Norris Bradbury (1909-1997) was an American physicist and director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1945-1970.
Norris Bradbury was born in Southern California on May 30th, 1909. He graduated from high school at the age of 16 and graduated summa cum laude from Pomona College with his B.A. in chemistry at the age of 20. In 1932—when he was only 23—he completed his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and three years later gained a spot on the Stanford University physics department faculty.
Between 1941 and 1944, Bradbury served at the Naval Proving Ground at Dahlgren, Virginia, working on external ballistics. In July 1944, Bradbury, then a Navy commander, transferred to Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project, where he headed E-5, the implosion field test program.
Bradbury was assigned to work on Project Alberta, a classified unit which oversaw the delivery of the atomic bombs from their assembly in the U.S. to the bombing group tasked with dropping the weapons. He also played a role in the successful Trinity nuclear test in July of 1945, confirming the feasibility of the plutonium bomb. With Project Alberta, Bradbury oversaw the assembly of non-nuclear components of the Fat Man bomb, though he did not follow the group overseas.
After the end of World War II in August 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer resigned as director of Los Alamos and recommended Bradbury as his replacement. Bradbury had planned to resume his teaching at Stanford, but agreed to serve a six-month term as interim director after being discharged from the Navy with a Legion of Merit. However, Bradbury ended up staying at Los Alamos for 25 years, the longest tenure of any director, and oversaw the continued development and testing of nuclear weapons.
Bradbury recalled that the earliest years of his directorship were the most difficult. As the war concluded, it was not guaranteed that the Los Alamos research laboratory would continue to exist. Temporary housing and residential facilities constructed by the military for the war effort proved woefully inadequate, and nearly two out of every three employees of the facility left after the war.
The establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in January of 1947 and the agreement by the University of California to continue contracting out operations of the laboratory after the war ended gave Los Alamos a continued and indefinite role in postwar government objectives. Under Bradbury’s leadership, the laboratory played an integral role in the design of thermonuclear weapons and the subsequent Soviet-American nuclear arms race. Additionally, during Bradbury’s tenure, the laboratory expanded beyond weapons development into basic nuclear research and applications.
Bradbury received the New Mexico Academy of Science Achievement Award in 1964, and the Department of Defense’s Distinguished Public Service Medal in 1966 for his leadership at Los Alamos. He died on August 20, 1997 at the age of 88.