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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

Jennet Conant’s Interview

Jennet Conant is an author who has written extensively on the Manhattan Project and some of its most prominent figures. Some of her books include “The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington” and “Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist.” In this interview, Conant describes some of the stories she writes about in her book “109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos.” Specifically, she focuses on the life of Dorothy McKibbin, the “Gatekeeper to Los Alamos,” and her contributions to the Los Alamos laboratory during the war. She also discusses the Trinity Site, Klaus Fuchs’s espionage, and the stresses the Manhattan Project put on relationships between scientists and their families.

Martin J. Sherwin’s Interview

Martin J. Sherwin is a historian and professor at George Mason University, specializing in the development of atomic weapons and nuclear policy. With Kai Bird, Sherwin co-authored “American Prometheus,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In this interview, Sherwin discusses Oppenheimer’s childhood, family life, and personality, including his love of the mountains of New Mexico, and his leadership at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. He also discusses why Oppenheimer did not support building the hydrogen bomb. Sherwin reflects on the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, arguing that the atomic bombs were not necessary to end the war with Japan.

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.

Louis Hempelmann’s Interview – Part 2

Louis Hempelmann was the director of the Health Group at Los Alamos. He and his wife Elinor became close friends with J. Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer. In this interview, Hempelmann discusses the lives of Peter and Toni Oppenheimer, Robert and Kitty’s children. He recalls visiting the Oppenheimer home on St. John’s in the Caribbean, and explains that all the Oppenheimer homes were decorated in a rather focused, austere manner. He remembers Oppenheimer’s concern that he was being followed or secretly recorded after the war, as well as Oppie’s incredible ability to speed read. Hempelmann also recalls going horseback riding with Oppie and having dinner at Edith Warner’s home by Otowi Bridge.

Verna Hobson’s Interview – Part 2

Verna Hobson worked as a secretary to J. Robert Oppenheimer during his time as director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Her tenure as secretary coincided with Oppenheimer’s security hearing by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In this interview, she discusses the impact of Oppenheimer’s AEC hearing on his life at the Institute. She expresses frustration with the strategy adopted by his legal team, which she felt was far too lax. Hobson recalls how Oppenheimer navigated the often heated internal politics at the Institute, and his relations with the Institute’s professors and fellows including Albert Einstein, Oswald Veblen, and André Weil. She also gives her account of Oppenheimer’s distinctly poetic writing style.

Verna Hobson’s Interview – Part 1

Verna Hobson was an American secretary. She and her husband, the jazz musician Wilder Thornton, moved to Princeton, NJ in the 1950s. From 1954 to 1956, Verna Hobson worked for J. Robert Oppenheimer as a secretary at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. In this interview, she discusses life in Princeton during the mid-’50s, including the social scene and her personal relationships with the Oppenheimer family. She worked for Oppenheimer during his security trial hearing, and explains why she felt the legal strategy was flawed and recalls the strain the Oppenheimer family was put under. She also discusses the personalities of Robert, Kitty, and Peter Oppenheimer, and Robert and Kitty’s relationship.

Haakon Chevalier’s Interview – Part 1

Haakon Chevalier was a French literature professor at Berkeley and close friend of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In this interview, Chevalier discusses aspects of Oppenheimer’s personal life, including his romantic relationships and family, hobbies including Sanskrit, and religious views. He recalls how Oppenheimer became involved in politics on the Berkeley campus. He also discusses who was present for his infamous conversation with Oppenheimer, in which Chevalier told Oppie he knew a way to pass scientific secrets to the Soviets. This conversation played a key role in Oppenheimer’s security trial in 1954.

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.