Doris Coleman Zifferer knows how to keep a secret. For many years, her family had no idea that she spent the years 1943-1947 in Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project.
The story came out when the family was sorting through Zifferer’s papers, which included letters of recommendation from J. Robert Oppenheimer and Norman Foster Ramsey, Jr.
Ramsey was the group leader of Group E-7 of the Ordnance Division, charged with the task of integrating the design and delivery of the nuclear weapons being built by the Laboratory. Doris Coleman, a 24-year-old WAC, was his confidential secretary.
At first Zifferer refused to talk about those years, saying “it’s secret,” but her family convinced her that although the details of the science used to build the bombs might remain classified, stories of her time in Los Alamos were not.
Friday, at age 92, Zifferer returned to Los Alamos for the first time in 67 years. Debi Wersonick of the LANL Community Programs Office gave Zifferer and her family a tour of the Bradbury Science Museum, Fuller Lodge and other sites around Los Alamos.
“It was a wonderful thing,” Zifferer said of the Manhattan Project. “I’m proud to have been part of it.”
In his letter of recommendation, Ramsey wrote, “In the final critical months prior to the combat use of the atomic bomb, Miss Coleman with eagerness worked very long hours and relieved me of a large share of my administrative burden. Of all the secretaries I have ever had Miss Coleman is unquestionably the best….”
As Ramsey’s secretary, Zifferer knew nearly every detail of the Manhattan Project. Lab staff didn’t talk about their work outside the office, she said. They put it aside.
Ramsey would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1989 for the invention of the separated oscillatory field method, which had important applications in the construction of atomic clocks, but in 1943, he was only 28 years old.
“They were all so young,” Zifferer said of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project. “They were amazing people.” She said Ramsey was one of the finest people she ever knew.
“Oppenheimer had so much energy,” Zifferer remembered. “He was this tall skinny guy, always on the move. Organizing all those people wasn’t easy!”
At the Bradbury, Zifferer looked through a book of Manhattan Project era lab badges, pointing out friends and old beaus. “We worked hard, but we had fun,” she said.