As the Manhattan Project got under way in 1942, the U.S. government suddenly needed scientists — lots of them.
Katharine Way, who’d earned her Ph.D. in physics at UNC just a few years before, wanted in. She called up an old faculty mentor who had been recruited for the project, and a few days later she was headed for the University of Chicago. There Way helped design the facility in Hanford, Washington, that would make the plutonium used for the bombs dropped in the Trinity test and on Nagasaki.
You won’t find Way’s name in many histories of the Manhattan Project, says Jordynn Jack, who spent four years researching and writing about the experiences of women scientists in World War II. Like thousands of other people, including almost all of the hundreds of women who worked in scientific and technical roles on the project, Way was lost in the shadows of a few key figures such as Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi. And because the Manhattan Project had to be kept secret, Way and her colleagues couldn’t publish their work. What we know about their contributions comes from the project’s declassified memos and reports — many of which still haven’t been closely examined by scholars.
These documents fascinate Jack: they show how people from the different cultures of science, industry, and the military communicated with each other. “The project didn’t have a well-established organizational structure or culture, just an ad hoc one that arose out of these three distinct groups,” she says.
Jack followed the paper trails left by Way and another scientist, Leona Marshall, who were researching safety issues at the Hanford production site. The fact that both scientists were women and working on safety may not have been a coincidence. “With a few exceptions, the roles that women were given weren’t the glamour jobs,” Jack says. As important as safety research was, it was less prestigious than work that contributed directly to building a nuclear weapon, so it was more likely to be assigned to women.
Jack wanted to find out how the women on the Manhattan Project participated in the rhetoric of science: the way scientists use language to make the case for their conclusions. And in the memos that scientists and engineers exchanged while working on the Hanford site, Jack found an interesting difference between some of the scientists who seemed to be good at persuading and others who weren’t. Way and others who argued in terms of safety were less effective than scientists such as Marshall who argued in terms of what would move the project forward. This was true even when it was the scientists’ job to think about hazards to people involved in making nuclear weapons.
Way was working on potential radiation hazards around reactors at the plutonium production site. In one memo, she wrote to a DuPont engineer working on the Hanford plant about the part of the facility where workers would move used fuel rods into storage basins of water:
In one of your recent weekly reports… you say that under normal operating conditions a man may spend three minutes daily in the discharge area. I am unable to check your results and wondered if you would be kind enough to go over the following figures to see where the discrepancy is.
Way then laid out her calculations and suggested some possible explanations for why she and the engineer might have gotten different results. But in his reply, the engineer didn’t seem interested in whether his statement about the safety of the discharge area was correct — instead, he seemed to want to pretend that he’d never made it. “No change…will result from an upward revision of estimates on the hazard in this area,” he told Way, “since the lowest estimate was already too high to permit access during operation.” But he would go ahead and reconcile his calculations with hers anyway, the engineer said, “to keep the record straight.”
What happened during this exchange? Way saw a safety hazard in a report. She tried to handle it tactfully by giving the problem back to the engineer instead of jumping to her own conclusions. This polite tone was the norm in technical memos, Jack says, and it discouraged Way from expressing her concerns more strongly.
In another back-and-forth with the same engineer, Way had to recruit a senior colleague to help defend her estimate of the radiation risk in a reactor’s control-rod room. The engineer countered by trying to show that Way’s estimate wasn’t valid. And anyway, he said, there was a plan to use heavier sheet metal covers to block the radiation “if this danger appears.” At that point, the memos about the control-rod room end, so we can’t know how the situation was resolved — or whether addressing it was put off until after danger actually did appear.
Way may have had trouble being heard because she was a junior member of the team, but also because of the limitations of memos. The system of memos came from the military and industrial officials, Jack says, and it dealt only with technical information and calculations. Ethical considerations were never an explicit part of the discussion.
Leona Marshall was also a junior scientist, but she had an easier time with the memo system, Jack says, because she focused on what would make the plants most efficient and productive — not on how to minimize the risk to people working and living nearby. Marshall and John Wheeler (Way’s old mentor at Carolina) were working on the problem of what the upper limits of plutonium production at Hanford should be. And they succeeded in getting those limits raised.
At first they advocated for limits that they said were “calculated on the most probable assumptions, rather than the most conservative ones.” They were thinking about how the products of nuclear fission would most likely behave, rather than about how they might behave in a worst-case scenario. They took this risk because they wanted to supply more plutonium: “To superpose…a safety factor any more substantial than necessary might result in a serious limitation of batch size,” they wrote.
Just a few weeks later, Marshall and Wheeler started advocating for even higher limits of production. They managed to do this, even though they’d found that some of their original calculations were incorrect, by showing that they were aware of all the potential risks and then minimizing the appearance of those risks. They described a possibility that too much nuclear material might collect and cause an uncontrolled chain reaction, but then quickly added, “This is only remotely conceivable.” Later, they repeated that “the uncertainty just mentioned is not so serious as it appears.”
Marshall’s willingness to take risks wasn’t just on paper: after moving to the Hanford site, she got pregnant and decided to hide her condition rather than stop working. She’d heard from the doctor who monitored the Chicago lab that being around radiation was dangerous to women’s reproductive health, but she thought that his concern was exaggerated. She stayed on the job until two days before she gave birth, and the baby was born healthy.
These are incomplete portraits of Way and Marshall’s experiences, but they raise questions about the idea that the Manhattan Project is a good model for other scientific work, Jack says. The U.S. government and researchers funded by the government have used analogies with the Manhattan Project to talk about solar energy projects, finding a cure for AIDS, and research on how to prevent terrorist networks from forming and increasing their numbers. “It came to represent the gold standard for high-paced scientific research,” Jack says.
That’s understandable, because the Manhattan Project got the job done. But the technical memo system discouraged people from bringing ethical concerns into their work, Jack says, and the focus on fast results seemed to encourage risk. The scientists and engineers were still uncovering potential hazards and revising plans while the Hanford site was already under construction.
We can do more than just not rush scientific research, Jack thinks. We can also keep in mind that although we may ask scientists to be objective, it’s impossible to separate scientific research from ethical questions. We can also remember that people low in the hierarchies of expertise and authority, doing the day-to-day work of science, may be the ones closest to these questions — but also have a harder time raising them.
Even on the Manhattan Project, some people made a last-minute attempt to contribute more than just their scientific knowledge and skill. In July 1945, seventy scientists affiliated with the project signed a petition asking President Truman not to use atomic bombs on Japan, at least not without first trying to make it easier for the country to accept surrender.
Katharine Way signed the petition. Leona Marshall didn’t.