The lost tale of a nuclear scientist's death in a secret San Francisco hospital room
By KATIE DOWD | SFGate, San Francisco | Published: October 23, 2020
SAN FRANCISCO (Tribune News Service) — Before San Francisco became a metropolis, there was the Presidio.
Since its creation as a military base in 1776, it has stood alone in a windswept corner, gathering legends. It has seen executions, tragic accidents and countless hospital patients. And if you're a believer that violent ends produce restless spirits, the Presidio is full up with phantoms as a result.
The most haunted place is said to be Letterman Army Hospital, once the base's largest medical facility and today partly converted into offices for Lucasfilm. People report hearing the shuffling of unseen feet down halls, shadowy figures lingering in rooms and even lines of patients outside waiting for admittance.
In looking for Presidio ghost stories, though, we stumbled across a far stranger tale than any haunting: the real-life demise of a nuclear scientist — a chapter of the Cold War, as far as we can tell, untold since 1953.
In March of that year, Bay Area residents were stunned to open their morning newspaper to read about the unusual death of William Curtis Twitchell.
Twitchell was a genius. Born in Minnesota in 1917, he got his undergraduate degree from Rollins College in Florida and a masters in chemistry at UC Berkeley. At 23, he was promoted to project engineer in charge of the equipment department of the University of California radiation lab.
This was no ordinary lab. Among Twitchell's colleagues were Glenn Seaborg, Ernest O. Lawrence and J. Robert Oppenheimer — all of whom would later contribute to the Manhattan Project — and together the team was working on the discovery of atomic particles. Once World War II broke out, their mission shifted. The lab's work was now crucial to the creation of nuclear weapons for the U.S. military.
As America transitioned from open warfare to the Cold War, Twitchell remained a critical part of the war machine. He occasionally made speaking engagements advocating for more funding. At a dinner at the Treasure Island Officers' Club in 1948, Twitchell told the crowd the lab needed $8 million for a new "supercyclotron" that would "be able to convert energy into mass, thereby reversing the process of the atom bomb."
He wouldn't live to see the new cyclotron built. In 1952, it became clear something wasn't right with Twitchell, then just 35 years old. That year, doctors diagnosed him with a malignant brain tumor and told him he likely did not have long to live.
As Twitchell and his wife Marie processed the terrible news, the U.S. government sprung into action. Although he likely would have wanted his palliative care to take place at his home at 2319 Glen Ave., in Berkeley, he was told that wouldn't be possible. He needed to be moved as soon as possible to a secure location.
The brain tumor presented a particular problem for the Atomic Energy Commission: It had the potential to cause erratic behavior and uncontrolled verbal outbursts. They were fearful that as he lost control of his mental faculties, Twitchell would begin spilling nuclear secrets. He knew "as much about atomic energy as any one man," an anonymous source in the commission would later tell the Oakland Tribune.
So they built a secret ward just for Twitchell. At the cost of $100,000 — nearly $1 million today — construction began at the Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco's Presidio for the unusual patient. Once finished, all doctors and nurses who might interact with Twitchell were given rigorous screenings for any national security issues. In the end, only one male nurse was trusted to primarily care for Twitchell. A guard stood watch outside the room at all times.
Unbeknownst to the other military patients at the hospital, a civilian lay dying in his own wing. "He was the hospital's hush-hush case," the San Francisco Examiner reported.
On March 23, 1953, five months after his diagnosis, Twitchell died. Two days later, news broke nationally. "A macabre tale of the atomic age was revealed yesterday," the Examiner proclaimed. The Atomic Energy Commission was forced to admit Twitchell's room wasn't the only one they'd covertly constructed. Around the nation, there were similar isolation wards for individuals dealing in nuclear secrets.
An anonymous source told the Tribune this was standard protocol to keep scientists from blabbing while "unbalanced, anesthetized or under the influence of dentists' 'laughing gas.'" Although expensive, it was the only way to maintain national security.
But all this drama meant little to the Twitchells, who were left to bury their loved one. William's body was sent back to his native Minnesota, where he is buried in the family plot at Owatonna's Forest Hill cemetery.
Although no Letterman Hospital stories specifically point to a wandering nuclear scientist ghost, there is one spooky tidbit. Legend says a Muni driver, making his usual night rounds through the Presidio, saw a man awaiting him at a bus stop. The man stepped aboard — no word on whether or not he skipped out on the fare — and took a seat. The driver resumed his route, thinking nothing of the pickup. But when he looked back, the man had disappeared.
No one knows who this ghostly rider could be. Perhaps it is William Twitchell, hoping to return to his Berkeley home one last time.
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