“The Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan

GirlsAtomicCityWhen I first saw this book displayed at a local bookstore, I was intrigued. I had been to Oak Ridge, Tennessee several times. My daughter, who is a competitive rower, competes in Oak Ridge. I had a vague idea that the city was connected to the development of the atomic bomb, but did not know the history. Anyway, on a recent visit to the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C., I noticed they were selling autographed copies of the book, so I bought one.

The book is an historical account of the development of Oak Ridge and its involvement in the Manhattan Project, focusing on the role of women. Essentially, Oak Ridge was a secret government city whose primary goal was the enrichment of uranium into weapons-grade material. Workers were recruited by the government to live and work at the site. Since a large number of men were overseas fighting, Oak Ridge offered numerous opportunities for women. Much of the book is dedicated to the lives of these women and how they dealt with life in a top-secret military installation where discussing what you did was strictly forbidden. In fact, until after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, most workers at Oak Ridge had no idea what they were working on. They were given a task, told their job was helping the war effort, and that was all they knew.

I was not surprised that women played such a significant role in the advancement of nuclear science, nor was I surprised that women’s contributions were written out of much of the male-dominated history. I for one had never heard of Lise Meitner, an Austrian physicist who escaped Nazi Germany and was part of the team that discovered fission; in fact, she actually coined the term. But not only did her male colleagues get credit for her work, she was often mistreated because of her gender, being “banished to research in a basement workshop because a superior thought women in the chemistry labs were dangerous—their hair might catch on fire.” (p. 58) Later, when Meitner’s colleague Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fission, Meitner was “referred to in the press as Hahn’s junior associate.” (p. 293)

Kiernan points out that young women were preferred as recruits to work on the project because, in those days, women did what they were told and didn’t ask questions.

The Project liked high school girls, especially those from rural backgrounds. Recruiters sought them out relentlessly, feeling young women were easy to instruct. They did what they were told. They weren’t overly curious. If you tell a young woman of 18 from a small-town background to do something, she’ll do it, no questions asked. Educated women and men, people who had gone to college and learned just enough to think they might “know” something, gave you problems. The Project scoured the countryside of Tennessee and beyond looking for recent graduates. (p. 69)

One of the things briefly discussed in the book is the secret medical experiments administered to unsuspecting individuals, where people were injected with plutonium without knowledge and then watched to observe the effects. Ebb Cade, an African-American worker at Oak Ridge, was the first test subject.

Ebb Cade was not the only test subject. It turned out that between 1945 and 1947, 18 people were injected with plutonium, specifically: 11 at Rochester, New York, 3 at University of Chicago, 3 at UC San Francisco, and 1, Ebb Cade, at Oak Ridge. Several thousand human radiation experiments were conducted between 1944 and 1974. In 1994, President Clinton appointed the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) to investigate these and other experiments funded by the United States government. Their final report was published in 1996. (p. 293)

If this is something that interests you, I recommend reading The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War by Eileen Welsome. I read this book when it came out and it had a strong impact on me.

Something that I found surprising in this book was the number of corporations and universities involved in the development of the atomic bomb. Companies like Westinghouse, Aluminum Company of America, and Eastman Kodak were involved. Even Kellogg was heavily involved. In fact, Kellogg was responsible for the enrichment plant’s design and development. (pp. 99 – 108) From now on, every time I see a box of Special-K on the grocery shelf, I will be reminded of K-25, the name given to the enrichment plant that Kellogg designed. Finally, I found out that ORACLE got its start in Oak Ridge, and that ORACLE is actually an acronym for the Oak Ridge Automatic Computer and Logical Engine.

Some history books can be pretty dull, but not this one. The topic is interesting and the book is very well-written. I recommend this book for everyone. It’s a fairly quick read and very insightful. I think I might have to take another trip out to Oak Ridge soon and visit the museum there. I’m sure I will find it as fascinating as this book.


1 Comment

Filed under Non-fiction

One response to ““The Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan

  1. Pingback: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II | Rebecca's Reviews

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