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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

Elsie McMillan’s Lecture

Elsie McMillan was the wife of Nobel Prize winner Edwin McMillan and sister-in-law of another Nobel Prize winner, Ernest Lawrence. She came to Los Alamos in 1943 with Edwin and their baby Ann. In this speech, she takes the audience on an imaginary tour of Los Alamos, complete with detailed descriptions of various buildings and their home, today known as the Hans Bethe House. Her speech characterizes what civilian life was like at Los Alamos for the wives of many scientists, including the challenges of shopping with ration cards and dealing with the tight security. She fondly recalls Pascualita, a Pueblo woman who helped her around her home and invited the McMillans to her home in the Pueblo. Elsie dramatically recalls the tension of the Trinity Test, waiting to find out whether the test was a success and that all the scientists were uninjured.

John DeWire’s Interview

John DeWire was a physicist who was recruited by J. Robert Oppenheimer to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. In this interview, DeWire discusses how he was recruited, the move to Los Alamos, the organization and administration at Los Alamos, and the unusual speed with which scientists could procure items. He explains how he came to work at Princeton, and his involvement after the war in opposing Lewis Strauss’s nomination for Secretary of Commerce. He recalls what made Oppenheimer such an effective leader.

Gerhart Friedlander’s Interview

German-American chemist Gerhart Friedlander fled Nazi persecution in 1936. He studied at the University of California with Glenn Seaborg, earning his Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry in 1942. The following year, he joined the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and became group leader of the radioactive lanthanum group in the Chemistry Division. After World War II, Friedlander worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory for many years and chaired the Chemistry Department. In this interview, he describes how Seaborg secretly involved him in plutonium work and how his group investigated the implosion method for the plutonium bomb. He also recalls winning a bet with Enrico Fermi.

Winston Dabney’s Interview (2003)

In this interview, Dabney discusses what it was like to live and work at Los Alamos. He describes working conditions, recreational activities, and housing for military members, briefly touching upon religion and the quality of food. Dabney also discusses how he met his wife, Jean, and shares several amusing anecdotes involving the scientists who worked at Los Alamos.

Roy Glauber’s Interview (2013)

Roy Glauber was just eighteen years old when he was selected to leave his studies at Harvard to join the work of the Los Alamos Laboratory on the Manhattan Project. He journeyed from Stanta Fe Station in Lamy, New Mexico in a car with John von Neumann. Glauber worked in the theoretical division under Hans Bethe, and talks about Edward Teller, Richard Feynman, Stanislaus Ulam, and other luminaries. Glauber went on to become a leader in physics, winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005 for his work on quantum optics. He also talks about his early interest in astronomy and physics, cultivated by clubs and teachers.

Harold Agnew’s Interview (1992)

Harold Agnew worked on the Manhattan Project at various locations and served as the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1970-1979. Agnew was flying above Hiroshima as a scientific observer when the bomb was dropped, and remembers “having the blast hit the airplane after the flash, the very bright flash.” He worked on the Chicago Pile-1 with Enrico Fermi, whom he calls “absolutely amazing.” He recalls how Oppenheimer’s penchant for treating everyone equally and General Leslie Groves’ incredible managing skills influenced camaraderie and the speed of the project. He defends dropping the bombs on Japan as saving many American, Japanese, and Chinese lives.