McClenahan: Women Played Vital Roles In Manhattan Project From Scientists To Technicians To Moms

By Heather McClenahan
Los Alamos Historical Society

The public and even some historians often have a romantic view of the Manhattan Project: A few brilliant scientists with thick glasses, dressed in white coats, working feverishly, yet often alone in laboratories where a few “eureka” moments led to the development of the world’s first atomic bombs.

The real story is much more complex, involving more people and more programs than most history books share.

Alex Wellerstein, a historian of the Manhattan Project and nuclear secrecy, working at the Stevens Institute of Technology, estimates that more than 600,000 people were employed on some aspect of the project from its inception in 1941 until it officially shut down Dec. 31, 1946.

Thousands of those workers were women whose stories have often been hidden and overlooked. However, that doesn’t mean they are unknown.

One of the best resources for learning about women on the project is a book published in 1999, Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project by Ruth Howes and Caroline Herzenberg. Using extensive research and interviews with hundreds of people, the authors documented more than 300 women who served in scientific and technical jobs on the project, from physicists and chemists to technicians and librarians.

They detail not only the work these women did but the struggles they sometimes faced because of gender discrimination, including less pay than their male colleagues and being left out of scientific publications in spite of their contributions to research.

The authors also provide evidence of the triumphs, such as Enrico Fermi promoting Jane Hall to be his assistant director at Argonne National Laboratory in 1945. Hall became associate director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1958, and in 1970 became the first woman to receive the Atomic Energy Commission Citation. Another triumph occurred when authorities asked physicist Elda Anderson to begin the health physics program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The contributions of women also show up in more obscure publications, such as Notable American Women: The Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary, a massive reference tome that attempts to document information on women’s personal lives and professional contributions. (The book is available for free checkout at www.archives.org.)

Although Los Alamos was a military base during World War II, it had the unique distinction of housing a large number of civilians and their families.

In addition to providing much-needed labor at the laboratory for jobs such as computing difficult mathematic problems and teaching in the new schools, the women of Los Alamos provided a social network, setting up preschools, Scout organizations, clubs, and other institutions that helped form a community where none had existed. The foundations they laid are still part of the fabric of the community today and should not be overlooked.

No matter what their role in the frenetic pace of the Manhattan Project, few women had time to appreciate their significant contributions. As Howes and Herzenberg put it: “They recognize that the success of the Manhattan Project depended on the success of many smaller efforts. They see their success not as the triumph of a small group of brilliant scientists but as the culmination of efforts of many hardworking, dedicated people.”

That is a far cry from that romantic notion of the lone scientist!

In the coming months, the Los Alamos Historical Society will be providing more information on women’s roles in the Manhattan Project, culminating in March with women’s history month, where we will share each week stories of individual women who worked in Los Alamos on the project.

In addition to Their Day in the Sun and for more information on women in the Manhattan Project, see Standing By and Making Do: The Women of Wartime Los Alamos by Jane S. Wilson and Charlotte Serber (editors), Tales of Los Alamos by Bernice Brode, and The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan.

These books are all available at the Los Alamos History Museum and on the museum’s website, www.losalamoshistory.org.

See also information about pioneering women in Los Alamos at https://www.losalamoshistory.org/pioneeringwomen.html.

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