Session Report: “Women and the Manhattan Project”

By Brian Schwartz

Four speakers at FHP sessions at a press conference.
Four speakers at FHP sessions at a press conference on “The Atom Files: Extending the Half-Life of Science Stories.” From left to right: Ruth Howes, Cynthia Kelly, Susan Marie Frontczak (who spoke at the science communication session), and Michele Gerber.

Michele Gerber
Michele Gerber

Denise Kiernan
Denise Kiernan


The Forum on the History of Physics invited session on “Women and the Manhattan Project” featured five speakers, each with a different perspective on the role of women in the Manhattan Project. The session was co-sponsored by the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics.

Denise Kiernan, author of The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, presented the true story of young women during World War II who worked in the then-secret city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Kiernan’s presentation drew from her interviews with ten women who, in their youth, labored in a range of occupations at Oak Ridge, from janitor to machine operator to secretary to engineer. The Oak Ridge facility was dedicated to making uranium fuel for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Michele Gerber, author of On the Home Front, a comprehensive history of the Hanford Nuclear Site in Washington State, discussed the lives of these women at Hanford during the Manhattan Project. The Hanford site produced most of the plutonium used for the Alamogordo atomic bomb test and the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

Ruth Howes, a physicist and author, gave a talk entitled, “After the War: Stories of The Women Who Did Scientific and Technical Work on the Manhattan Project.” Doors that had been open to women scientists and technicians abruptly closed, Howes explained, as the economy returned to a peacetime footing. Howes presented the stories of the women scientists and technicians of the Manhattan Project and their remarkable determination to continue their careers.

Cindy Kelly is the founder and Director on the Atomic Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization in The Forum on History of Physics of the American Physical Society publishes this Newsletter biannually at Each 3-year volume consists of six issues.

Women of the Manhattan Washington, DC, dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Age and its legacy. Her presentation, “Preserving the Manhattan Project,” focused on the progress made over the last 20 years to preserve the Manhattan Project properties that for decades have been threatened with demolition and indifference.

The final speaker was Olivia Fermi, granddaughter of Enrico Fermi. Her presentation was entitled, “Then and Now: Women Respond to the Manhattan Project — An Illustrated Talk.” She discussed two women inextricably involved with and affected by the Manhattan Project: her grandmother Laura Fermi, and Marian Naranjo, an inhabitant of the Santa Clara Pueblo near Los Alamos and an environmental and social justice activist.

The articles in this issue represent the views of their authors and are not necessarily those of the Forum or APS.