Donald Hornig dies at 92, worked on atomic bomb

PROVIDENCE, RI - Donald F. Hornig, a scientist who served as a key figure on the Manhattan Project, an adviser to three U.S. presidents and president of Brown University, has died. He was 92.

Hornig died Monday, his son, Chris Hornig, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. He had lived in Providence with his wife for the past several years and suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Horning, a Harvard-trained physical chemist, worked from 1944 to 1946 on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos Laboratory, which developed the atomic bomb during World War II. He was one of the youngest group leaders and designed the firing unit that triggered the simultaneous implosion of the bomb's plutonium device.

Hornig sat in a tower with the bomb the night before the first test of the weapon amid a thunder and lightning storm. In a 1968 interview that is held at Lyndon B. Johnson Library, he recalled the moment the bomb was detonated.

"The minute the firing needle dropped off and I knew it had detonated, I dashed out the door in time to see the fireball rising into the sky," he said, later continuing, "I was awestruck, just literally awestruck. This thing was more fantastic than anything I had ever imagined."

After the war, he joined Brown as a chemistry professor in 1946. He moved to Princeton in 1957.

Hornig served as a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee for Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy and then as special assistant to the president for science and technology for Johnson.

He was named Brown's president in 1970 and assumed leadership of a school that was in poor financial shape. When he arrived, the Ivy League university was running a $4.1 million deficit for the 1970-71 school year, according to a Brown spokesman. He instituted an austerity program, but he also established degree-granting graduate programs in the medical sciences that became the foundation for Brown's medical school, his family said.

By the time he left, the school was restored to financial health.

"As Brown's president, he was able to make difficult fiscal decisions that put the university back on a firm footing," Brown University President Christina H. Paxson said in a written statement. "Much of Brown University's success over the last three decades had its roots in these decisions, for which we remain grateful."

Upon leaving Brown, Hornig joined Harvard University's School of Public Health, where he was founding director of its Interdisciplinary Programs in Health, which focused on health, the environment, and public policy. He retired in 1990.

Hornig was born in Milwaukee and was the first in his family to go to college. His son said he was able to achieve what he did out of a love of learning and of patriotism and that much of his life was about applying science to solve problems.

"He led this amazing life through the power of his intellect and his curiosity," Chris Horning said. "Much of his life really was in the end about how do you apply science to solving problems?"

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