Today is the A to Z Challenge’s last Sunday break for the month but since I usually post every day or just about, I thought I’d write one of my normal Saturday segments.

Throughout history women have made their mark in a wide variety of ways.  In WOW, I usually highlight one of these remarkable women and write about their life from birth to the grave.  Last week I wrote about the American women codebreakers.  Today I write about the women of science involved with the Manhattan Project.

Women of the Atomic Age

Women of the Atomic Age

The Manhattan Project was a research and development project that produced the first atomic bombs during World War II. It was led by the United States with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada.


The Manhattan Project incorporated at least 300 military and civilian women. WACs and wives of scientists were often assigned to clerical and service jobs. But women with advanced technical training served in important research positions.

EldaAnderson_1Elda “Andy” Anderson was a co-developer of the atomic bomb.  She received her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in atomic spectroscopy.She held a teaching position at Downer’s College at Milwaukee.The Cyclotron group at Los Alamos persuadedher to take a leave of absence fromher teaching duties and move west.She worked on studies of the fission process, including measurements of such basic parameters as the number of neutrons produced per fission and the time delay, if any, before the emission of neutrons.  She was 50 years old and with white hair seemed a senior citizen compared to the majority of younger scientists at Los Alamos. She is remembered as living by herself in the dormitory and working mostly at night clad in jeans and a plaid shirt. She was also the first person to prepare a sample of nearly pure uranium-235. After the war, Elda returned to her teaching position at Downer’s College, but was then recruited by the Oak Ridge Laboratory, where she was placed in charge of health education and training. As a nuclear physicist, she played an important part in shaping the emerging discipline of health physics.

360px-Leona_WoodsLeona Harriet Woods (August 9, 1919 – November 10, 1986), later known as Leona Woods Marshall and Leona Woods Marshall Libby, was an American physicist who helped build the first nuclear reactor and the first atomic bomb. By 1942, when she was finishing writing up her thesis, she was the youngest and last of Mulliken’s pre-war students, and was working alone because all her fellow students had become involved with war work. She met Herbert Anderson, who was working for Enrico Fermi. Anderson discovered that Woods was adept with vacuum technology from her research, and as soon as her PhD was finished, he hired her to work with the boron trifluoride detectors used to measure neutron flux.

Fermi’s group constructed a nuclear reactor known as Chicago Pile-1 under the stands of Stagg Field, the University’s abandoned football stadium. Walter Zinn did not want a woman involved in the dirty work of placing the graphite blocks, but Woods had plenty of work to do with the detectors and thermocouples, and used a small stack of graphite of her own to measure the effects of a radium-beryllium source on manganese foil to obtain a measure of the neutron cross section in order to calibrate the detectors. Woods was the only woman present when the reactor went critical, asking Fermi “When do we become scared?”

In this 1946 photo of the Chicago pile team, Woods is the only woman, fourth from the left in the middle row.

In this 1946 photo of the Chicago pile team, Woods is the only woman, fourth from the left in the middle row.

Asked many years later about how she felt about her involvement in the Manhattan Project, she said:

I think everyone was terrified that we were wrong (in our way of developing the bomb) and the Germans were ahead of us. That was a persistent and ever-present fear, fed, of course, by the fact that our leaders knew those people in Germany. They went to school with them. Our leaders were terrified, and that terror fed to us. If the Germans had got it before we did, I don’t know what would have happened to the world. Something different. Germany led in the field of physics. In every respect, at the time war set in, when Hitler lowered the boom. It was a very frightening time.

I certainly do recall how I felt when the atomic bombs were used. My brother-in-law was captain of the first minesweeper scheduled into Sasebo Harbor. My brother was a Marine, with a flame thrower on Okinawa. I’m sure these people would not have lasted in an invasion. It was pretty clear the war would continue, with half a million of our fighting men dead not to say how many Japanese. You know and I know that General (Curtis) LeMay firebombed Tokyo and nobody even mentions the slaughter that happened then. They think Nagasaki and Hiroshima were something compared to the firebombing.


I have no regrets. I think we did right, and we couldn’t have done it differently. Yeah. I know it has been suggested the second bomb, Nagasaki, was not necessary. The guys who cry on shoulders, when you are in a war, to the death, I don’t think you stand around and ask, “Is it right?”

Chien-shiung_Wu_(1912-1997)_(3)Chien-Shiung Wu (May 31, 1912 – February 16, 1997) was a Chinese American experimental physicist who made significant contributions in the research of radioactivity. Wu worked on the Manhattan Project, where she helped develop the process for separating uranium metal into the uranium-235 and uranium-238 isotopes by gaseous diffusion. She is best known for conducting the Wu experiment, which contradicted the law of conservation of parity. This discovery earned the 1957 Nobel Prize in physics for her colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang, and also earned Wu the inaugural Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978. Her expertise in experimental physics evoked comparisons to Marie Curie, and her many honorary nicknames include “the First Lady of Physics”, “the Chinese Madame Curie”, and the “Queen of Nuclear Research”.

In March 1944, Wu joined the Manhattan Project’s Substitute Alloy Materials (SAM) Laboratories at Columbia University. The role of the SAM Laboratories, headed by Harold Urey, was to support the Manhattan Project’s gaseous diffusion (K-25) program for uranium enrichment. Wu worked alongside James Rainwater in a group led by William W. Havens, Jr., whose specific task was to develop radiation detector instrumentation.

There were other women involved at all levels of the Manhattan project.  I found this website that is dedicated to preserving the history of the Manhattan Project.  You can read about and listen to oral histories in the Voices of the Manhattan Project.



7 responses

  1. a gray says:

    I think this is a very important post. It provides a window into the time.


    • Thank you. I agree, so many people contributed to the Allies success including these women of science.


      • a gray says:

        We’ve all heard and seen lots of photographs of “Rosie the Riveter”, etc., but there was a great contribution to the War effort by women such as those in your post of today. Rosie got a lot of press because of dramatic photographs showing women doing “men’s work”. There was no drama associated with a woman sitting at a desk. Too bad, because those women at the desks were doing work that was of great importance. Keep up the good work you are doing.


        • So true. I think a whole generation of women lost out on joining the math and science fields because it wasn’t pushed toward them and they weren’t shown these role models. I shouldn’t say they but should say we because I am that generation. I am glad the STEM programs in schools today do show that science, technology, engineering and math are right for women. I am glad my daughter is being educated today.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Birgit says:

    This was such a key moment in time and very few knew women were included (I didn’t) so thanks for posting this and informing me


  3. My mother-in-law was part of the Oak Ridge part of that project. She worked at the Oak Ridge National Lab during the last half of the 1900s…I don’t understand the different parts of it but I know Oak Ridge was bought specifically to help develop the atomic bomb.