Anne McKusick: That’s A-N-N-E, M-C capital K-U-S-I-C-K.
Cindy Kelly: Okay Anne, can you tell us where you were born and a little bit about—
McKusick: Yes, I was born in Rochester, New York. My father was a physicist and was at Eastman Kodak Company. He had many young men working for him who eventually ended up in Oak Ridge, because they were looking for physicists and they drew heavily on the development department at Kodak. One of the concerns in Oak Ridge was run by Tennessee Eastman and another by DuPont and another by Carbon and Carbide.
I worked in Y-12 for Tennessee Eastman. I came first about the first of April—well, I think exactly the first of April, 1944. The first thing I noticed on my trip from Knoxville to Oak Ridge—which was a forty-mile jaunt—that the people around me were making three syllables out of two-syllable words, or even one-syllable words. The southern accent was new to me. For about a week after our arrival we were in a kind of a study where we were trained to secrecy. We were told how important it was to the whole war effort that we not be talking. This was really drilled in.
I remember that later a friend of Ted Rockwell’s came to Oak Ridge and his name was Mac Barrett. He came to lunch, or breakfast, with seven of us in Knoxville. He said, in a loud voice in the restaurant, “I understand you have about seventy thousand people working out there.”
With one accord, the seven of us at the table all leaned forward and said, “Shhhh!” Our brainwashing was complete. We really were very well drilled.
At the end of the war, when the radio was blaring out that the war was ended and—oh no, that the bomb had been dropped—then we all felt, “Oh, why don’t they turn off that radio? This is, you know, this was all wrong.” I think it was amazing that in about a week at the beginning of our time there, the secrecy was so well engrained, because it was quite complete.
Kelly: Why don’t you launch into what you were doing?
McKusick: We were separating isotopes. We were separating uranium-235 from uranium-298. I hope that’s right.
Kelly: We can start again, 235 from 238.
McKusick: Thank you, 238. I knew it was wrong. Of course we weren’t calling anything by its proper names. Absolutely everything had code name or a number. We had memorized the book about what we were doing in terms of different names and numbers. If we were on shift work and we were having to fill the 7-14 traps, we weren’t even much conscious to the fact that this was liquid nitrogen. But we were working where there was a huge magnet and the isotopes were separated in a strong magnetic and electric field. This separated them on the basis of mass. Uranium-235 was of a different mass than uranium-238 and was separated.
There were other methods being tried in other parts of Oak Ridge, but we hardly knew they were going on. There was one at X-10 that was sponsored by DuPont. There was one at K-25 that was under the direction of Carbon and Carbide. We knew the occasional person. I don’t remember knowing anyone from X-10, but I did know a couple from K-25. A friend of ours, a very gregarious friend whose father had been president of Carbon and Carbide, used to bring around people occasionally who worked for the Carbon and Carbide division in Oak Ridge.
Secrecy certainly prevailed and kept from a lot of interaction. We had separate busses that took us from the entrance to the Y-12 area to—from the Townsite in Oak Ridge to the Y-12 area, a different one to the X-10 area, another one to the K-25 area. And we didn’t even know anything about the destinations of these other busses. It was a very interesting place to work.
At one time I was running around and checking on what research projects where going on in different parts of Y-12 and trying to keep track of the progress they were making, but always in the coded terms. I remember one time Frank Oppenheimer, who worked in Oak Ridge, was wanting someone who could jot down a lot of stuff about a particular result. I was the one jotting down under his direction what he wanted to remember.
We never met J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oak Ridge. I did meet him later when I went to Berkeley. But there was a project going on, XBX, that was adjacent to Y-12. The people from Berkeley were working there. One time, Ernest O. Lawrence paid a visit to Oak Ridge, and there was very little going on in the way of social life in Oak Ridge, but I remember they held a dance. And I did dance with Ernest O. Lawrence.
Life in Oak Ridge was very casual. I remember being dressed up for work, but after work we were wearing blue jeans all the time. I lived in a house with five other girls, no one of whom was in physics. In fact, at the time I came I was the only girl who had studied physics. We had very interesting conversations sometimes about—particularly I remember talking about puzzles. This would be a group effort of solving a particular puzzle where everyone put in two cents. That was fun.
We went on picnics in our off time. What we did most of the time was sing. I was not limited in this the way I should have been, because I can barely carry a tune. There were three boys that used to— three or four—that used to arrive at our house, and they’d be sounding a note and then the others would join in in a barbershop quartet style. This was our entertainment largely. Picnics were one thing. On Sundays I went with two girls with whom I lived to Norris Lake, which was by Norris Dam. We went fishing. That was something that we did occasionally.
I also remember that this was wartime and tires were very bad. You didn’t ever buy new tires. You always patched what you had. Norman Rockwell and—Ted Rockwell and Norman Carter, who had been friends at Princeton, bought a car together. Occasionally we went places. That car had some problems. We borrowed the car from a brother of one of my roommates, Bob Devenish. We got very much accustomed to changing tires. So much so that when my mother was visiting Oak Ridge one time and was rushing to get to the airport in Bob Devenish’s car—we were rushing her there—we had a flat on the way. The boys started to change the tires, but the girls thought they were being too slow at, it so we took over [laughter]. We had had so much practice with that car that it was changed swiftly and we got her to the airport on time.
There were all sorts of surprises. I remember Isabelle—one of my roommates—I was in the house with Isabelle Devenish and Jean [Margaret] Benham, with whom I had gone to kindergarten. Isabelle was a very good cook. I really wanted to do some of the cooking and I knew I wouldn’t have a chance if Isabelle found out that I had almost never cooked before. So, that was a secret. Finally, I was accepted as one of the cooks.
We worked six days a week. So, the one day off was very precious. There was once that we had a holiday coming along and somehow or other had two days off. We decided that was the time to go on a trip to Myrtle Beach. By this time Isabelle’s sister Kathleen was there in Oak Ridge. She and I and Bob Devenish and a friend of Bob’s drove to Myrtle Beach, which was 500 miles away, and back on our two days off. We didn’t have a lot of time for sitting on the beach, but it was—and I remember coming back through the Smoky Mountains, where the roads were very curving and it was dark. Fortunately Bob’s car had a light on top. One of us—the one who wasn’t driving, and it was Kathleen and I that seemed to be doing the driving on the way back—would keep the light focused on the road ahead so that we could drive as fast as possible. We did make it back within the allotted time, but it was a strenuous trip.
You don’t want to know all of this. Let me think what some of the other—there was always something unusual happening. One time, somebody in the development department at Kodak sent down a camera that could go inside the unit that was separating—it was called the “D”—was separating isotopes, and look at the various sparking that was taking place, that we wanted to know about. I remember that I stayed up for—I kept working beyond my eight-hour shift and ended up staying up about twenty-four hours over that little project. I don’t know that it reached a conclusion, but we had some liberty about time spent at work. But we never took time off. It was a six day a week work week.
We had various adventures. You might have heard about some cave exploration we did one time. Maybe not, okay. Well, this was really hair-raising and it was probably the scariest thing I had ever done in my life.
Six boys owned a boat and one of them was there on this particular day. Two of the three that dropped by our house not infrequently were there. And there was a total—and Jean [Margaret] Benham and Isabelle Devenish and I were there. Ted Rockwell was there. Lynn McCabe was there. Norman Carter was not. And Dick Hoff was the other one, one of the six owners of the boat, who was present. He was terribly important because he was the only one who had explored the cave before. We did not have any Ariadne ribbon to be trailing along behind us.
We had a miner’s lamp that had calcium carbide crystals in it—or pebbles—and when those got damp, they formed acetylene gas. This made an acetylene torch. We were using this for illumination. Dick Hoff was telling us what we were coming to. There was one place where there was a sixty-foot drop-off beside the path we were walking and we were to be very careful not to slip.
We went along in this unlighted cave, except for the miner’s lamp. Finally, we came to a place where we had to crawl on our tummies. There was not enough room from below us to above us to walk on our knees. So, we were actually crawling along on our stomachs trying to get to the end of this passage, which we were assured was coming. We finally got to a room where the cave opened out into some place. There was a drop-off down into this room but not, I think, too big a drop-off, maybe eight or ten feet. At this point, I decided that I would never make it back up again if I went into a lower room. So, I elected to stay. This meant staying in the dark, which I did, hoping the others would return sometime.
They went off, down into this lower room. After a while Jean [Margaret] Benham came back and waited with me at the top. Again, we waited in the dark. Now, we were not smoking. We did not smoke. But there were members of the group who were smoking. Of course we could have had an explosion had we realized that there was going to be acetylene gas in a damp cave where pebbles had been thrown out. This is a good example of some of the risks young people can get into without having enough fear to be cautious.
When they came to get back up from this lower room, they were pushing Lynn McCabe into a waterfall. That took a while, to get him back up again, and there were some men below helping to push him up. Then we had to go back the whole long way that we had come. It was dark, only the miner’s lamp. I remember we were singing hymns at that stage. We were singing, “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, I’ll Be There.” Finally, we could see a little light ahead, and we got back to where we had started.
At this point, it had gotten quite cold outside. I think it was October 15th. The reason I remember the date was that we probably should have known it would be cool. We did not have on terribly warm clothes.
The boat had a limited amount of gasoline and Lynn McCabe was very worried that there wasn’t enough gas to get back to Norris Lake and Norris Dam. He said, “We’re going to have to spend the night on the boat.”
At this point, Isabelle said, “I will swim to my aunt in LaFollette.” Of course, I was ready to swim with her.
Anyhow, the three girls were not, no way were we going to spend the night on the boat. There was some real dissention about this, because Lynn knew that in the dark they were going to have a terrible time finding their way back and we could run out of gas and be absolutely stranded.
Isabelle had a very keen sense of direction. We never would have gotten back if it wouldn’t have been for her choices about which route to take in the dark, because there were many branchings of this extension of Norris Lake. She’d say, “I think it’s this way.” She wasn’t at all sure, but she had good intuition. They followed her suggestions, and eventually here were the lights of Norris Dam, and we were back.
There were some that were, again, on shiftwork and they—and Norman Carter was back there expecting that he would be relieved at the end of his shift at eleven o’clock, and it was 2 a.m. [laughter] when we got back to Oak Ridge. So, it was just full of uncertainty. But anyhow, we all made it, and it was an experience we’ll never forget.
Is there anything you’d like to know about—we lived in a house for six girls. The Army decided later they could put twelve girls in the house. So, they decided that they would put double-decker beds in every one of the three bedrooms. I had one roommate to start out with. Later, if it had been fair, I should have had three roommates with a total of four in the room. I think the house had one bathroom. I certainly know they wouldn’t have had two. I remember where the one was. It was a time where there was rationing of meat and sugar. When someone came to diner he really—if it were a big feast or something, he surrendered a few ration stamps to compensate for what he was using up. We had long lines at the grocery store because of the rationing.
Kelly: Can you tell us the address of that house? Do you remember where it was?
McKusick: Yes. I think I can. It was—
Kelly: Can you start with, “The house was—.”
McKusick: The house was on Norman Lane because it was off New York Avenue. The streets off avenues began with the same letter as the avenue. The administration people were up on Outer Drive, to which the streets named for states ran into. We were at 101 Norman Lane. We were almost on the corner of Norman Lane and New York Avenue.
One time we had a garden party. Our lawns were not developed at all. Jean and Isabelle and I decided that we would invite friends to a garden party and make the lawn. So they came. I think we did make some progress in that direction. There were a couple of the guests who thought maybe it was a bit of a raw deal. But, it was one of the Oak Ridge adventures.
Kelly: Can you remember where you shopped? How did you walk from there?
McKusick: There was a shop on New York Avenue that was just about opposite Norman Lane. I don’t know whether it’s still there or not, but there was a grocery store and we did buy things there. One time we had—it wasn’t exactly a burglar, but he was a friend of one of the girls in the house who came to help himself to something in the refrigerator in the night. I remember we did not have a telephone in the house. There was a telephone out at the street on Norman Lane opposite our house. Isabelle was the brave one who ran out to the telephone to notify the authorities that there was an intruder in the house. We kept him from helping himself to things out of the refrigerator. It was someone we thought was having a lot of nerve to come there in the middle of the night.
McKusick: I actually met the—a first cousin of the man who was later to become my husband when Wayne McKusick and his wife Betty came to look at was in our house. I don’t remember much else about the piano, because our singing was all a cappella. Wayne and Betty came to look at the piano. I’m not sure, but I don’t think they bought it. I think it had some other fate, destination.
When I later decided to go to medical school, Wayne McKusick told me that he had a cousin at Johns Hopkins. And I think by that time, I had been occasionally visiting relatives—my sister’s in-laws—who lived in Baltimore, and who had a lot to say about Johns Hopkins and what a wonderful place it was. So, at that point Wayne McKusick said, “I have a cousin at John Hopkins.” That was all I heard about that until I had been in medical school. I went out first to Berkeley to catch up on premedical subjects that I had never had and I took Biology and Comparative Anatomy and Zoology 1A and Zoology 1B.
Since I went out there in February, I had to take the courses that were being given at that time of year. So, I had to take them backwards. I had to start with Comparative Anatomy and ended up at the very end of the summer with Zoology 1A. That was an iffy time because one mentor was very encouraging about my taking things backwards whereas—and I remember their names too—it was Morgan Harris who was so very encouraging, and another one who wasn’t and who said, “You physicists think you have the world by the tail.”
Anyway, they let me do it and I started out dissecting a cat before I had even done a dogfish. I came to the dogfish later. But, I used to—I was living, by that time, in Berkeley. I used to bring my cat home so that I could work on it a little bit at home, on dissection. I had to keep it out on my balcony and be very quiet about what I was doing. That was funny.
While I was there, I decided to go to some physics lectures because they had some very good seminars going on. I remember going to a few of those and meeting J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was there at Berkeley. He was there and there were a lot of legends there. It ended up being very interesting.
I used to walk to work by the home of an old lady who was sometimes out in her garden. When she saw—she had gotten wind of the—I’m getting ahead of my story, but she had gotten wind of the fact that I was going to go to Hopkins Medical School. She said, “My father was the first president of Johns Hopkins.” I think he had also been an early president of the University of California, Berkeley. She said, “There were only four houses in Berkeley when we came here.” Her name was Elisabeth Gilman.
I had this little preview—I might say that I had to have my interview for Johns Hopkins while I was there in Berkeley. This is not the part you’re interested in, but we went—someone drove me there, a girl in my house. We ended up going up a one-way street the wrong way with a cable car coming down. She fortunately drove into the one empty space on the street. The cable car going by just clipped her back bumper, but we got there.
I had an interview with a surgeon from Johns Hopkins, whom I felt was very imposing. It was a little scary because I was not at all sure I was going to get a recommendation from him for admission. He had asked me to do a lot of things at the same time, such as writing a reference, which I had never done before, and answering a lot of questions about how I had gotten along at Cornell. My AB was from Cornell. That was scary, but I apparently—I had applied to only two medical schools, to Cornell and to Hopkins. I had done fairly well at Cornell, so I thought this was going to be my backup. But the day before I had the interview I learned I had not been admitted to Cornell Medical School, so everything hinged on this interview. It was a challenging time, but I was admitted. That was very lucky.
Kelly: You were telling us about meeting J. Robert Oppenheimer. Can you describe what he was like and how people felt about him?
McKusick: I think they were very impressed. There was a girl who was in physics there. There was about one other girl who eventually came to Oak Ridge in physics. But this was not usual.
I’m sure the reason I went into physics in the first place was because my father was in physics. I guess I thought—my father was in physics, my uncle—his younger brother—was in physics. They both come from Canada to do graduate work. Uncle John had gone to Yale and then to Cornell. My dad had spent his entire time at Yale. So, I thought that there would be nothing to this. I think I had an eye-opening experience in Oak Ridge in that it wasn’t clear that you could rely on the fact that your ancestors had studied physics to make sure you were going to be able to make a contribution.
I had been fooled a bit by the fact that in high school I was in a group that was allowed to progress at my own rate. This was a new experiment of the last half of my—this was a new experiment at Monroe High School in Rochester, New York. We were like a one-room schoolhouse in that there were people from the 8th grade through the 12th in the same classroom. Sometimes we were doing the same things. If we were doing plays for English, the whole group—we had 8th graders participating as well as seniors. I was one of six seniors in my classroom. There were two classes, each of thirty, that were trying this experiment.
I remember that I had decided at that time to go into physics. I enjoyed it greatly at both McMaster [University], where I went for three years on Hamilton, Ontario, and Cornell, where I finished up in the last year and a half. There weren’t any other girls in physics at the time I was taking that in Cornell. There were two other math majors at McMaster, but no other girls in physics.
So, when I got to Oak Ridge, it was perhaps not surprising that there were no girls who were physicists. I remember somebody saying to me once, “You consider that you’re a girl who happens to be a physicist, or a physicist who happens to be a girl?” [Laughter.] The only other woman who had studied physics at the time I was there, which was April 1st, 1944 to late in December of 1945. There was only one other girl who came later. I think her name was Mildred Cranaugh. I think she had studied some physics. It was just that women weren’t thought to be capable of learning the subject, or thought that it was strictly a man’s field at that time.
By the time I got to Berkeley, there was a woman physicist, who was very surprised that I was considering leaving the field. She said, “You know, you’re needed as a role model. You can’t be dropping this now.” I felt that in high school they had decided that you weren’t necessarily going to have ideas that were setting the world on fire, but there would be something you could do if you had—something that group could do somewhere. Certainly everybody in the group, except two people, did go on to college. That, I think, was one of the things that encouraged me to think that I could stick with physics. But I really wasn’t going to be making a contribution, or the kind of contribution that I wanted to make. I then decided to leave it and study medicine.
You asked me about what I remembered about J. Robert Oppenheimer. I think he had a reputation for being absentminded. He was very impressive. I think that graduate students at Berkeley were in awe of him.
If there’s anything else you should know—there were some very good physicists there that had come from Kodak, Julian Webb being one. He was someone I had known since I was a small child, because he worked in the development department.
McKusick: I worked most closely for Dr. William Arnold with I was in XAX. He eventually—he was interested in photosynthesis and had previously worked in photosynthesis and went on to do his—make his major contribution in that area.
I remember one time I was in a small group and Dr. Roy Gosling, who came from the University of Oklahoma, was there also, and Dr. Arnold, and couple of others, somebody Barony was in the group. We had decided that in our spare time, we would learn set theory. This had not been taught in the math courses that I had taken either at McMaster or Cornell. So, it was my turn to play teacher. There was this imposing group. I remember banging with my fists on the desk and saying, “Will the class please come to order!” It was just one of the fun things.
I should tell you one story. I was also taking Russian lessons at one stage. I had about ten Russian lessons. I was carrying my textbook, which was written by somebody named “Bandar.” The name of it was “The Russian Method.” I came in—we had this outer rim of security checks and then another where we entered Y-12 where we worked. Within Y-12 I was working in the XAX building. When I entered Y-12, there was a guard, who looked at what I was carrying. He saw Bandar’s “The Russian Method.” He immediately called the captain of the guard and he said, “I have a woman here who has ‘The Russian Method.’ What shall I do with her?”
It wasn’t so long after that that they decided not to have Russian lessons anymore on the Oak Ridge territory. This was given by a White Russian. We had barely made a start on learning the language. That was the kind of security scrutiny that—which you were exposed.
Kelly: That’s great. I’m trying to think about what we might help people understand about what it was like to be—
McKusick: To be in Oak Ridge?
Kelly: Yeah, to be in Oak Ridge. Just some more memories about—that was excellent with the security guard. Or even your work, the daily routine. Bill Wilcox, does that name ring a bell? He worked at Y-12 but I think he was a chemist. He was involved when they took the tray out with the isotopes and went through the chemistry process to clean off the trays. Then there’s another sort of famous story about the fact they had to borrow silver form the US Treasury to rewind some magnets. I don’t know if you were a part of that?
McKusick: No, but I did hear the story somewhere. I think they borrowed silver from Fort Knox for this. There was not a lot of detail that we absolutely knew. But that was a rumor that got around.
It was a tremendously exciting time. My first exposure to the amount of energy that was released came when I was studying at McMaster. I heard that there was enough—I hope my figures are accurate—that there was enough energy released from one gram of fissionable material to send the Queen Mary back and forth across the ocean four times. So, this was pretty impressive. That’s what my father was thinking about when I was job hunting after Cornell, my excitement about this, and when I reported to the family after learning it, he said, “You know, I think this is something you’re going to be interested in.”
Anyway, it was—I wasn’t involved in any of the cleanup of the cleanup of the “Ds” or anything like that. I wasn’t really involved in any of the methods about separation of isotopes. I was just one of the young people employed. I know that Ted Rockwell got into a lot more—some very interesting projects at Oak Ridge. He, of course, stayed much longer in nuclear energy, like his whole life.
Kelly: Can you say something about innovation? Where there sort of innovative aspects of what they did?
McKusick: I think in everyday living, there were always surprises. They used to joke about—when we’d be waiting for a bus the saying was, “Shall we wait for the bus or wait ‘til they build the town out to us?” because they were building at a very rapid rate. They did have a tremendous number of construction workers on hand in Oak Ridge and everybody was very busy. They were putting up dormitories at a rapid rate out in West Village. They probably don’t even call it “West Village” anymore. There was “Townsite” and there was “West Village.”
I might say, in the social life they were all group activities. One time the three—I probably shouldn’t tell this story—but the three boys who came to our house so frequently said, “The three of us would like you go to a dance in West Village with us.” So, we got all dolled up—not in the usual blue jeans, but dressed up for the occasion. The three of us went with the three of them to the dance. There was one time when they said, “Three of us would like the three of you to marry us.” And, we knew that was a joke. Living was full of surprises.
I could probably be quoting more if I could remember them. It’s a little hard to remember everything clearly at this stage. This is at least sixty-seven years later.
Kelly: Oh, I know. Do you remember the name Wildcat Den? Apparently they had a soda fountain there and the dance floor. It’s now on Oak Ridge Turnpike not far from the libraries and Tulane Avenue. It’s Robinson Road and Oak Ridge Turnpike connect there. It’s a World War II era building where supposedly there were dances. Or did you go to the tennis courts below the guest house?
McKusick: I didn’t go to dances on the tennis courts. That came after my time. Remember that I left there at the end of 1945. I think I’ve heard Ted talk about dances on the tennis courts, but I think this was after I had left Oak Ridge. There was very little regular entertainment when I was there. The dance at West Village was a really exceptional event. I’m trying to think. I seem to remember having played tennis once. That was obviously on the Oak Ridge tennis courts.
McKusick: I remember that one time I had a date with Ted Rockwell and we went out and ran into somebody called John Topham, who I was meeting for the first time then. He worked at K-25 in construction. He was a college dropout. His father had been president of Carbon and Carbide. He talked to Ted and me for some time. He was a very voluble talker. He was a friend of this group that used to come to my house, from that time forward. He had married early. His wife was living in, I think, Virginia. Well, I’m sure. He came from Wytheville and he was a very adventuresome, very bright guy, who in later life built Midtown Plaza in Rochester, New York. This was a new idea where cars went in—so traffic went in from the periphery to the center, and there were shopping facilities and so on there. Later on, this of course was reversed, when people were going from inner city to outside to shop and to various businesses.
John Topham later built the New York Building at the World’s Fair. That was not the one when I was sixteen, but there was a New York World’s Fair—
Kelly: In ’64.
McKusick: Thanks. So, the New York State Building was his, that he had designed and put together. He’s been interested in the arts. He’s been interested in a variety of things. He’s traveled a lot in Saudi Arabia, got to know the royal family, was really on good terms with the royal family, and collected tents from all over—mohair tents, native goat hair from all over Saudi Arabia. He brought them back and had an exhibit at the Textile Museum in Washington. The whole museum, I think, was given over, at one time, to an exhibit of John’s tents. He’s someone I hear from once in a while, every few years.
My sister has retired to Rochester, New York from living in Potomac for thirty years. She and her husband went back to Rochester and earned a retirement home there. One time recently I was visiting them for Christmas, and John Topham did come by. So, some of the—Oak Ridge was such a powerful force, such a bond that the people we knew in Oak Ridge have sort of been friends ever after.
I knew Ted and Mary Rockwell very well in Oak Ridge. Mary didn’t get there until a little later, which is why she didn’t figure in some of the early stories, but when she arrived she was very much a part of the gatherings. I remember that I did see her once after I had gotten into medical school and she came to visit someone who is the wife of someone in the pathology department.
Then, one time, the Rockwell family came over and we went tubing in a very—now this was after the tall ships had come into Baltimore Harbor, which had been 1976. So, the Rockwells and the McKusicks went tubing on Western Run. It was too cold, too late in the year to be tubing, and we were frozen. But we had left the car downstream where we had started, so there was no alternative but to keep going downstream. We were really cold by the time we got back to the car. Anyway, that was just one more—a follow-up on Oak Ridge contacts.
Kelly: One question that we ask everybody is—first of all, did you know what the work was that you were—I mean, the result, or contribute to making an atomic bomb?
Kelly: Because no one is going to hear my questions. You have to sort of answer it in a way that—
McKusick: We knew that we were doing something that was very important in the war effort. Now, I think we did know. We didn’t know that they were going to drop a bomb. We didn’t know that if they dropped the bomb it wouldn’t be on some isolated atoll. We were not—I was not savvy enough to put together what other things were. I remember someone talking about thorium and how that made them suspicious that this was—I don’t remember knowing much of anything about fissionable materials. I hadn’t read a lot about early studies of [Otto] Hahn and [Fritz] Strassmann or [Lise] Meitner.
I really was quite unversed, but I know that I remember talking to Ted about what was going on at the Argonne Lab, speculating about what was going on because we certainly didn’t know. But being a little concerned that they were being careful enough not to set a chain reaction in motion. You can see that my information was really very limited.
Kelly: How did you feel once you had learned that we had dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima?
McKusick: We were really horrified. I think the fact that—the extent of the damage wasn’t really known initially. I suppose that we thought, “This is what we’ve been working for.” We were terribly anxious to have our project completed before Germany did something that outdid it, or Japan. We weren’t so aware of the possibility of a Japanese—being scooped by the Japanese as we were by the Germans.
I think it was all speculation. I really didn’t know too much about it.
Kelly: Any closing thoughts or comments you’d like to make about your experience in Oak Ridge that you haven’t brought up?
McKusick: It was absolutely unforgettable. We said at the time, “This is something we’ll tell our grandchildren about.” We knew that it was tremendously exceptional, what we were working on. That it hadn’t been done before. I think it was such an exciting time of life. It was truly, for young people, a most wonderful experience.
We weren’t seeing it from the same point of view as the housewives who were trying to cope with the mud getting into their houses and were very concerned about that. One of them told me that when some help would arrive at her house—this was Marcia Neely, whose husband was a lawyer in Oak Ridge—the maid would pour a gallon of water in the front door and then proceed to sweep it out. This was to cope with the mud. Sometimes you’d lose a shoe in the mud. The shoe would simply stick and you’d be trying to get it out again.
There were times when—they were always making cartoons about the absurd. One was a picture of an arm sticking out of the mud holding a badge with his hand at the gate of Y-12. It was just something so full of surprises. But to the young people, this was excitement and this was something quite wonderful and to others that were looking for the same thing, who were looking to a stable existence it was—
Kelly: Great. Monika can you think of anything else you’d like to add?
McKusick: There are probably other things, but they’re not coming to mind right now.
Monika (Camerawoman): You mentioned that you danced with Ernest Lawrence. What were your impressions of Ernest Lawrence?
McKusick: Well, I was terribly interested. Now, I had worked at Kodak in the summer. I worked in the research building 59 in the sensitometry department. There was someone there by the name of Kelly Nelson who had worked with Ernest Lawrence. I remember talking to Dr. Lawrence about him. He was a very nice person. I knew that we’d heard about EOL at work and I knew he had invented the cyclotron. All of these things should have given me—I think did give me—I knew were separating isotopes certainly. As far as what they’d be used for, I really didn’t know.
Kelly: That’s great.