The Manhattan Project

Ruth Howes's Interview

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Ruth Howes is professor emerita of physics and astronomy at Ball State University with an interest in the history of women physicists. She has researched and written on the role of female scientists in the Manhattan Project. Howes is the co-author of "Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project," which tells the “hidden story of the contribution of women in the effort to develop the atomic bomb.”
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
October 12, 2016
Location of the Interview: 
Santa Fe

Cindy Kelly: Okay. I’m Cindy Kelly. I’m in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s Wednesday, October 12, 2016. I have with me Ruth Howes. I’m going to ask her to please say and spell her name.

Ruth Howes: I am Ruth Howes, and that’s R-u-t-h H-o-w-e-s.

Kelly: Ruth is a very distinguished historian of the Manhattan Project with a particular focus on women, women scientists. I’m going to ask her to talk about this and what she’s learned. 

Howes: The first thing you must realize is that this country was at total war, and the Manhattan Project as a whole was sort of a third level project. The first two were radar and sonar. I’m not sure which was the premier problem, but we had to have sonar to get supplies to Europe and we had to have radar against the Luftwaffe. 

So, the Manhattan Project. In 1939, Niels Bohr brought to the January meeting of the American Physical Society the information about the discovery of nuclear fission. And at that point, a series of bright people realized that you might be able to make a bomb. They set about calculating how much uranium-235 you would have. Because obviously, that’s only 7/10 of a percent of naturally occurring uranium, so enriching the isotope would be a problem. They started small, they started squirreling around with numbers.

The Brits took it more seriously, and they did something called the MAUD Report, which arrived in this country. It turned out MAUD was not the name of it — it was a greeting to somebody’s housekeeper. The MAUD Report got the critical mass right, which made it all possible. 

So then the Manhattan Project ramped up fast, just about the time we entered the war in Europe. When you look in the early stages of the Manhattan Project, the physicists, the native-born, honest-to-gosh American physicists, had been pulled into the radar and sonar projects. The Manhattan Project recruited what was left, which turned out to be European emigres and women — not a bad lot. The European emigres, of course, were very, very capable scientists and so were many of the women. Most of the women we talked to about the Manhattan Project said quite clearly the reason they joined it was because they had their brother, fiancé or husband fighting in Europe, and they wanted to do their bit to end this atrocious war.

So unlike the scientists, who may have had more time on their hands, the women generally were very proud of their work in producing the first atomic bomb.

The person who comes to mind is a woman named Elsie Pierce, who joined the Army and was stationed in Los Alamos. She was very, very clear that she couldn’t talk about the work she’d done at Los Alamos, and that she had joined the Army because her brother was overseas and she wanted to do her bit.

These were not the scientists. These were the WACs [Women’s Army Corps]. Another technician is a woman named Frances Dunne, and Frances Dunne describes herself as an orphan. She went to several universities and never arrived at a degree. In about 1944, she was working at Kirtland Air Force base as an aircraft mechanic when George Kistiakowsky noticed that she had considerable mechanical aptitude and very small hands. He drafted her up to Los Alamos to work with the explosives testing group up on the mesa, because she could get her hands down inside the mockups of the bomb and set the final trigger.

Now neither of these women was a scientist, technically speaking. A more realistic scientist is a chemist named Norma Gross, who had a master’s degree in chemistry. She was married to a lieutenant in the Army who was drafted and stationed at Los Alamos, so she joined the WACs and got herself stationed at Los Alamos.

Once there, she was assigned to the group that was producing radioactive lanthanum for the initiators inside the nuclear weapons. She had a tremendous advantage over her colleagues because she was short. They had to bend over and crouch under the pipes, and she just walked right through. She’s a typical example of one of the women who got overlooked in the official histories. She was written up — her work was described, but it was described as being done by somebody named Norman Gross, instead of Norma Gross. 

The better scientists were two women who were recruited because their husbands refused to come if they didn’t come. Once was “Diz” [Elizabeth] Graves, who was married to Al Graves. Al Graves refused to work at Los Alamos if she didn’t come too. She was pregnant at the time of the Trinity test, and so they sent her down to Carrizozo, New Mexico, where the Graves took a motel room and monitored the fallout, the radioactive cloud as it passed over from the test. They saw it, and she had a very healthy baby. Diz rose eventually to become assistant head of the physics division. She was a very good physicist.

Jane Hall — whose birth date I get wrong chronically — got a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, and met and married her husband, David Hall. They married while working on the Chicago reactor. Then David got a job at the University of Texas and Jane followed him after she finished her Ph.D., but she couldn’t get a job there because of nepotism rules, anti-nepotism rules as my British friends keep assuring me. She was very unhappy because she couldn’t be with her husband and work at the same time. When he was drafted to Los Alamos, and these guys were drafted, he made it a condition of his employment that she come too.

They were sent first to Hanford, where he worked on the reactor and she was assigned to the health science division. There is an extremely funny interview with her boss at Hanford, who was delighted to have her work in his division. She was the first person to come up with the idea of the film badge for monitoring radiation dosage, and he just really was enthralled about her work. David was not so enthralled about Hanford because the housing they had to live in had concrete bathtubs, which he describes as very gritty on your bottom [Laughter]. 

After the war, they came to Los Alamos where they were instrumental in designing and constructing the first fast reactor. Later, she rose to be assistant head of the lab and a member of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. So she was a good administrator. 

Leona Marshall was—Leona Woods she was then—was a grimy graduate student at the University of Chicago working on molecular spectroscopy when the Manhattan Project moved in there for the Met Lab. She got the idea that she’d like to go to the Met Lab, so she did. There she worked with Fermi’s group building that first reactor, carrying bricks, constructing circles. Her big thing was that she was a glassblower because she’d been a chemist, and so she was put to making neutron counters that would monitor the performance of that first reactor. She was there on the day that first reactor went critical, monitoring her neutron counters. She was there when Fermi declared that they were all going to lunch, and they shut the experiment down and had lunch and then they came back. It was a very interesting life, that one.

Another of my favorite women is Joan Hinton. Joan Hinton grew up in New Hampshire, in New England, with a mother who ran one of the early Montessori schools [misspoke: the Putney School]. When Joan graduated from high school, she had spent a summer at Cornell with her brother who was studying there. She had built a cloud chamber in the lab. She thought it’d be fun to go to Cornell, but they wouldn’t take her. She was a woman. So, she went to Bryn Mawr, or worse than that, Bennington College, which is known as a—forgive my French—artsy-fartsy college. While she was at Bennington, she studied ballet and violin and graduated in three years, and still wanted to do work on cloud chambers. She went to Illinois, or Cornell again [misspoke: University of Wisconsin]. And this time she was accepted as a grad student — double standard here. She was not going to corrupt the men as much if she was a grad student.

She built a cloud chamber, and at that point her friends kept disappearing. One day, the cyclotron group was gone, and the cyclotron too. The next day the Van de Graaff disappeared out the window, along with its crew. Finally she got a call from an unknown site in New Mexico, so she did what anybody would do. She went to the library and got a book out on New Mexico, and you guys are old enough to remember that in those days, you signed the library card. She looked at the library card, and there were the names of all the people who had disappeared.

She took a train to New Mexico and was met at Lamy and carried up to the Hill, where she went to work in a group headed by Enrico Fermi that was building reactors with critical uranium cores. They worked down in the valley, down in a canyon, one of the canyons. They had cars at the top or they could climb down. They also had a four-wheeled weapon carrier, which would take them down the steep trail into the canyon. They built the reactor, she welded things, and they built the reactor until it went critical. Celebration!

She tells two stories that happened slightly after the war, if you’re interested in them. One of them was the first accident in the canyon. They had all gone to lunch, and she came back after lunch and one of her friends [Harry Daghlian] had been working on the first samples of plutonium that came in from Argonne. His hand slipped and he dropped a glass over the top of the plutonium sample and it went critical. He knocked the glass off, but he knew he’d had a heavy dose, so he walked out of the lab, and Joan was there and he asked her to drive him to the hospital. So she did and he died later. But she took his pocketknife and coins and everything that had been irradiated so they could calculate the dose.

Well, she watched the Trinity test. She wasn’t supposed to be there, but she got in the back of one of her friend’s motorbikes and they rode up to the top of the mesa that overlooked the Trinity site. They sat there all night while thunderstorms rolled in the distance. Must’ve been quite a night! Then at dawn the blast finally went—you have the quote, as she describes it, about the ball of light going up and up and up and then the sound arrived and the hills were all ringing with it. After that, they went home stunned. She joined a group at Los Alamos that sent to every mayor of a large city in this country a sample of the sand that they dug out at Trinity, with a note that said, “Do you want this to happen to your city?”

After that, she wanted to go to grad school, naturally enough. She wanted to follow all her friends to Illinois, and Illinois wouldn’t have her. But Fermi, who was well known as a favorer of womenhe helped Leona too—asked her to come with him to Chicago. So she went to Chicago, and she did graduate work in a room that was lined with heavy water. They couldn’t get ten centimeters of it for their experiment until a Danish friend sent some over with a note that said, “I thought you had civilian control.” At that point, she got disgusted and walked out of physics.

But her brother from Cornell and his roommate, Bill Engst [misspoke: Erwin Engst], who is important to the story, were running a dairy farm out near Mongolia. Her brother arranged for her, with Madame Sun Yat-Sen no less, to be smuggled into Beijing. She sat in Beijing for a solid year before she was smuggled across nationalist Chinese lines into the countryside, where she joined her brother and married the roommate, because everybody expected her to get married. She spent the next 30 years having kids, American kids who learned Chinese first and speak with heavy Chinese accents, and running the dairy farm. She was awarded prizes by the Maoist government.

She came to my house when she came back to this country. We got fantastically lucky. I called her son in upstate New York and asked how I could reach his mother. He said, “Oh, she’s right here. Would you like to talk to her?”

I said, “Would I like to talk to her?”

So the upshot of all of this was that she was my houseguest in Muncie, Indiana, while driving to a course in how to construct and maintain milk meters so that she in China could purchase milk meters for the dairy. She sat in my house — she showed up in a plaid shirt – I had my high school daughter and a friend on the floor next to her—and she took a drink of wine and said, “I am such a lucky woman. I’ve seen the two great events of the 20th century. The first atomic explosion and the Maoist revolution!” [Laughter]

She was just a lovely lady and really willing to talk. She had one of these lives that is just not expected. And that’s the end of her story.