Nate Weisenberg: My name is Nate Weisenberg. I am doing this interview for the Atomic Heritage Foundation with Kathleen Maxwell here in Wellesley, Massachusetts. It is Monday, April 25, 2016.
How did you get involved with the Manhattan Project?
Kathleen Maxwell: I had just finished my Master’s degree at Smith [College], and I was contemplating staying at Smith because the main men in our department there had gone to work for the Manhattan Project someplace else.
Our son used to go to college in the Midwest, and one of his professors knew his mother worked in physics at Smith. He contacted me and asked me what I was going to do. I told him I did not really know. I would probably stay teaching at Smith, because they were light in the department at that time. But I was not intending to be a teacher all my life. So I said, “Sure, I might be interested in that.”
He passed the word on to Kellex [Corporation] people who were looking for physicists or scientists – either a chemist or a physicist – for exactly the sort of job that I signed up for. My red blood count was not quite proper. It was not high enough. So they said, “You have got to get that blood number up before we can let you work in the lab.” Because there is so much radiation around the lab all the time, it was a very important point that they always checked up on. And they kept checking you regularly.
By the time I got it and started, one of the first things was with the business of the oil leaking through these gaskets. They did not know how to attack that. We discovered through reading the literature behind it that there was a reaction between the electronic activity during a lightning storm, and that a lot of these same changes happened in the lab and were caused by the same thing as lightning. You can smell it in the air. That is what happened to the gaskets. They were being invaded by particles that are not normally there. So you do not think of them as being something that would come in and give you problems.
I told them if I looked at it in a microscope, I might be able to know more about what is actually happening to the holes in the gaskets. They chased that down in the gasket department. You never had to worry about it once you figured out what the problem was. They just shoved it onto the people that should have found it in the first place.
Weisenberg: For people who might not know about this, who did you work for during the project and where did you work?
Maxwell: I worked at the Kellex compound in Jersey City, New Jersey. I lived in Jersey City at the time. I found an apartment there, and Francis had gone with the Army by then. I did not see him until after the war. That was in 1942. That must have been April, May then. Because right after graduation, I made the change.
Weisenberg: Right after you graduated from Smith you went to work for Kellex.
Maxwell: For Kellex.
Weisenberg: And Francis is your husband. When and how did you meet him?
Maxwell: In the Physics Department in the University of North Dakota when we were seniors. I was undergraduate help in the Physics Department. I got the fun of taking the exhibits out and being sure everything worked, and helping mostly boys do the experiments. I read their notebooks of their write-ups. It was the Department of Physics that got me going.
I originally thought I would be in mathematics, because that was my best subject, but I got a scholarship for two years at Smith to work part-time in the department and get my Master’s degree. So it was after that that I started for them. It was probably April, May, by the time I actually got started.
Weisenberg: Were you interested in math and science from when you were very young?
Maxwell: I guess I have always been. I had an excellent teacher in high school. I even had to go to a Catholic high school in junior and senior years. Those gals were not very good at teaching it, but I had such a good base in arithmetic and in algebra that I went right into the full engineering math at college.
Weisenberg: And you went to the University of North Dakota?
Maxwell: Yeah, and I took all their mathematics, breezing all the way through. I studied chemistry and physics there too. But because I had no financial backing whatsoever, I had to earn money somehow. My sister knew the registrar and introduced me to him. He found out I was good at arithmetic, so he gave me a job in the registrar’s office at the University. I worked for them all four years, as well as in the book department and anything else.
They did not have any automatic reproduction of records, so I worked in the summertime there while I was at Smith. I had to make copies of all of the records that had any changes in them in the summertime. We did not have a dark room good enough for that kind of work, so I had to wait until dark before I went to work in the summertime. I would work until I got that day’s work done every night, all summer. I made enough money to buy some clothes for Smith for the next year.
Weisenberg: Where did you grow up?
Maxwell: In Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Weisenberg: So that is where you were born?
Maxwell: And that is where the University is, which is why I was able to go to college.
Weisenberg: Do you mind telling me the day and the year that you were born?
Maxwell: July 23, 1918, which was a little before the end of the war, and the beginning of a terribly hard season for all those farmers out there. It was the beginning of a terrible depression, and nobody had any money. My Dad was an insurance salesman and he was an excellent man. No farmers had the money to put any insurance money out. They were lucky if they had enough to get their crops planted each year.
Our family by then had five children, and my mother was an excellent cook. The rest of the women in town would hire her to do their dinners for them, because she was so good and everybody knew it. So she was approached about putting out the dinners. The farmers would all come on Saturday, even if they did not have any money to buy much, to dinner at the diner store where she was working. They were loaded, and they loved it as long as she worked there. She was able to finance the family then.
But she was injured falling from a stepladder of some sort and had to quit work. By then I was in college, and I was kind of saved by this scholarship that I had earned. It took care of me. I was the youngest. The rest were all old enough to get jobs of some sort, and everybody pitched in and did what we could do to survive.
Weisenberg: How did you decide to move to Smith for graduate school? You got the scholarship and you decided you would move to Massachusetts?
Maxwell: Smith had a Mountain Day celebration when all the trees are the most beautiful. The first Mountain Day, one of the girls gave me a ride up to her camp in New Hampshire. We climbed the mountains there and I said, “I do not ever want to live anyplace else.”
My husband’s work took us all over the country before the war, and we had to find a place to live every month or two. When the jobs were finished he had to go to another town and find another room with kitchen privileges, because we could not afford hotels. That was a pretty peripatetic existence. The Army was just a continuation of that sort of thing.
Weisenberg: When did you get married?
Maxwell: On the 25th of March in 1942.
Weisenberg: Was he in the Army when you got married?
Maxwell: No, he was due in the next week. He had Army experience in college. They had a very complete service for men that would join. He was an officer right away, because of his training at the University of North Dakota. He was a training officer down in the Panama Canal Zone while I was at Kellex all that time.
Weisenberg: Do you remember when you moved to New Jersey to work for Kellex?
Maxwell: It would have been in ‘42, late spring.
Weisenberg: You had heard through a friend, is that right? That they were looking for people to work there?
Maxwell: Yeah. The men in our department at Smith were not drafted, but they were requested to consult with the physics people in Washington as to where they should be applying for work, where the jobs were, what people were needed.
Of course, they did not tell you what we were working on. But nobody had any doubts about what it was. We knew from our physics. Keeping up to date with what was going on in physics, there was no question what we were working on. It was just some part of it. It was amazing when I found that every job that I was suggested to ask if they needed me was connected with the same stuff.
Weisenberg: So they did not tell you exactly what it was, but you knew you were working on the bomb in some way.
Maxwell: Yeah, in that area. One of the girls that was in physics at Smith left before I did. She worked in the California section, to one of the mountains out there. I think she was working on electronics, which I used some of in my master’s degree, but it was not my field.
I love to fool around in the department at Smith in the shop, learn how to use tools. I had to do some pretty careful machining to get my work project to do what I wanted it to do, which was to make one like they had made at MIT for one of their departments in measuring high voltage. So I had to figure out how to measure the high voltage on the high voltage machine, because that is what we were in the process of constructing at Smith before I left.
Weisenberg: Could you generally describe when you got to Kellex in New Jersey and what you were working on?
Maxwell: I think the first was the leaking gaskets. None of us had any experience in that, because that was put out by the chemical man who devised gasket material. They spent their life doing that. Their biggest project was making tight gaskets and then they were disgusted, because they kept leaking and we had to try and find out why. Well, I can tell you about the beginning of that problem.
Maxwell: They spent a lot of time and money developing the kind of gaskets that they put in, because of course, with the violent substance that they were using, it is hard on normal surfaces. They had a lot of trouble making those surfaces stay clean. So they wanted to know what I might think.
I am not a person who uses these very often, but I did look at it and I could see that there were leak holes. We finally decided that what was causing them was the atmosphere. The same atmosphere that you can smell when there is lightning around you. You can smell it. That is what was causing the problem. There were just too many sources of that, which were messing up the gasket surface so that it leaked.
That was the start. Of course, once you get a leak in something like that, it gets bigger. They found out that that was something they had to do about those gaskets. I did not have anything to do with what they did. We would just tell them what was going on, and that was up to the people that made the gaskets to go and do something. So they did something because they continued to use them.
Then we had a lot of problems with the actual leakage of the pressurized material after it goes through the gasket in the procedure down at the site. They had a lot of leakage. It dripped through the barriers and through screenings. We tried to mop it up before it dripped, and it did not hold very well. We had a lot of problems with those little barriers that we put up.
I looked at what was inside these little packages that made up the barrier, and decided there were a lot of things in there that could be doing this. The material did not get absorbed enough. It just let it through. And if it is too solid, it would not let it through. We had to get something that would stay the same in spite of acid fluid going through it. So I went to the people that were manufacturing these cleaning wires that are put together in a package. You would buy them to clean pots and pans when they are really messed up.
I told them that we were not very happy about the size of the wire that they were making. We thought that it would be a lot better if we had a choice of different measures of wire. They said, “We can just make you up a set of all of the possibilities and try them out.” Which we did, and found out that they were using much too big a diameter wire. So he made up special ones for us and we substituted those, and they worked much better. Which was fun, going into their company and showing how they made these things.
That was one topic we had a good reaction to. Then, they were still getting so much oil over that we thought there was something violently wrong still. So our men would go down there and find out what was giving them trouble, bring back the trouble, and we would have a convocation and decide who should mess with it. It seemed to be in somebody’s territory. That seemed to be something that we could help them with.
We designed an area of the laboratory there that was about half the size of this room. And tried to heat it up as much as we could, because it had to be 140 degrees in order for anything to work down at the site. I thought we could do that. We decided to remake their idea of what those pressures were at the various lines along the pressures’ input. In doing so, we discovered they had a section of this curvature where the pressure apparently was not working right. They did not have a good take on what the pressure was, and we discovered that they were not using an ordinary pressure device of a column of mercury and it was changing the readings. We put that in and used it all the way along, and discovered that they were using a device to tell them what the pressure was – a device up here – and in between they did not say how they did it.
So when we substituted the proper values in there, we got instead of a smooth curve – everything else was a nice, smooth curve – it was popping up three or four times as high as before. They had missed that completely, because they did not do their pressure increases consistently all the way through. We found that by going back to our value of what they should be looking for a minimum amount of carry-through of liquid, we found that they would not have anywhere near as much trouble. So they inserted it, and they changed that right away.
Weisenberg: Did you know what the gaskets were going to be used for?
Maxwell: Everything that they put together. Actually, Kellex was a chemical factory to start with of some sort.
Weisenberg: Actually, this might be a good thing to talk about. So Kellex was formed from a company called the [M. W.] Kellogg Company.
Maxwell: They put out chemical products. I never found out what.
Weisenberg: But this was not the same Kellogg that is the cereal company. This is a different Kellogg company.
Maxwell: Yes, it was the Kellogg Company, and this is Kellex that I worked for.
Weisenberg: When you wrote to your husband during the war when he was in Panama, you could not tell him what you were working on, right?
Maxwell: That is right. He had no idea. My mother thought we were working for a cornflake company.
Weisenberg: You were working on designing material that was going to go into one of the plants at Oak Ridge in Tennessee, is that right?
Weisenberg: Do you remember which plant that was? Do you remember if it was what they called the K-25 plant at Oak Ridge?
Maxwell: No, I do not know anything about that. It was not used. It was just “at the site.”
Weisenberg: So it was all just “at the site” in Jersey City?
Weisenberg: Did anyone ever explain why you were working on this? Or was it all sort of keep your head down and just do what you are told?
Maxwell: Neither. We knew what we were working on. We knew how important it was. And there was no question about what came first.
Weisenberg: Did you and did other people think that what you were working on could help end the war?
Maxwell: Oh yes. We all helped. We knew that a lot more than the war was dependent on what happened, because all of us knew what was happening north of Germany and what they were looking for in Norway.
Weisenberg: So you knew the Germans were interested in building something like this too when they had had that heavy water plant in Norway?
Maxwell: We knew. A lot of our things depended on whether we got it before Germany did, because we knew Germany was trying hard.
Weisenberg: So with you and with everyone you worked with, was there a real sense of urgency to get the job done?
Maxwell: Extremely. If you started working on something you worked until it was finished. Four-thirty or five o’clock did not mean anything. You worked until you were tired or had a point of stopping, and then started the next day. You stuck with what you were working on. You worked weekends. Weekends did not mean a thing. You worked at whatever you were doing, where you knew what you had to do next.
Weisenberg: Could you describe for me what the plant was like? Was it a very big place where a lot of people worked, or were you working in a pretty small environment?
Maxwell: It was smaller environments, but all worked for Dr. [Clarence] Johnson.
Weisenberg: What was his first name? Do you remember?
Maxwell: I don’t know. We just called him Dr. Johnson.
Weisenberg: And he worked for Kellex as well?
Maxwell: Yes. He had a bad leg so he had a very limpy walk. He was a very intelligent and sensible man, and all the various types of material people would be working for him. He would have a group for each one, a group leader, and at least one or two trained people that worked under this group leader.
Then each group would get a batch of draftees to do the hard work of putting these things through the tests that had to be done, so we could know that they were good enough to do this, or throw away ones that did not measure up. These people kept track, and the trained people would be sure that they had the training records of all of these things recorded properly and that the soldiers were doing what they had to do; that they weren’t just going to sleep and putting a few figures down wrong. Then the trained people would look at the records, and analyze whether they were accomplishing what they had to accomplish, to be able to turn a certain volume of material over to the sites so that they could run them through the machines.
Weisenberg: You were telling me that one of your responsibilities was trying to fix the problem with the gaskets that kept leaking.
Maxwell: Well, that was general. When problems at the site would come up, our man would go down and figure out what they could and could not figure out. They would come back and tell us exactly what the problems were. It was up to us to figure out how to get around it somehow so that we could continue.
Our job was to run the barriers through a certain, very definite array of tests to acclimate the holes in the barriers, so that a fresh one would change from the beginning to what was good enough to work. That was the reason why our men had to cycle these things through, so that they got a certain amount of protection, as anything that starts getting protected is going to change. Once you get it changed, it would have to stay that way for quite a while. That was what we had to turn over to the site to use.
Weisenberg: Building the barrier and finding good barrier materials is one of the biggest challenges that they had to overcome.
Maxwell: That was a big part, completely separate. I had no idea.
Weisenberg: So you were working on something else then?
Maxwell: We were acclimating the barriers so they would not suddenly get smaller. It was what we were afraid of, I think, to keep it big enough to start with so that it would end up being the right size. That was the project.
Weisenberg: This was all a part of the process for enriching enough uranium, is that right?
Weisenberg: So you were working on some of the filters and the tubing as well, is that right?
Maxwell: The barriers were in the tubing. The product would come along with two different atomic weights, and then the barrier would separate them so they would go off in different directions.
Weisenberg: You were helping to test some of the equipment that went into that?
Weisenberg: Were there other things you were involved on when you were working for Kellex, or was were you working primarily on the barriers?
Maxwell: The way that the site was operating is if it was going smoothly, then we just worked on the barriers. If it was not going smoothly, we had to figure out what was the trouble and to correct it. The main reason for our division was those critical things that happened that were not supposed to happen. Why it happened – that was up to us to figure out and correct it.
Weisenberg: So you were troubleshooting?
Maxwell: A troubleshooter, exactly.
Weisenberg: Do you remember some other problems you had to troubleshoot or solve?
Maxwell: There were various chemical problems that I did not have to mess with because I was not a chemist. I was a physicist. So it was physical things. But there was always the question of how do we keep the oil that has gone over into where it should be separated. But it had too much oil in it. What happens to that, because everything drains downhill? When it gets downhill, it puddles, and it is too concentrated to go near. A person has to have very special equipment to go and handle a funnel. You have to drain it first, and then you have to figure out why it is happening and try to stop it. Until you get it stopped, the plant is held up or at least that particular line. We were trying to keep everything going all the time.
Weisenberg: Were there lots of other people who were on your team?
Maxwell: Well, in our department. Dr. Johnson was of course the head of the lab, and Doctor – what was his name. Anderson.
Maxwell: He was a physical chemist. He was an excellent man. He could even blow glass bubbles for testing. When we had this setup, we had to be able to decide how much was coming through, more than just looking. “Oh, it’s cloudy. There’s a lot of oil in that” – we could not let it go at that.
He blew these globes about that size. He was an excellent glassblower. He attached the entrance and exit to these balls and ran a beam through it. The more beam there was, the more oil there was. So he calibrated these big glass globes that he could blow.
We both decided that would have been a good Ph.D. project had we done it at college instead of for the government. He never got any fame from that.
That was a basic problem when we started. That was what was troubling everybody. But all of these other things sort of added to it in various places. We did our best to keep it going. And I think we did pretty well.
Weisenberg: Was there a point when you knew that everything was going to work, and they were going to be able to produce a bomb before the end of the war?
Maxwell: Yes. That was about the time that Francis, my husband, got permission for me to go to Panama. At that point I could be relieved, because it was not as serious as it had been. We knew they were on their way to do it.
Weisenberg: This probably would have been in 1945 sometime?
Maxwell: Yeah. In fact, Francis got leave to come home at the same time that I was going to go down there. So my luggage had to be turned around and held for me so that it would not be down in Panama with me up here. So at that time we all knew it was going to be all right.
Weisenberg: Do you remember when you heard about the bombing of Hiroshima? Then you knew that it had worked, what you had been working on?
Maxwell: Well of course, everybody heard immediately. It was a terrific celebration. I had just left Kellex at the time that happened. As a matter of fact, maybe a month before they had sort of dissolved the lab. I was with the group that went to New York, New York University.
Weisenberg: Were you still working for the project at that point, or were you no longer?
Maxwell: At that point, yeah, but it was only a matter of a few weeks before the bomb was dropped.
Weisenberg: So you got transferred to New York and then essentially it was over?
Weisenberg: Do you remember when you stopped working for the project?
Maxwell: It was probably a week before, maybe two weeks before, the bomb was dropped.
Weisenberg: Do you remember what your reaction and your colleagues’ reaction was when you heard the news?
Maxwell: Well, I think all of us wondered, “Well, we have done it. We’ve saved one terrible thing and done another.”
Weisenberg: Have your thoughts about that changed at all over the years – about working on the project?
Maxwell: I think what would have happened to all the men who were in the service at that time. A lot more would have gotten messed up with without the atomic bomb.
Weisenberg: Just thinking as well about working at Kellex, do you remember if anyone important from the project ever came in and visited where you were working? Did somebody like “Dobie” Keith or General [Leslie] Groves ever come by?
Maxwell: General Groves sure did. Who else did you suggest?
Weisenberg: Dobie Keith. Percival Keith, who was sort of the head of Kellex.
Maxwell: I do not know. I would not have known.
Weisenberg: Did you ever meet General Groves?
Maxwell: I think he went through our lab, but he did not strike me.
Weisenberg: Do you remember what he looked like?
Maxwell: He looked like an Army man. [Laughter]
Weisenberg: People have a lot of stories about him. He was quite a character.
Maxwell: No. I never heard anything about him, except a few epithets.
Weisenberg: So you knew he was involved in the project in some way?
Maxwell: Oh, yeah.
Weisenberg: Did you know that he was the leader of the project, or did he just seem like an Army officer who was visiting? Do you remember?
Maxwell: He had a big job. He must have done it pretty well because he succeeded.
Weisenberg: One other question that comes to mind: do you remember, was there a lot of security around where you were working? Were there a lot of people making sure that you did not talk about what you were working on?
Maxwell: That was the general idea. Because in general, those soldiers that were working on it had no idea what they were working on, but most of the physicists did. The physicists would because they were following the general line of experimentation. It was not very much of a stretch for them to figure out what was going on. Physicists and chemists were strongly involved. They all knew what was going on, but very seldom the rest of them. They just knew it was a big deal.
Weisenberg: You knew it was a big deal, but it was also this general idea that you were not supposed to talk about it, right?
Maxwell: No, you didn’t. In fact, they just called it the “fluid,” the “X fluid.”
Weisenberg: The X fluid? Wow. Is that what they would call uranium [hexafluoride]?
Maxwell: Uranium, because that is an acid fluid. You were very careful if you had a wound. You wore those tablets that recorded how much you had. They did analysis of urine regularly.
Weisenberg: Were they worried about radiation exposure?
Maxwell: Yeah, because all of that testing was done with the fluid.
Weisenberg: So you and the other people you worked with would all be checked for exposure periodically?
Maxwell: Periodically, yeah. I think everybody in that lab had extra insurance policies.
Weisenberg: Everyone working there?
Maxwell: Everybody working there, yeah, because they were all exposed. If there was an explosion or something, they had to be insured. Which is one reason they wouldn’t let me work right away, because I did not follow the obligations. I was too low on my white count.
Weisenberg: Could you just explain that? Because of your blood cell count, they were a little concerned about exposing you to this sort of stuff.
Weisenberg: That was some testing that you had to do at Smith before you could work on the project, is that right?
Maxwell: They had me checked out by a doctor to start. I had to get a check a week later maybe. By then I had done all of the things that they told me to do and my count was all right.
Weisenberg: Do you remember what they told you to do?
Maxwell: Eat more, I guess.
Weisenberg: It sounds like you were working very long hours, especially when you were running into problems.
Weisenberg: Did you live nearby in Jersey City?
Maxwell: I had an apartment in kind of a garden, right in the middle of Jersey City. I could take a bus out that direction, and it would drop us about a mile from the site. I had to walk the last mile along the water, an inlet there someplace. So it was cold in the wintertime.
I did not know any other science people – women – working there. The women were all more bookkeepers.
Weisenberg: The women were – I’m sorry?
Maxwell: The women in our divisions were all secretaries.
Weisenberg: So you were the only female physicist.
Maxwell: As far as I know I was the only trained person, a girl.
Maxwell: There were not many people majoring in physics. Of course there was always about twenty to one wherever I took courses.
Weisenberg: Twenty men for one woman?
Maxwell: Yeah, at the University of North Dakota.
Weisenberg: How did it feel to be the only female physicist where you were working?
Maxwell: I think it made me work harder. You need to be a dope!
Weisenberg: Do you remember what you did during your time off when you were not working on the project, when you had breaks?
Maxwell: Oh, one Easter all my family was away. One of the fellows suggested that he was going to go up to the New York hills on his motorcycle and said, “Do you want to come along?”
I said, “Sure.”
So we went up there and that was where the picture was taken, on Easter Sunday in New York in the mountains.
Weisenberg: One other detail that I want to make sure to ask about is you were working on scrubbers for a uranium solution, is that right?
Maxwell: When you were in a kitchen and you got a hand that had been burned and you have what do they call those? It is a clump.
They are mounted on a board and this would be enclosed, and a board with a handle on it.
Maxwell: And you scrub it. It is made of fine wire and you scrub the burn off. It is enclosed and the outside edge, the fluid comes through and flows through that wire stuff. The wire will absorb more fluid if it is real fine. If it is very coarse, it does not get very much of it. So that is why they gave me a run of all of the various sizes of wire they made them in. I tried them all, and the finest ones worked best to keep the oil out. It would somehow stop the oil from going through where the heavy wire did not seem to absorb it much. Of course, there is a lot more exposure in the fine wire and it did the job. It lets it drip sooner, and your return oil drip does not have too much return.
Weisenberg: So the fine wire was helping you solve the problem with the oil?
Maxwell: Yeah. And of course we put some filters horizontally and some vertical, because you would get different dripping times depending on the angle of drip.
Weisenberg: Is there anything else about working on the project you would like to share with me? Are there any stories that I have not asked you about?
Maxwell: I have never been so absorbed in any one thing in my life as I was in that. It just had to be done.
Weisenberg: What did you do after you worked on the project?
Maxwell: What did I do? Francis went back to work for the pile driving company and in short order, I was tutoring at Wellesley at first.
We had a business company that drove piles for big buildings and for bridges, stuff like that. We had it for how many years, from ’45 to ’80 about.
Jim Maxwell: The company will be fifty years old in another couple of months.
Weisenberg: Oh, my goodness.
Maxwell: And we sold it to [her son] Jim [Maxwell] when Jim got old enough to decide he knew more about it than Francis did, which was true. And he made a big success of it, Jim did. We just kind of kept our noses above water.
Weisenberg: And you have been married for seventy—
Maxwell: Seventy-four years.
Weisenberg: Seventy-four years. Wow. That is a wonderful story.
Maxwell: He is 99, so we assume that he will be 100 years old in this house.