Charlotte Serber (1911-1967) was the Los Alamos site librarian and only female group leader of the Manhattan Project. Her husband Robert Serber was an assistant to J. Robert Oppenheimer, and in 1942, prior to their move to Los Alamos, the two lived in Berkeley, California, in the garage over Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer’s house.
The Librarian of Los Alamos
As the Los Alamos librarian, she was responsible for organizing and protecting top secret documents and materials for the Manhattan Project sites. The library featured a document room, vault, and ditto machine for copying documents. While it was officially a production and storage center for secret Project documents, the library, according to Charlotte, was also a “center for gossip” and “hangout” space.
Charlotte also helped create a “policing system” for ensuring the secret documents would be properly taken care of in the lab. She organized nightly tours of the facilities to check if any documents were left in plain sight. If documents were left out, the worker responsible was required to pay a fee to obtain his documents or forced to become a night inspector for the next shift.
In her interview on the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s Voices of the Manhattan Project website, Adrienne Lowry recalled working with Charlotte, whom she said, “did a fantastic job” as the librarian. Lowry noted that Charlotte “had to educate herself about the Library of Congress’ Dewey Decimal System and about how books were cataloged.” She also praised Charlotte for building the whole library up from scratch.
Charlotte was not allowed to observe the Trinity Test due to inadequate “facilities” for women.
Oppenheimer praised Serber’s work as a librarian. He later affirmed in a thank-you letter to Serber, “no single hour of delay has been attributed by any man in the laboratory to a malfunctioning, either in the Library or in the classified files. To this must be added the fact of the surprising success in controlling and accounting for the mass of classified information, where a single serious slip might not only have caused us the profoundest embarrassment but might have jeopardized the successful completion of our job.”
Memories of Los Alamos
When she first moved to Los Alamos, there were no books for the library. As a result, she began to work with Priscilla (Greene) Duffield, the Executive Secretary in the Director’s Office at 109 East Palace in Santa Fe.
In Standing By and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos, Serber recalls working seventy-five hours a week from February to May with Priscilla. While working with her, Charlotte helped set up the initial “pass system,” which were “typewritten letters…personally signed by the Director” rather than traditional badges.
After they moved to “The Hill” from 109 East Palace, Charlotte experienced a brush with death when attempting to answer a phone. During the first few weeks at Los Alamos, the phones lacked lightning arresters. One stormy day, Charlotte was about to pick up the phone when electricity from a lightning bolt hit the telephone line and caused the lamp cord “two inches from her hand” to spark.
Another memorable story comes from Oppenheimer’s recruitment of the Serbers, John Manley, and Priscilla Duffield for an act of counter-espionage. Rumors were running abound in Santa Fe about the secret city of Los Alamos, and Oppenheimer did not want anyone to guess that they were actually building an atomic bomb. His solution was to send this group of four to Santa Fe and spread false rumors about Los Alamos.
Oppenheimer told them to pretend to be drunk and tell anyone who would listen that Los Alamos was making electric rockets. The group went to the bar at La Fonda on the Plaza, the watering hole for many in Santa Fe and Los Alamos, and another nearby bar. To their dismay, no one seemed to care about what was happening at Los Alamos. Recalling the experience, Charlotte noted that they “were obvious flops at building an electric rocket.”
In 1911, Charlotte Leof was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the youngest of the Leofs’ three children.
Charlotte went to the University of Pennsylvania from 1929 to 1933. After she graduated, she and Robert Serber married in the spring of 1933. Out of college, she began to work as a freelance journalist. She sold her stories to national newspapers like the Boston Globe. One of her assignments was to interview renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Although they initially planned to move to Princeton for Robert’s post-doctoral studies, the Serbers ended up moving to Berkeley so Robert could work with J. Robert Oppenheimer. They lived in Berkeley from the fall of 1934 to 1938.
After Robert earned his Ph.D., the couple moved to Illinois for Robert’s new job at the University of Illinois. They remained there until Robert was recruited to join the Manhattan Project. They returned to Berkeley at the request of Oppenheimer in 1942. In Berkeley, Charlotte worked as a statistician at the local shipyard.
After working in Los Alamos, the Serbers returned to Berkeley once more, where they lived from 1946-1951. While in Berkeley, Charlotte attempted to become the librarian for the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory. She was unsuccessful, however, because she was not able to gain a security clearance. This was probably because of her family’s political history.
During the security investigation of Oppenheimer, Charlotte Serber was falsely investigated for communist activities. Historian Alex Wellerstein notes that it was perhaps Oppenheimer himself who named Serber, among others, as a communist. Her husband Robert shared that Charlotte’s association with her father, “an old time Socialist in the Spanish Wars,” and her brother, a “very left-wing” person, was probably why she was investigated.
After living in Berkeley, the Serbers moved to New York City. Robert began to work as a professor at Columbia University, and Charlotte became a Production Assistant for the Broadway Theatre.
Charlotte Serber passed away in 1967.
For more information on Charlotte Serber and her husband Robert, please see the following references and sources:
- Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project
- Standing By and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos
- Bibliographic Memoir of Robert Serber by the National Academies of Science
- Peace and War by Robert Serber with Robert Crease