Beloved ‘Gatekeeper’ Made Manhattan Project Work

Dorothy McKibbin at the 109 East Palace office, c. 1960. Courtesy/Atomic Heritage Foundation

By Heather McClenahan
Los Alamos Historical Society

Spies tried to ingratiate themselves to her. She scoured Santa Fe for exotic holiday items for European scientists. People who walked through the front door of her office sometimes disappeared out the back.

Dorothy McKibbin, known as the Gatekeeper to Los Alamos, has become one of the most well-known historical figures of the Manhattan Project, and she is the most universally beloved.

She worked in a modest office at 109 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe, issuing passes, procuring equipment, sending furniture and other household items to the right places. She watched over shopping bags left in her care by beleaguered Los Alamos residents and lent an ear to the homesick and lovesick. 

Born Dorothy Scarritt in Kansas City in 1897, McKibbin grew up in a wealthy family and attended a prestigious women’s prep school. She graduated from Smith College in 1919 and then traveled extensively with her father and friends, including trips to Europe, Alaska, Canada and South America. 

In 1923, McKibbin met and became engaged to Princeton graduate Joseph McKibbin, but a bout with tuberculosis at age 27 ended her engagement. She traveled to Santa Fe to convalesce at Sunmount Sanitarium, an early 20th century haven for those struck with that often-fatal disease. Dorothy made a quick recovery, allowing her to marry Joe after all, but within a year of the birth of their son, Kevin, Dorothy’s husband died of Hodgkin’s disease. 

The young widow packed up her son, her dog, and a few belongings to head west to the town that had captured her heart. In Santa Fe she found a job as a bookkeeper for the Spanish and Indian Trading Company, a trading post dependent upon tourism. When World War II broke out and tourism declined, the company closed, leaving McKibbin without work. 

Her first meeting with J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, is almost legendary. She had met her friend Joe Stevenson at La Fonda, and they were talking in the lobby. He had previously offered her a job as a secretary but couldn’t tell her what she would be doing. Because of Stevenson’s secrecy, she had hesitated.

She noticed a man approaching them. “He wore a trench coat and a porkpie hat,” she remembered. “He walked on the balls of his feet and had a pipe in his mouth.” The man approached them, and Stevenson introduced her. The man nodded, said a few words, and went on. She would recall years later that he had bright blue eyes and a charismatic personality and that somehow she knew he was connected to the work she had been offered. She turned to Stevenson and said, “I’ll take the job.”

“I never met a person with magnetism that hit you so fast, so completely,” McKibbin said of Oppenheimer years later. “I just wanted to be allied with, having something to do with, a personality such as his.”

In her biography of McKibbin, Gatekeeper to Los Alamos, author Nancy Steeper wrote that Oppenheimer’s choice of the project secretary was inspired. She noted, “From her work at the Spanish and Indian Trading Company, her experience building a house in Santa Fe, and her wide association with leaders of the arts community, she knew what was happening in town, and she knew how to get things done.”

In view of a secretarial job that came without a job description, McKibbin handled it perfectly. She arranged for passes and transportation for people headed to the top-secret project “on the Hill”. In one interview, she told of a couple who came into her office claiming to have a truck full of equipment that needed to go to the Hill. However, since she knew nothing about the shipment, she suspected they were up to no good. Upon further questioning, the would-be spies dashed out of her office, never to return. 

McKibbin found equipment for the project, from a mundane ditto machine to specialized scientific items. In the meantime, her Santa Fe home became something of a refuge for the busy Los Alamos work force and the site of many Manhattan Project weddings.

McKibbin ran the office at 109 East Palace until 1963, when the University of California closed its famous location and she retired. She passed away in 1985, just past her 88th birthday. Today, visitors poke their heads into the Rainbow Man, a curio shop at that famous address – 109 East Palace Avenue. They are looking to connect with one of the icons of Los Alamos history. 

McKibbin’s profile as a Santa Fe Living Treasure says it all. “With an exquisite combination of tact, intelligence, loyalty, hospitality, humor, and motherly warmth, she served as the Gatekeeper to Los Alamos.”