The Women of the Manhattan Project

Lillian Mecum
March 12, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017

Introduction to the Manhattan Project

Fig. 1: Female operators for the calutrons at the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

The Manhattan Project of the mid-1940s is now known for producing the first nuclear weapons in the world. Centered at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, more than 130,000 scientists gathered to utilize their knowledge of nuclear physics to develop atomic bombs that would mark great strides in scientific undertakings, and overwhelming loss when put to use in World War II. [1] Although the legacy of the Manhattan Project may draw complicated reactions today, recognition of the women who made its results possible should not be ignored.

The Role of Women

The public perception of the work that went into developing the atomic bomb draws to mind the image of a handful of male scientists contributing their intelligence. However, women made the Manhattan Project possible in every capacity, although their participation is only noted rarely and briefly in historic archives, and they were often kept in the dark about the purpose of their work (see Fig. 1).

Many women at the Los Alamos Laboratory had followed their husbands who were recruited as scientists, and had been uprooted from the lives that they were familiar with, further isolated by the secretive nature of the Manhattan Project. To maintain morale, the women were encouraged to work by the lab administration, and many of them took jobs as lab technicians, teachers, and administrative staff. [1] There were a handful of female scientists at Los Alamos, less than a dozen in total, and one of them was a nuclear physicist named Elizabeth Graves. Graves held a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, and participated in the Trinity testing of the first atomic device when she was seven months pregnant. [2]

Military and civilian female participation in the Manhattan Project were also crucial to its success. The Women's Army Corps (WAC's) were assigned to administrative roles across the Los Alamos, Hanford and Oak Ridge sites, and female civilians worked a variety of roles as needed, such as doctors, teachers, cryptographers, machine operators, and chemists, although they were vastly under-paid, under-recognized, and over-worked compared to men who filled similar roles. [3]

© Lillian Mecum. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. H. Howes and C. L. Herzenberg, Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project, (Temple University Press, 1999).

[2] J. Wilson and C. Serber, Standing By and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos, (Los Alamos Historical Society, 1988).

[3] C. C. Kelly and R. Rhodes, The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians (Black Dog and Leventhal, 2009).