Floy Agnes Lee. Courtesy/AHF
Floy Agnes Lee, a Native American who worked on the Manhattan Project and whose career provided insights into cancer research and radiation biology, is an unsung hero of science.
We share her story in celebration of Native American Heritage month in hopes that her contributions will become more well known.
Lee’s father was from Santa Clara Pueblo and her mother descended from German-Americans in Indiana. She grew up in Albuquerque, where her parents taught at the Indian School. Lee had just finished a degree in biology from the University of New Mexico in 1945 when she received a call from laboratory officials in Los Alamos asking her to come to work in the hematology lab.
“My assignment was to collect the blood from the research men, scientists, who were working on the atomic bomb,” Lee explained in an oral history interview in 2017. “I had to learn how to take blood, how to read the blood cells, what type of blood cell, and all that connected to hematology. I got along real well in that area.”
Lee was assigned to work with certain scientists, drawing their blood for tests. She often did not know their names, just a number they were given for the lab work. Unbeknownst to Lee, world-renowned physicist Enrico Fermi was one of her patients.
“We got to talking about what I liked to do and what he liked to do, and we got on the subject of tennis,” she said. “After the bomb was dropped, the GIs who worked at the laboratory came up and shook my hand and said, ‘You were the person who stuck the hand of the great Enrico Fermi.’”
Lee also mentioned that she beat Fermi, who was well known for his athletic abilities, at tennis every time they played — until she found out who he was. “So, when we went out to play tennis later, I didn’t beat him. I tried not to. We became very, very good friends.”
Lee was also involved in blood tests for the post-war criticality accident that killed Louis Slotin. She was ordered to take blood from Al Graves, who was at the scene of in the accident, and no one could believe Graves was alive with a white blood cell count as low as it was.
“We remained very good friends,” she said of Graves. “He and his wife and I and several other people from Los Alamos would go skiing in Colorado, and I went hiking with them.”
After the war, Fermi invited Lee to come to the University of Chicago. She did, working at Argonne National Laboratory and marrying a fellow scientist. Soon after their daughter was born, Lee’s husband passed away. However, she was determined to complete what she had started.
“I went to Chicago to get my Ph.D., and I’m going to get it. I worked and went to school, and it took me 14 years to get the Ph.D. I was in my forties when I got it, but I did it,” she said.
Lee’s research focused on radiation biology, specializing in cancer research. She is credited with pioneering a method of computer analysis of chromosomes in the 1960s.
Through the years, she worked at Argonne National Laboratory, the Pasadena Foundation for Medical Research, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She returned to Los Alamos in the 1970s and worked for the Mammalian Biology Group.
Lee was a founding member of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and a member of the International Society for Cell Biology, among other scientific associations. She passed away in March 2018. For more information on her career and family, watch her interview at https://www.manhattanprojectvoices.org/oral-histories/floy-agnes-lees-interview.