “pulled a little trick,” Cliff Tabin said. When school officials asked him what grade he was in, Mr. Tabin told them he was a year farther along than he really was. And that’s where they put him.

Mr. Tabin graduated from Von Steuben High School and earned his bachelor of science degree and doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago.

As part of Fermi’s team in Los Alamos, he and other scientists rode in lead-lined Sherman tanks to collect radioactive soil samples from nuclear testing.

“They used radio telemetry because there was no way to look outside,” Cliff Tabin said. “My dad went to Ground Zero. Twelve to 15 times, he opened the door and took core samples.”

Another physicist recalled the perilous journey in the book

Fermi Remembered. “It was dangerous because if the tank stalled, there was no escape; we would have cooked,” said Darragh Nagle.

When they returned to the lab, “just by walking into the room, all the detectors went off the scale,” Cliff Tabin said.

After the war, Mr. Tabin taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but because of the radiation exposure he had received, government officials “pronounced that he couldn’t touch radiation for seven years,” Cliff Tabin said. That meant research was out.

So Mr. Tabin went to Harvard Law School while simultaneously teaching at MIT.

The world was starting to explore peacetime uses of nuclear power in reactors and medical devices. After law school, Mr. Tabin joined the law firm known today as Fitch, Even, Tabin & Flannery, where he brought in clients like General Dynamics and the Salk Institute. He didn’t retire until he was 88.

“He was a very smart guy, but he had incredible patience, whether it was a clerk at a store, or someone who didn’t add up a check correctly,” said his other son, Dr. Geoff Tabin. “He never got impatient in traffic. If a car turned on their turn signal, he’d let them in. If somebody cut him off in traffic, he never got upset.”

Until her death two years ago, Mr. Tabin was married for 58 years to Johanna Tabin, a psychologist who trained with Sigmund’s Freud’s daughter, Anna, in London.

At home, Mr. Tabin kept a few souvenirs from Los Alamos. He had plastic-encased New Mexican sand — which was turned to hard glass by the power of a nuclear blast — and a defective rocket turned into a cigarette holder.

Other survivors include a brother, Seymour, and seven grandchildren. A memorial service is planned for 4 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Takiff Center, 999 Green Bay Rd., Glencoe.

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