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Eleanor Irvine Davisson’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Eleanor Irvine Davisson was Ernest O. Lawrence’s secretary at the University of California at Berkeley. In her interview, she discusses her impressions of Dr. Lawrence beginning with the Manhattan Project up until his death in 1958. Irvine describes the professor as an extremely personable individual whose impatience, enthusiasm, and work ethic fueled his nonstop research. She mentions that he was both a family man and a dedicated scientist. She recalls meeting him for the first time, his boundless energy and dynamism, and his love of tennis.

Date of Interview:
February 8, 1965
Location of the Interview:


Stephane Groueff:  You were the secretary for Dr. [Ernest] Lawrence since—

Eleanor Irvine: I came to work in October 1945. I was with him until his death. Then I stayed right along with Dr. [Edwin] McMillan.

Groueff: I see. What was your name then?

Irvine: Eleanor Irvine, I-R-V-I-N-E.

Groueff: I see. How did you meet him?

Irvine: I came to work for the lab in 1943, in June. I had been at International House, on the staff there. The war came along, and I wanted to do something. They were going into fraternities for the duration. The Navy was taking over International House. I went down to the university to find out what wartime work I could do, short of the shipyards. They said they needed somebody up there, to help Mrs. Miller. That was the lady that was in the associate director’s office.

They were just getting started with the Oak Ridge project. She was leaving. Michael Brian, who was head of the engineering team, she had been working for him. He had finished his contribution to the lab and he was going back to the engineering department on the campus. That is when I started. I was there until 1945, when the girl who had been working for Dr. Lawrence married and left. That is when they asked me if I would stay on for him.

Groueff: What year was that?

Irvine: 1945, October 1945. I thought it was going to be a really nice quiet job, and Dr. Lawrence was going to play tennis two or three times a week. He was going to have his little office back in LeConte, and the Radiation Laboratory was going to be a very quiet little research place. That is not what happened.

Groueff: He was a very dynamic man.

Irvine: Very dynamic. He loved to play tennis. He would go out and bat the ball around to get it out of his system.

Groueff: Where did he play?

Irvine: At the Berkeley Tennis Club, mostly.

Groueff: Was he a good player?

Irvine: Yes, he was very good. I understand from Dr. Cooksey that he was better than most amateur players out there. It was a very busy time.

Groueff: How did he work usually? What time would he come in?

Irvine: He would bounce in the morning. I say bounce because that is what he did. He was full of bounce. He moved so fast. He would be there bright and early every day. You would meet him in the office, usually, except when he went off to play tennis.

Groueff: He would eat a quick lunch?

Irvine: Very quick, sometimes at the cafeteria. I think that was part of his trouble. He did not slow down enough. He could come in, in later years, when he was very tired and stretch out on that couch. He would take a ten-minute break. He would say he was going to be resting for a while. He would close the door and keep everybody out. That was in later years, not in the busy years.

Groueff: In the busy years, he would come out to lunch and continue until what time?

Irvine: The office normally closed at 5:00. He would still be doing things, except when social things interfered.

Groueff: Yes.

Irvine: He gave of himself 100%, no matter what he was doing.

Groueff: When you say he bounced—

Irvine: He had a spring to his step, a vitality, in the way he walked and the way he moved.

Groueff: How did he talk, fast?

Irvine: No, not particularly fast. In fact, it was rather deliberately. He was always fully conscious of what he said. The words did not rattle out so he had to correct himself or anything like that.

Groueff: Was he very articulate?

Irvine: Yes, very. Many times, he would draft out an idea of what he wanted to give for a speech, but most of the time he would just lean back in his chair and dictate.

Groueff: Was he a rather gay person, or very serious?

Irvine: Both.

Groueff: A good sense of humor?

Irvine: Very. I always thought so. At the same time, not concerned with humor itself. He was always so busy doing so many things that there was nothing clownish in him. His humor was more reserved.

Groueff: Was he friendly with his associates?

Irvine: Many – janitor and right up the line.

Groueff: Not the kind of cold and strict—

Irvine: There was nothing cold about him at all. He came from Nordic stock, which would lead one to think that he might be reserved.

Groueff: He was not?

Irvine: Very friendly.

Groueff: How did people refer to him in the laboratories?

Irvine: In the laboratory? E. O. L.

Groueff: E. O. L.? They did not call him Lawrence?

Irvine: Some of them did. If we were speaking of him, we would say, “E. O. L. said to do this.”

Groueff: I see. When people spoke to him, they would call him Ernest?

Irvine: Ernest. One or two old school friends said Ernie. It was never used.

Groueff: Ernest or Dr. Lawrence.

Irvine: He was always Dr. Lawrence to me. We did say Professor Lawrence most of the time. His brother was a doctor, and we had this difficulty of keeping John and Ernest separate.

Groueff:  Professor Lawrence was Ernest?

Irvine: Dr. Lawrence was John, the brother, which made it much simpler.

Groueff: Was he a smoker?

Irvine: No, he did not smoke. He was allergic to tobacco smoke, although people smoked in the room.

Groueff:  I see. Did he have any small habits that you remember? Whistling? Smoking? Doodling?

Irvine: No, I do not believe I ever heard him whistle.

Groueff: Pacing the room?

Irvine: He would pace the room quite often if he was upset about something. He would lean back in his chair, but most people do that.

Groueff: Was he exuberant in his enthusiasm in talking?

Irvine: Yes. This was one of his very remarkable qualities. How else could he have accomplished what he did, had he not had that spark of enthusiasm?

Groueff: I understand he was very good at convincing people.

Irvine: Very good. You cannot convince people unless you are sold on something yourself. He was always convinced of what he was talking about. There were times he might have made the wrong guess, but they were very seldom. I do not know of any specific ones. By and large, he was sold on the idea before he would talk about it with anyone else.

Groueff: Did he have any hobbies, like tennis, you said?

Irvine: He liked music.

Groueff: What kind?

Irvine: Classical mostly. He liked—

Groueff: Did he go to concerts?

Irvine: You would have to find that out from his social – Dr. Cooksey would know. I know that he enjoyed good company and parties. He enjoyed lab parties very much when he went to them.

Groueff: He was social?

Irvine: He was social. He liked to dance. As far as I know, he was very much the center of things wherever he was.

Groueff: Dr. Cooksey was his personal friend?

Irvine: He was his personal friend, ever since his Yale days. That is where they met. He would have more personal things to tell you. He would be the closest man to him.

Groueff: They were together all the time?

Irvine: Certainly all through those years, whenever there was anything. He was certainly a confidant. There was no one else like him in his life. He was the only person.

Groueff: The one who knows the most about Lawrence is Cooksey?

Irvine: It was a strange thing, because Dr. Cooksey was an older person. You could picture the thing more reversed. Dr. Cooksey was older by some years than Dr. Lawrence. There was always that feeling of it being in reverse, I think. That was an interesting sort of relationship.

Groueff: He had admitted his genius, probably.

Irvine: Very much so.

Groueff: In the lab and around the university, he was the boss. There was no question. He was the number one.

Irvine: He was the director. His vitality was felt. I would say he was a fearless man. I do not think any situation or any person would have, or that he would have been disgruntled at meeting anything head on, including death, which he met like a soldier.

Groueff: He knew that he was going to die. He had cancer, no?

Irvine: I do not know what the final term was maybe it was colitis. But he knew it.

Irvine: It came very quickly for him. It was a shock to everybody. I do not think any situation would have found him missing.

Groueff: He was not at all kind of shy or fearful man?

Irvine: No. I do not think he was afraid of anything.

Groueff: Right.

Irvine: That is a very good quality.

Groueff: Did he have a personal charm when he talked to people?

Irvine: Yes. He had very expressive blue eyes. The fact is that he would give you, whether it was the janitor talking to him or the secretary, or anybody else, 100% attention. This is the quality that bespeaks a leader. He had that quality. Whether his mind was off doing something else, it made no difference. His eyes were talking to you. You felt that. It was a personal magnetism. Everyone felt that, I think – men, children and women.

He was always doing far more than he should have, I think. He raced through life. He had so many things to do. There was always a feeling of something more that had to be done. I think they used to say it took three crews when he worked with the machinery up there. It took three crews to keep up with him. He would get so excited that he would lose sight of all consciousness at the time.

Groueff: He would not go to sleep?

Irvine: No. He would go drive himself, is what he would do. It was a compulsive thing. He could achieve an end that he knew could be achieved – maybe this goes with research. I do not know. I do not think so, because I see other researchers around. They do not have quite the same thing.

Groueff: Was he liked very much by his subordinates and students?

Irvine: Yes, very much. Of course, after I came into the picture – he was no longer teaching once he became director of the Radiation Laboratory. There was no room for teaching classes. My contact with students was just with the dedicated ones that stayed on to work with him.

Groueff: You were with him during the Manhattan Project?

Irvine: I was at the same – just down the hall from him. I was working for Dr. Cooksey, Mr. Reynolds, and Dr. Shane.

Groueff: It was the same building?

Irvine: Same building.

Groueff: What was his office like during this time?

Irvine: It was smaller. It was over in Durant Hall, the Optometry Building. It was a smaller office. Remember, all during the war, he was traveling most of the time. He was batting back and forth across the country. The Manhattan District was being organized and getting started. He was out of town almost more than he was in town during that war period.

Groueff: Also in the laboratories.

Irvine: That is right. The laboratory was more or less – he would come in from Oak Ridge and have these meetings with the different ones and find out what was wrong. Then he would fly off again to meet with other groups across the country. His office time was just half of what it was after the war. He was the kind of person who would take a trip and the one thing he would do the very next day, or even that same day if he had time, was to have a little list of all the people he saw and did things for him. Everyone got a thank-you letter. It made no difference what they did. I went right down the line. I think half the letters we wrote were thanks for whatever they did.

Groueff: He was very considerate?

Irvine: He was a very considerate person. Each one was separately dictated. He never said to send the same letter to John, Joe, Pete and all the rest of them. It was not that way at all. Each one was a different one, and a personal note in it. The files are filled with letters thanking them.

Groueff: It takes a lot of time.

Irvine: It takes a lot of time and a lot of dictating. It was one of the social graces which paid off for him. I think it was not only that people appreciate such things, but it is the measure of the man.

Groueff: Would you say he was emotional or rather calm in expressing his joys or his worries? Would he get into big emotions?

Irvine: I had seen him mad a couple of times – irritated would be a better word – with things if they were not going right. He would say that something had to be done and to take care of it. It was quick with him and it was over with. There was never any harboring of ill will at all. I would say he was not a calculating person. I do not think that he let himself express his emotion without being pretty sure he was right. He was not always right, but he controlled himself. This was my reaction. You may get a different reaction. Dr. Cooksey’s acquaintance with him went through many years. He saw him at different periods. I would say that his brother is emotional.

Groueff: The doctor?

Irvine: The doctor. Ernest was not.

Groueff: How did he dress?

Irvine: Casually. He went to many social things. He wore business things. He usually wore a sport coat and slacks. He would always have his coat off. He was always in his shirtsleeves, unless he knew someone was coming.

Groueff: Nothing like absentminded professor about him?

Irvine: I never found him absentminded at all. I found him anything but absent. He was concentrating on things. You would go into the office and he would not see you. He would be thinking about something. You would be careful to sense the days when he was in a thinking mood. If you knew from the things that you had handled that things were disturbing him, you would just not be unconscious of that.

He certainly was not a worrier. I think that if things worried him, he immediately saw that something was done about it. He may just say, “Just take care of it,” and you were expected to take care of it. I think the men that worked with him found that if something was wrong with the machinery, there was no excuse for not getting it done. He did not accept continued excuses for anything. He himself refused to recognize them. I think that distressed him more than anything else—that people could continue to—

Groueff: He was very efficient and things were done?

Irvine: He was impatient, perhaps. Impatient might be the word.

Groueff: To see that things were done.

Irvine: When he knew that something should be done and there had been time to do it, there was no real excuse for not doing it, then he would be impatient.

Groueff: I see.

Irvine: This was all related to the fact that he always felt hurried, and that there was not time for poor performance, whether it was in the machinery or not. If the machinery was wrong, scrap it and do something else. If the human being continued to make errors, then get another human being. It was that type of thing. People rarely failed to respond to this. He had a good ship.

Groueff: Having this talent, nobody could—

Irvine: People responded to it. You could not argue with him when you knew that he was right.

Groueff: I have a feeling from the few people I have talked to, that he was a kind of hero in the laboratory, to the team.

Irvine: You have to remember that from practically a little tiny office in LeConte Hall, this thing has mushroomed into a multimillion-dollar organization. Anyone who guides something to that fruition would have to have a leader who would radiate this quality. They all took part. They basked in the reflected glory, if you want to call it that. It was a privilege to work for someone like that.

His thoughtfulness was always noticeable. He might be demanding. He worked many times after hours. You would work on weekends and all. There was never a time when you were not thanked, many times. The appreciation was always expressed. Any time that anyone was asked to go beyond the call of duty, there was always recognition of the fact that they did.

Groueff: He did not take it for granted?

Irvine: He did not take it for granted. He did not take advantage of it. That is a very fine quality in a boss.

Groueff: Was he defending his subordinates or people working under him for their working conditions or salaries?

Irvine: Would he come to their defense? Certainly, if it were justified. He was not anybody’s fool. He wanted the facts. I just cannot remember anyone. I think there were two or three people that he had contacted through those years that he did not trust, perhaps. I do not ever remember him saying that he disliked anybody.

Groueff: He was not a man to—

Irvine: If he disliked them and could not stand them, he just simply left them alone. He did not bother. He did not have room. There were too many people he liked to have room for the people that he did not like. There were so few that I cannot think of a person.

I can see in letters in the files, where casual friendships came through his life and dropped out. Maybe he found out afterward from somewhere or other that it did not work out. They did not see eye to eye or something like that. It was always a casual sort of acquaintance, never anything important that I can remember. I know that people disagreed with him many times. I do not think there was ever a time they did not respect him, or recognize that he had—

Groueff: He did not waste any time on fights, hatred, or rivalries?

Irvine: No, he just wanted it taken care of. If it was a situation that was impossible – clear it up, get it out. This happened personnel-wise, with job decisions and things like that. If they could not deliver the goods, personally or impersonally, then somebody else could. Perhaps somebody might criticize that, but I think that is a very admirable quality to recognize and continue.

It was never anything about him that apologized. He never got himself into a position where he had to. If he found himself getting into it, he got out of it fast. That was my reaction.

Groueff: Do you think he was a happy person?

Irvine: Very happy. He had a wonderful family. He loved his work. He was proud of the place.

Groueff: At peace with himself?

Irvine: At peace with himself. He knew his own – no frustration. I think that one of the things that hastened his death was the frustration of the international situation, where he felt that something had to be done. It had to be.

He went to Geneva with the first group. He was fully convinced that peace could come and things would get along. I think that this impasse we are in probably would have killed him one way or another, if he had continued to live. He could not abide things that could not be resolved. All things, to him, when you got them basically organized, they could be resolved. Maybe this was the physicist mind working there. Given all the facts, you can always get an answer.

Groueff: Did he have some political, religious, or literary interests?

Irvine: Nothing that I – He was a very devout man. After all, his mother was a very strict Lutheran. He was brought up—

Groueff: He was Lutheran?

Irvine: He was brought up as a Lutheran. He was at peace with himself and at peace with his God. There was no doubt in his mind. You did not have to argue about it. It showed. It always shows in a person.

Groueff: He was a happy person?

Irvine: The frustrated persons are the ones who are questioning. There was no question in his mind.

Groueff: He loved life?

Irvine: He loved life. He lived it to the hilt as it were, in his work and with his family. He had such a wonderful family. He had a nice place to work, and in a few small words such a remarkable place to work. He was dedicated to the kind of work he was doing. He could not help but be a happy man.

Groueff: Where did he live, here in Berkeley?

Irvine: Yes, on Tamalpais Road up here in Berkeley.

Groueff: Which road?

Irvine: Tamalpais, like the mountain. Mrs. Lawrence is a person that is still around. She is a remarkable lady.

Groueff: She is American?

Irvine: She and Mrs. McMillan are sisters.

Groueff: I see. Californians?

Irvine: No, they are from New Haven.

Groueff: He was from—

Irvine: He was from South Dakota. If you really want to know Lawrence the man, you should talk to Mrs. Lawrence.

Groueff: After talking to Cooksey.

Irvine: She is a thoroughly wonderful woman. Would be a privilege to talk to her.

Groueff: He had five children?

Irvine: He has six children, two boys and four girls. The little ones were still little when he died, which was sad. One of them was born on his birthday.

Groueff: In every respect, he was living for his family and his work.

Irvine: That’s right. His family, his work, and enjoying it. I think he lived a pretty full life, even if it did stop short at 58.

Copyright 1965 Stephane Groueff. From the Stephane Groueff Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Exclusive rights granted to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.