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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

Julie Melton’s Interview

Julie Melton is an author and expert on civil society, development, and democratization. She is the daughter of Manhattan Project historian David Hawkins and Frances Hawkins, the founder of the nursery school at Los Alamos. During the Manhattan Project, her family lived in the same four-family house as Victor and Ellen Weisskopf, who became some of their closest friends. In this interview, she shares her childhood memories of Los Alamos and anecdotes about prominent Manhattan Project scientists. She also describes her parents’ involvement in the Communist Party at Berkeley, where her father met J. Robert Oppenheimer. She concludes with a brief reflection on the frustrations of being a woman at Los Alamos.

Louis Hempelmann’s Interview – Part 4

Louis Hempelmann worked as a doctor at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project and was close friends with J. Robert Oppenheimer. In this interview, he discusses the other doctors at Los Alamos and their roles, including his own occasional role as anesthetist. He recalls visiting a radium dial plant in Boston to observe how the company protected its workers from radiation, and how they adopted similar practices at Los Alamos.

Verna Hobson’s Interview – Part 3

Verna Hobson worked as a secretary for J. Robert Oppenheimer at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. Her tenure as his secretary coincided with Oppenheimer’s investigation by the Atomic Energy Commission. In this interview, she shares her interactions with the Oppenheimer family. As Robert Oppenheimer’s personal secretary, she maintained close relationships with him, his wife, and his children. She provides insight into Kitty Oppenheimer’s personality, and how Kitty and Robert interacted with each other and their children, Peter and Toni. She recalls what Peter and Toni were like as children, and how she cared for Peter when Kitty and Robert were abroad. Hobson gives particular insight to her relationship with Kitty Oppenheimer, whose struggles with alcoholism and depression were exacerbated by Robert’s death. She recalls some of the stories that Kitty shared with her during this period, as well as her own personal recollections about Robert’s bout with cancer.

Carl D. Anderson’s Interview

Carl D. Anderson was a physicist who won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of the positron. He studied and taught at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he took a class with a young professor named J. Robert Oppenheimer. In this interview, he discusses his impressions of Oppenheimer, including Oppenheimer’s early struggles as a teacher. Anderson describes the research that was going on at Caltech during the 1930s, including the groundwork that went into his Nobel-winning discovery. He also details why he turned down a role on the Manhattan Project, and the work he did on rockets during World War II instead.

Haakon Chevalier’s Interview – Part 2

Haakon Chevalier was a French literature professor, author, and close friend of J. Robert Oppenheimer beginning at Berkeley in 1937. In this interview, Chevalier discusses aspects of Oppenheimer’s personal life, including his romantic relationships, hobbies, and religious views. He explains his own involvement in the Communist Party and Oppenheimer’s work on left-wing issues, and gives his thoughts on Oppenheimer’s security trial in 1954. Chevalier recalls first meeting Kitty Oppenheimer, and remembers her as a warm and friendly woman.

William A. Fowler’s Interview

William A. “Willie” Fowler was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Caltech, who knew J. Robert Oppenheimer from before the war. In this interview, he talks about how Oppenheimer and his “school” of students and post-docs would travel each year from the University of California, Berkeley to Caltech, where Oppenheimer had an appointment on the faculty. He describes how Oppenheimer’s theoretical knowledge and perspective supplemented the experimental research being conducted at Caltech, including Fowler’s own. He also talks about the lives and careers of other physicists who interacted with Oppenheimer in Pasadena, including Charles Lauritsen, Richard Tolman, and Robert Millikan. The interview concludes with a discussion of Fowler’s friendship with Frank and Jackie Oppenheimer.

David Bohm’s Interview

David Bohm was an American theoretical physicist who would later become a citizen of the United Kingdom. After finishing his undergraduate degree at the Pennsylvania State University in 1939, Bohm arrived at the University of California, Berkeley on a seemingly meteoric rise. However, during this same period he became affiliated with the Communist Party, which would ultimately undermine his chances for success in the United States. After being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, he was forced to continue his study of physics in other countries. In this interview, he discusses his time at Berkeley before and during the war and the left-wing movement at Berkeley. He describes his former mentor J. Robert Oppenheimer as a brilliant mind with occasional charisma that made him a strong administrator.

Robert Christy’s Interview

Robert Christy studied under J. Robert Oppenheimer at the University of California, Berkeley while earning his PhD in theoretical physics. He joined the Manhattan Project in February 1942 at the University of Chicago, and later relocated to Los Alamos when Oppenheimer personally recruited him on a visit to Chicago. At Los Alamos, Christy worked on the design of the water-boiler reactor. He was then recruited into the implosion group, where he designed the Christy gadget, the solid-core design of the plutonium bomb. He also witnessed the Trinity test. In this interview, he recalls what Oppenheimer was like as a professor and lecturer, his love for martinis, and his relations with graduate students. Christy discusses Oppenheimer’s role in the field of physics as a stimulator of ideas, and how it changed after his security trial. He also discusses Oppenheimer’s impact in emphasizing the value of theoretical physics in America. Christy remembers sharing a house with Edward Teller in Chicago and working with Klaus Fuchs and Rudolf Peierls.

Dorothy McKibbin’s Interview (1979)

Dorothy McKibbin was known as the “Gatekeeper to Los Alamos.” Everyone and everything who worked on the Manhattan Project at the site had to pass through her office at 109 East Palace in Santa Fe. Her important position as well as her friendly disposition helped her form lasting relationships with many Manhattan Project workers. In this interview, McKibbin discusses what happened to the scientists after the project, and details some of the stringent security procedures at Los Alamos. She also characterizes Oppenheimer as a charismatic and kind leader beloved by the community, who did not deserve the harsh treatment he was subjected to during his security hearing. She also describes how many of those who worked with Oppenheimer supported him, and some even tried to intervene during his hearing to no avail.

Charles Oppenheimer and Dorothy Vanderford’s Interview

Charles Oppenheimer and Dorothy Vanderford are the grandchildren of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In this interview with historian Kai Bird, author of American Prometheus, a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, they discuss what it was like growing up with the Oppenheimer family legacy. They talk about growing up on the Oppenheimer family ranch in New Mexico, Perro Caliente, and how they and their father, Peter Oppenheimer, have dealt with being an Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer and Vanderford also reflect on how the memory of J. Robert Oppenheimer has been treated, the family’s position on the security trial, and their father’s involvement in anti-nuclear marches. They recall meeting some of Robert and Peter’s friends and family, including the Hempelmanns and Frank Oppenheimer, and discuss whether the historical treatment of Kitty is a fair one.