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Remembering M. Hildred Blewett

By Rosalind Mendell

Editor's Note: As reported in the November 2004 APS News, M. Hildred Blewett, who died last year, bequeathed a considerable sum to APS to establish scholarships for women physicists. One of the explicit purposes is to enable women who have discontinued their careers to get back into research. The memoir that follows shows that encouraging women in this way was something Hildred Blewett cared about throughout her life.

Looking into my computer, I found a long letter written to Hildred Blewett on December 18, 1999. It began:

Dear Hildred—How great it was to hear your voice. If you recall, we used to keep in touch once a year. When I didn't hear from you last year, I was a bit concerned. And as the year went on, I thought of you more and more. I shall never forget that you were a mother to me at Cornell, helping me through that early difficult period, when I was emotionally and educationally unprepared for graduate school. And now that you can use a bit of mothering, we are at opposite ends of the continent.

Rosalind Mendell ca. 1940
Rosalind Mendell ca. 1940

Hildred Blewett in the 1940's
Hildred Blewett in the 1940's.
I graduated from Hunter College in June 1940, the day that Paris fell. My physics professor, Ruth Messenger, had been active at the APS meeting, searching for a university that would give me a fellowship or assistantship to graduate school. The University of Ohio told her, "Why should we support her? She'll get married and have babies and the money will be wasted."

Miraculously, Cornell University offered me the President White Fellowship in Physics, for the first time for a woman since World War I. The approach of World War II to our country's portals was opening up the doors of physics to the opposite sex. As a chemistry major and physics minor in a woman's college, I was woefully unprepared as I walked into the long grim brick building of Rockefeller Hall. There I met about 50 young men, all happy to meet an unattached girl, and one married woman. Her name was Hildred Blewett. She told me that her husband, John Blewett, was working on magnetrons at General Electric, and that she had gone back for her doctorate because she loved physics and could no longer endure life as a "useless" company wife.

Hildred was 29 years old; I was not quite 20. It took a while for me to understand why this brilliant student of Hans Bethe was willing to take over the problems of a displaced neophyte in the autumnal chill of Rockefeller Hall. Our relationship was that of a mother and daughter. When I visited her in her room in the town of Ithaca, we played with her cats and we discussed our lives and mutual interests. She even gave me advice about whose attentions I should accept and whom I should avoid. We tramped together through the Ithaca gorges on the Physics Department hikes, which were usually led by Hans Bethe and his wife, Rose. We rowed in tandem on Lake Cayuga. Alone with Hildred, I left those long hours of solitude, hours spent in the library by day and in my laboratory at night.

I remember Hildred as that cheerful, confident and breezy Canadian blonde, at ease with people and delightfully crisp in conversation. Only twice did Hildred's good humor turn to annoyance and that was in response to the usual problems of women in physics. There was the time that she worked all summer on a problem. She found a solution that looked great for a doctoral thesis, only to have it brushed aside as inadequate and then taken over and presented at an APS meeting. And although she was well prepared to take her preliminary examinations for the doctorate when she entered Cornell, she was informed that she would have to take the preliminary graduate courses first-another year of wasted time. There was also that day when Chandrasekhar, about to give an invited colloquium in the Physics Department, looked about the room, smiled and said, "Lady and Gentlemen." I was amused but I still preferred to be one of the boys. Cornell was a very exciting place in 1940-1942. My major professor-to-be, Robert Bacher, left the university just before I arrived and was replaced by Marshall Holloway, who stood by the cyclotron as he told me that we were doing "real " physics while Bacher was off somewhere in, hmpfh, "government." Little did I dream that my research paper on the range-energy relationship of alpha particles in argon would end up as part of the unpublished secret research of World War II.

Against Hildred's advice, I married the boy back home the day after Pearl Harbor. I left Cornell in August 1942 with just an MS degree, because my new husband wanted me back home for a bit of time before he had to leave for the Signal Corps and war. When I said good-bye to Hildred, neither she nor I suspected that her thesis advisor, Hans Bethe was about to follow the path of Bacher. Within the year, Holloway also left to join Bacher and Bethe in Los Alamos, along with George Placzek and Bruno Rossi, and fellow students like Ken Greisen, Boyce McDaniel and recent graduate Robert Marshak.

Hildred, the theorist, returned to General Electric, where she worked with her husband John, an experimentalist, from 1942 to 1947. They were working on a betatron and, later, on a synchrotron. Hildred had entered her career as a theorist for particle accelerators.

I ended the war in a laboratory at the National Bureau of Standards. There I worked to build an ionization chamber, similar to the one at Cornell, but with more sophisticated electronics. I then used my apparatus to measure the energy of alpha particles coming from the samples of "W metal" that were sent to me from Oak Ridge National Laboratories. From my measurements, I knew that I was determining the enrichment of U-235 relative to U-238 in uranium samples. There had been some literature on neutron—induced fission in 1939 and 1940 before the long silence.

I shared my laboratory with Burrell Brown, who was working on Geiger counters. Burrell and I often discussed our secret work over lunchtime. We guessed that we were associated with a project that was attempting to use a chain reaction in uranium to develop a device that would fuel submarines in wartime; nuclear—fueled submarines would not have to expose themselves to the danger of surfacing. One day I discovered a new alpha particle in my ionization chamber. Leon Curtiss, our boss, was in his office for one of his occasional visits from Oak Ridge. Since Curtiss rarely spoke to me—a woman—Burrell dashed into his office to announce my discovery. Excitedly, Curtiss phoned Oak Ridge. Then he looked back, crestfallen, and said "Never mind." I learned why a few weeks later. First an atom bomb using uranium enriched in U-235 fell over Hiroshima. Then a bomb using Pu-239 fell on Nagasaki. My "discovery" was Pu-239.

On his next visit from Oak Ridge, Curtiss greeted me directly and jovially. At first I wondered why, but then he said, "I guess now you're going to go home and have babies." I was appalled, but I did do just as he had predicted. Their names are Laura and Henry. As for Burrell Brown, the Rocky Mountain News reported early this year that his daughter has filed for compensation for her mother. Her father had died of a leukemia-like disease, caused, she believed, by exposure to radiation during Word War II. And I suffered from five miscarriages during my childbearing days.

When my second child was born, my husband, Lesley and I moved into a UN development in Queens. There, the garden apartments were "staffed" by women who had been separated from their beloved professions by marriage and motherhood. One of these mothers was the future feminist, Betty Friedan. I would be the first mother in Parkway Village to break the mold. It all began when Lesley suggested that I get back into physics before I was too old. After all, my friend Rosalyn Sussman, now Rosalyn Yalow, had already pioneered the way, with no more than a two-week break after each baby. (Yalow later won the Nobel Prize for her work in nuclear medicine). One day, Les and I decided to hire a baby-sitter and go folk dancing in Manhattan. It was there I met John Blewett and renewed my friendship with Hildred.

I told Hildred about my life as a housewife and of Lesley's wish to have me reconnect with my beloved physics. Hildred immediately took up the lance. She said, yes, I must go back to physics; I could be a physicist and still be a mother. She was now happy and fulfilled, working with John in Brookhaven on the new Cosmotron. John was the experimentalist in charge and Hildred was both the accelerator theorist and the emotional support of the men on their project. Between the urgings of Hildred and Lesley, I agreed to move to larger quarters and hire a nanny/housekeeper and look for a job and go back to school.

Established in my new house in 1956, I found that the to-be-called affirmative action that was at large during the war was really over and that women physicists were no longer wanted. I phoned the Radiation Lab at Columbia University, where I had a great experience in 1944 before running off to be with my husband, who was in basic training in Neosho, Missouri. I had loved my work in microwave radiation, and I enjoyed the stimulating conversations that I had with my fellow neophytes and with the three Nobelists-to-be. The current professor-in-charge responded with, "Why should we hire you when we don't have to pay our graduate students regular salaries, and they are so much better?" Only Professor Dunning, who was still running his offshoot of the Manhattan Project, finally returned my call months later. By then, I was pregnant again and unavailable.

Fortunately my return to physics was "saved" by Sputnik, which created a new demand for students of physics. I ended up as a graduate research assistant at NYU, with an experiment on large BF3 neutron counters and responsibilities for teaching a class to undergraduates—and also with graduate physics classes to take at night. The effort was hard on my resources and trying for my children, although the young girls that we and others imported from Europe as nanny-housekeepers were a blessing for our family. Hildred was there to support me, if only by phone, cheering me on with her positive breezy comments. I could sense that all was not joy with Hildred. Hildred told me that John, the experimental physicist in charge of the alternating gradient synchrotron in Brookhaven, often told Hildred, who had the theoretician's grasp of the synchrotron, that she was there because of his position at Brookhaven. And yes, she was still mothering the young physicists at Brookhaven.

By 1957, Hildred and John were well known in the field of accelerators. Years earlier, they had helped with the initial stages of setting up the accelerators at CERN in Switzerland. They wrote papers, notices and reports and received citations from other accelerator physicists on their work, both individually and together. Then one day around 1957, Hildred told me that she was leaving John. She was going to work at Argonne, where she would be a physicist on her own worth. Hildred moved to Fermilab. She stayed for several years before moving permanently to CERN in Switzerland.

Our intermittent communication stopped completely after the trip across the Atlantic. But I did know that Hildred was very active with the SPS and IRS accelerators at CERN. I was now quite occupied with my Cosmic Ray Project at NYU. I did not try to communicate, but occasionally a visitor arrived at NYU from CERN. I learned from the physicists that used the accelerators that Hildred was a prominent member of the CERN accelerator community. As for the external evidence, it is in the numerous documents, the in-house reports, the long conference reports on particle accelerators, and the work as editor of the proceedings of conferences on high-energy accelerators.

I finally heard from Hildred herself after 1977, when she retired from CERN. She wrote that she was living in England, where she had access to the opera and concerts and the theater. Her address was in that cultural center, Oxford. Eventually Hildred moved on to Canada. She said that she wanted to be closer to her nieces, who live in Halifax. Our communications became that once-a-year long phone call and the Christmas card packed with personal information and photos. Even as Hildred became feebler and more dependent on others for help, her voice remained resilient and crisp over the telephone.

I found the notice of Hildred's final gift in the APS News, just weeks before the day of my annual telephone call to her apartment in Halifax. It all makes good sense. Hildred had never spent time or money on the activities that deplete the bank accounts of so many of the fair sex. And now here is concrete evidence that even in her last days, Hildred chose to be mother to those women in physics who are still riding against the current of male-dominated physics. Over a million dollars! Thank you, Hildred.

Rosalind Mendell was Senior Research Scientist and Research Associate Professor of Physics before retiring, after 35 years, from New York University.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette