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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

In Memoriam: Helene Suydam

Helene & Jerry Suydam, 2001

On August 3, 2020, Helene Suydam died peacefully in her sleep at age 100. John Ruminer, member of the Board of Directors of the Los Alamos Historical Society, described Helene as “an iconic member of our community.  Her sixty-plus years on Bathtub Row touched the lives of many of our best-known historical families.  She had a great love of history and was one of our strongest supporters.”

According to an obituary in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Helene was born in in 1919 to William Herzberg and Arilla Starkey in Philadelphia, PA. As her stepfather was in the Navy, her childhood was spent living in Honolulu, San Diego, and the Panama Canal Zone. She studied mathematics at Swarthmore College and Brown University, but her graduate work at Brown was interrupted by scarlet fever. After recovering, she took a job at the Naval Proving Ground at Dahlgren, VA, in 1942.

At Dahlgren, she worked on determining artillery trajectories, testing proximity fuses, and developing the Norden bombsight that was used for high altitude bombing in World War II. The Norden bombsight was used on the Enola Gay to sight Hiroshima which had been partly obscured by clouds on August 6, 1945.

In 1946, she married Bergen R. “Jerry” Suydam (1916-2011). The next year the couple came to Los Alamos when Jerry, a theoretical physicist, was recruited by Norris Bradbury, the laboratory director who followed J. Robert Oppenheimer. In 1966, Helene and Jerry were able to move into the house on Bathtub Row where the Oppenheimer family lived during the Manhattan Project.

Helene was steeped in the history of Los Alamos. Atomic Heritage Foundation President Cindy Kelly remembers having lunch with Helene along with Los Alamos Historical Society’s Nancy Bartlit and Larry Campbell. The Atomic Heritage Foundation had a grant from Congress to report on what Manhattan Project properties ought to be preserved. The Oppenheimer house was at the top of our wish list. But how did Helene and Jerry feel?

The lunch began with Helene asking if we had read “Racing for the Bomb,” the 720-page biography of General Groves by Robert S. Norris published a few months earlier in March 2002. When Cindy answered “Yes!” Helene responded, “But have you read the footnotes?”

Helene was intrigued by the idea that the Oppenheimer house could be the “jewel in the crown” for Los Alamos. Realizing that Cindy had never been inside the house, she invited us all to join her after lunch for some sherry. After a tour and a second round of sherry, Helene mused, “Maybe Jerry and I should donate the house!”

Thanks to Peter Wirth, now a NM State Senator who provided legal advice, the Helene and Jerry entered into a living trust agreement with Los Alamos Historical Society in 2003. The  Los Alamos Historical Society now owns the property outright. We are all indebted to Helene and Jerry’s generosity in donating the humble cottage where Oppenheimer lived with his wife and two young children for the benefit of posterity.