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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Louis Hempelmann Interview – Part 1

Louis Hempelmann was a doctor and radiologist who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. He was a close friend of J. Robert Oppenheimer, his wife Kitty, and their children. In this interview, Hempelmann explains how and why he was recruited for the Manhattan Project. He recalls an early conference there on the bomb at which Edward Teller was criticized for his obsession with the hydrogen bomb. Hempelmann remembers going horseback riding with Oppenheimer and Kitty, and watching their children during the Atomic Energy Commission hearing that resulted in Oppie’s security clearance being revoked.

Date of Interview:
August 10, 1983
Location of the Interview:


Martin Sherwin: Martin Sherwin, I am about to interview Dr. Hempelmann at Strong Memorial Hospital.

You know, simply from all of the Los Alamos records, but who told me you were at Strong? That was, I think, Dorothy McKibbin.

Louis Hempelmann:  Oh yeah.

Sherwin: No, she confirmed it. She said you were coming out to Santa Fe.

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: I was in the Los Alamos archives talking to the archivist, whose name slips my mind at the moment. I was going down the list of names of people who were where. He knew that you were at Strong. He knew you were in Rochester, and I know Strong because of Marty. I said, “Is it Strong Memorial Hospital?” He said yes.

Hempelmann: Oh, good.

Sherwin: Also, I think I read some of the reports you did on Hiroshima. Didn’t you write some stuff, or did some study?

Hempelmann: No, I didn’t go there. I was in Los Alamos. I wrote up the first two nuclear accidents there. Louis Slotin and Harry Daghlian were both killed, and others—

Sherwin: Now, Slotin I know. He was killed working on—that is, I know about the story. These two hemispheres had suddenly clung together. But the second one?

Hempelmann: Well, no, his accident was the second one. It was actually the fourth, but the first two happened while we were so busy with the preparations for testing the first bomb, that we didn’t really pay too much attention to them. We didn’t think they were very serious. The first accident that was really studied happened in August 21, 1945. The man who was conducting the study was a fellow named Harry Daghlian, who was killed. He was a young fellow.

Sherwin: What was he doing?

Hempelmann: He was doing essentially the same thing Louis was doing, but he was using different tamper material. That is, neutron-reflecting material to send the neutrons back into this plutonium sphere.

Sherwin: And the same thing happened?

Hempelmann: Yeah, yeah.

Sherwin: They came together?

Hempelmann:  He was adding these bricks of tungsten carbide. He was just completing it, and you could hear that the neutron flux was going up. He tried to take his brick away. It slipped out of his hand and fell on the assembly.

Sherwin: That was the first major study that you did of it?

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: But during the war, it was only Slotin who was killed?

Hempelmann: No, he was killed in 1946.

Sherwin: Slotin was killed in ’46. Was anyone killed during the war at Los Alamos?

Hempelmann: Well, for other reasons, but not by radiation.

Sherwin: I see.

Hempelmann: People were very heavily exposed to plutonium, which is supposed to be a very toxic material. But we have been following up with people who were the most heavily exposed, and they all seem to be all right.

Sherwin: How old are they?

Hempelmann: Oh, in their mid-fifties, some of them older.

Sherwin: Is it just a coincidence? There are so many, or it seems like so many, the prominent physicists associated in one way or another with the nuclear experience during the war have died of cancer, [Enrico] Fermi, [J. Robert] Oppenheimer. Frank Oppenheimer now is very sick.

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: I understand [Richard] Feynman has cancer.

Hempelmann: Oh really? I didn’t know that.

Sherwin: Yeah, I just heard that, sometime during the summer, I have done so many interviews this summer, I can’t keep it straight just who I got the information from.

Hempelmann: Well, they are all in their late fifties and sixties now.

Sherwin: That’s the time.

Hempelmann: That’s the time when they go, now that the men aren’t dying of heart attacks as much. I doubt very much whether radiation had anything to do with it. Some big studies are being undertaken now. I think that will be answered within the next five or ten years.

Sherwin: I couldn’t help noticing on your desk as I was setting this up, a letter signed by Farrington Daniels.

Hempelmann: Oh, yeah.

Sherwin: I know him. That is, I know the name for some reason. Was he with the Manhattan Project?

Hempelmann: No.

Sherwin: Who was he?

Hempelmann: His father was a very famous physical chemist.

Sherwin: His father was, okay.

Hempelmann: He is Farrington Daniels, Junior.

Sherwin: His father was at Chicago, right?

Hempelmann: Wisconsin, I think.

Sherwin: But not during the war in Chicago?

Hempelmann: Maybe he was. I don’t know. I don’t know the father. The son is a dermatologist, of all things, at Cornell. He is the Chief of Dermatology there. He didn’t have anything to do with the Manhattan Project during the war. I just happened to be on a committee at the National Academy of Science with him. He is an awfully nice fellow.

Sherwin: How did you get to Los Alamos, in the first place?

Hempelmann: My wife and I have always been very low key about this. I don’t want you to emphasize my role, or anything like that. We just happened to be very good friends of the Oppenheimer’s.

Sherwin: Okay, this is one of the advantages of having it on tape because as I take notes, I will make sure that I put these kinds of things down.

Hempelmann: I was trained in internal medicine. After graduating from Washington University Medical School in 1938, I spent a year in pathology in Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. Then I spent a couple of years up at Peter Bent Brigham [Hospital] as a house officer.

At that time, the Mallinckrodt Institute of Washington University, which is a radiological institute, they were building a cyclotron for treating patients with neutrons, as they were doing in Berkeley. I had no training in radiology, but the head of the institute, a man named Sherwood Moore, was a friend of my father’s and I knew him. For some reason, he offered me this job, even though I had no training at all.

I got a Commonwealth Fellowship, and I went out to Berkeley. I spent about six months there working with Dr. Robert Stone, who was treating people with neutrons, cancer patients. I also worked with John Lawrence, who ran the radioactive phosphorous clinic. He was the first person to do that.

Sherwin: He is still active.

Hempelmann: Yeah. So I worked with John, and I got to know him very well. We were both bachelors. He was living at the Faculty Club. We would play squash and then go out and have dinner about two or three times a week. Of course, through him, I got to know Ernest [Lawrence] fairly well.

Sherwin: This is when? What’s the year?

Hempelmann: Oh, this was just about the time of Pearl Harbor.

Sherwin: So ’41, late ’41.

Hempelmann: Yeah. So by that time, the cyclotron in St. Louis was almost ready to go, but they didn’t want to use it. They weren’t allowed to use it to treat patients. It was used to make plutonium from uranium. This is where the first microscopic quantities of plutonium were made.

Sherwin: That’s what they used for measuring the cross section?

Hempelmann: Yeah, those early studies at the Met Lab. I was at Berkeley when Pearl Harbor occurred, so all of our plans were changed. I went back to St. Louis, and I worked on the crew of the cyclotron there. I set up a clinic like John Lawrence’s, for treating patients with radioactive phosphorous. I did that for about nine months.

Then one day, I think in January 1943, my boss, Dr. Moore, got a call from Oppie. Actually, it was from somebody else, but asking if I could meet Oppie in Chicago. This was in January 1943. I had met him during the war, but I didn’t know him. Apparently, he had to ask John. At that time, he and the Lawrence’s were still good friends. He asked John whether he knew of anybody who knew something about physics, who could keep people from hurting themselves with radiation. So John recommended me.

Then I met him. He was very open about it. He said they were going to try to make an atomic bomb.

Sherwin: Is that right? He told you about that, even before you agreed to come? Or did you agree to come first, and then he told you?

Hempelmann: No, we had talked some. He knew that I was interested. I was probably cleared by that time, because of my work when I was out at St. Louis. Then he asked me if I would come. I said sure.

Sherwin: Were you married at the time?

Hempelmann: No. I said I only had one reservation, and that was that I was thinking of getting married. I didn’t want to go out there and just have to sit there for years. He said that they would give me special dispensation to go back to St. Louis.

Sherwin: To court.

Hempelmann: I did that.

Sherwin: You moved out to Los Alamos then in early winter of ’43?

Hempelmann: No, in April 1943.

Sherwin: April ’43.

Hempelmann: There was a big conference there, a very basic conference, and everybody was there. Very exciting time, really.

Sherwin: Do you remember? Can you tell me about that conference?

Hempelmann: Well, I can tell you one thing. It was instructional, because all or most of the people were physicists or chemists. They hadn’t necessarily been working in that field. There was instruction by people like Ed McMillan, the highest-priced physicist in the country. 

Sherwin: Okay.

Hempelmann: It may be of interest to you. Edward Teller—this was in April 1943—was giving a talk on the—it was all about the superbomb. He was being very silly about it. I am not one of his great admirers—as a matter of fact, I loathe him, mainly because the way he acted towards Oppenheimer. He was talking about the superbomb and sort of laughing, giggling. He has a very raucous sort of laugh. He was sort of making jokes, it’s a great big toy and all of that sort of business.

Then [Isador I.] Rabi and a fellow named Bright Wilson, who was a chemist from Harvard, got up and took him to task. I think partly for his attitude, but also for some of the things he was saying. He broke down and cried. Then we all went to lunch at Fuller’s Lodge. He sat all by himself and wouldn’t talk to anybody. He was just shattered by this.

Sherwin: This was April of ’43?

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: I have to also send you a copy of—I reviewed the biography of Edward Teller. I was very harsh about it, and about Teller and the superbomb. This fascination he has always had with it, from the very beginning, is a very troublesome kind of a business.

Hempelmann: Also, Rabi would remember this.

Sherwin: I am sure. I am going to talk to him.

Hempelmann: In the early part of 1944, he [Teller] came by my office and asked if I would talk to him. We went out in the country someplace.

Sherwin: At Los Alamos?

Hempelmann: Yeah. He was telling me about the neutron bomb, and what did I think of that as a weapon. I didn’t know anything about it, but I mean, he was talking about it back in those days.

Sherwin: The neutron bomb as distinct from the hydrogen bomb and the atomic bomb?

Hempelmann: Yeah, it’s what they are talking about now.

Sherwin: In Europe, right. That is sort of a thing that kills people, but not buildings.

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: Right. Tell me more about this meeting, if you can. How many people were there, for example? Are you talking about ten?

Hempelmann: Oh no, maybe fifty to seventy-five.

Sherwin: Fifty to seventy-five. We are talking about then all the physicists that Oppenheimer was trying to bring to Los Alamos. This was kind of a week of everybody telling everybody else about their subject?

Hempelmann: Instruction, yeah.

Sherwin: Trying to get a commonality among all the people.

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: So [Hanse] Bethe was there.

Hempelmann: Bethe was there. Bethe spoke, yeah.

Sherwin: Let’s see if we can picture all of the people who were there. Bethe, Feynman there?

Hempelmann: Oh, yeah.

Sherwin: Bob Wilson?

Hempelmann: I am sure.

Sherwin: Teller, you. It was just about everybody. [Charles] Critchfield?

Hempelmann: Critchfield.

Sherwin: [Rubby] Sherr?

Hempelmann: I don’t think he came until later.

Sherwin: He didn’t come until later. How many days of lecture?

Hempelmann: This was about five days. We started, I think it was April 17. It started on a Monday, I think. It went through until Friday.

Sherwin: Had all of the families arrived? Had people moved in by this point?

Hempelmann: No, many of the other people were just living—just the men were there. They were living under—

Sherwin: I see, so they had come. Did they leave after that and then come back? Or were they there now for—

Hempelmann:  Well, some of them did, I am sure. I stayed on. I had come earlier in March, and then I went back and then I came back.

Sherwin: At this point, there was hardly anything at Los Alamos, right?

Hempelmann: They were just starting the buildings, yeah. Well, there were some buildings up.

Sherwin: What day did Teller speak on?

Hempelmann: That I don’t remember. It wasn’t at the beginning. It was towards the end.

Sherwin: Towards the end. Was it clear that he was going to pursue this particular subject?

Hempelmann: No, no, I mean this was just an exploratory thing, really. The first lectures had to do with the basic physics and then how an atomic bomb—

Sherwin: Were there any notes taken at these things that might be around?

Hempelmann: There was a young woman who was the wife of—I’ll think of his name. She took the whole thing down in shorthand. Now, whether she typed it up or not, I don’t know. I would think you could get hold of something in the archives. 

Sherwin: Well, it’s either there, or you have to ask for it. I don’t know if it’s still classified or not. If I knew the name of the person who did it—

Hempelmann: It probably wouldn’t be under her name.

Sherwin: Which division did she work with? I will tell you, the way the archives are organized is, they are organized by the files of people who kept the files. In other words, if they were in stuck in Oppenheimer’s office in his files, it would be under the director’s office. If it happened to be in Critchfield’s office by 1945 when they gathered them all up, then it’s under Critchfield. She was probably working for the director, so it would probably be in Oppenheimer’s office.

Hempelmann: No, I don’t. I think it might be in Ed McMillan’s files, yeah.

Sherwin: McMillan, okay. Now, Teller spoke about this. Was it in the afternoon or the morning? I am just asking everything that comes to mind.

Hempelmann: It was just before lunch, because Rabi and Bright Wilson jumped on him just before we broke up.

Sherwin: Could you try to recreate in a little more detail of when you say he was telling jokes.

Hempelmann: Well, you have heard him talk, haven’t you?

Sherwin: Oh, yes.

Hempelmann: You know, he has that terrible laugh. That’s the thing I remember most about him. Now, how much of it was that they were jumping on him for his science, and how much because he was being so light about the whole thing? I don’t know. I don’t remember.

Sherwin: But he talked about it—

Hempelmann: It was pretty much over my head.

Sherwin: I understand, although you could pick up a certain attitude he had towards this thing.

Hempelmann: Sure.

Sherwin: I mean, what is it like? Phrases like “more bang for the buck, ha ha ha.”

Hempelmann: Yeah, sort of like that.

 Sherwin: Rabi got pretty upset with him?

Hempelmann:  Yeah, he really told him off.

Sherwin: Do you recall how?

Hempelmann: Ask Rabi. He will.

Sherwin: Okay, now Brient Wilson. Is it B-R-I-E-N-T?

Hempelmann: No, B-R-I-G-H-T. He was a very brilliant, quite young man. I never saw him after that day.

Sherwin: He never came to Los Alamos?

Hempelmann: No.

Sherwin: That’s probably why I haven’t heard of him.

Hempelmann: But he was at Harvard. He may still be there.

Sherwin: Teller really cried, or just kind of got choked up?

Hempelmann: I think he got choked up while he was at the platform, but I think afterwards—I felt sorry for him. I went up to talk to him. I think he was crying then. 

Sherwin: It is an important thing about Teller’s psychology, the relationship with Oppenheimer, and the thing about the superbomb. I have been told that Teller has said on this Nova program, which I hope you will see, “I don’t know when it’s going to be on.”

There were two things that you would be interested in. One, he says that Oppenheimer promised him, tempted him, to come to Los Alamos, and promised him that he could work on the superbomb. When he came to Los Alamos and wasn’t immediately assigned his own division to work on the superbomb, he felt that he had been—now, this is his argument.

The other story is that he came to Los Alamos to work on the atomic bomb like everybody else. He was so hung up on the Super that he was just totally uncooperative, and finally had to be given his own division.

Hempelmann: Oh, he was a very uncooperative man at best. He was really a prima donna. Rabi could tell you this more, knowing more about it than I do. Teller seemed to me to be very brilliant, very imaginative. But he had a thousand ideas, and he couldn’t pick the ones which were really good. He would back them all. If any of these things were shot down, he would get terribly upset.

Whereas Bethe, for example, was just the calmest, most reasonable person in the world. Never got flustered and never got excited. He had funny laugh, too. Have you talked to him?

Sherwin: Oh, yes. He wrote an introduction to my first book.

Hempelmann: Oh, really?

Sherwin: Yeah, he has been very helpful. I haven’t specifically talked to him in detail about Oppenheimer, but he was really helpful on the first book.

You were an internist. Were you a doctor at Los Alamos? There were a couple of others.

Hempelmann: I was supposed to be the medical director for the laboratory, with specific emphasis on radiation. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as occupational medicine. I didn’t know anything about safety engineers, or all that sort of business. We operated in the most primitive way, really. Then Oppie had picked out a woman general practitioner, who was the wife of a physicist.

Sherwin: Bernard Peters’ wife?

Hempelmann: Yeah. What is her name? I knew her very well. She used to have a laboratory next to mine here.

Sherwin: I forget at the very moment, but it might come to me.

Hempelmann: They were coming out there. Then they didn’t, or couldn’t, or something. I don’t know what was the exact story there. Then Oppie called me and asked me if I could get someone to take care of the health of the town, of the total population. I got a classmate of mine named Jim Nolan, who had gone into gynecology. He was trained as a surgeon, and then went into obstetrics and gynecology. He ended up treating patients with radium. So he knew something about radiation. He was a very good obstetrician, fortunately, which was the main thing we had to deal with. Also, he was a good surgeon, so he could set bones and things like [00:27:00] that.

Sherwin: So he delivered all the babies?

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: Is he still around?

Hempelmann: He is living in Los Angeles.

Sherwin: Do you know where he is, specifically? What is his first name?

Hempelmann:  James F.

Sherwin: James F. Nolan.

Hempelmann: James Finley Nolan, yeah.

Sherwin: Okay. I would like to get that address, if you have it when we go back to your office.

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: Your relation with the Oppenheimer’s was not as their doctor.

Hempelmann: No, oh no.

Sherwin: Per se.

Hempelmann: Although in the first year, I really didn’t have too much to do in the laboratory. I mean, there weren’t any radiation hazards yet. All the other occupational hazards were minimal. They were just more or less like they are in a university set-up like this. I would help Nolan with the practice. I would see the persons who presented with medical problems.

The original plan was that we were all going into the Army. There would be a total of about 500 people, and then a fence would be built around this. Our travels were of course greatly restricted. We could go to Santa Fe, as far north as Taos, as far south as Albuquerque, and then as far east and west as Grants or someplace. Fortunately, that was never achieved. It just kept going and going and going. How many people were out there at the time at the end of the war, I don’t know. It was thousands of them.

Sherwin: Then there was Trinity site, which was southeast of Socorro.

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: You were married when?

Hempelmann: In June 1943.

Sherwin: ’43. So your wife moved?

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: Did she become a good friend of Kitty’s?

Hempelmann: Oh, yeah. All the wives were forced into working part-time, if they could. She had some secretarial training, so she worked half-days. Actually, Kitty worked for me. It was a very small and very close group at the beginning. Later on, with the tensions and everything, things started to fall apart. Cliques—

Sherwin: Began to develop?

Hempelmann: Yeah. As I say, everybody was very close mostly, for the first six months anyway, maybe longer.

Sherwin: What were the cliques that developed?

Hempelmann: Partly it was the old-timers, the ones who were there first. Then there were a lot of military there, of course. I mean, as technicians, the SED, Special Engineering Detachment. Then there were other military guards. They were the only mounted MP [Military Police].

Sherwin: Did they ride the fence?

Hempelmann: Yeah, they were supposed to. They stopped it during and after the first of winter, because their feet got too cold riding. It was awfully cold out there.

Sherwin: Yeah. I was just out there this summer, but I was never there in the winter.

Hempelmann: Well, it gets down to 20 below, or even 40 below.

Sherwin: Does it snow a lot?

Hempelmann: Up in the mountains. Not too much up at Los Alamos, but higher in the mountains.

Sherwin: Did Oppenheimer keep a horse there?

Hempelmann: Yeah, yeah. Of course, the reason that the place was chosen was that he has his ranch in the Pecos Valley, which Peter still has.

Sherwin: Yeah, I was there.

Hempelmann: Oh, you were?

Sherwin: Yeah, I talked to him for a couple of hours. As a matter of fact, what I did, I wanted to get a very good sense of what those mountains were like and what the horseback riding was like because they were so important to him. I was out with my family and we stayed at Los Pinos.

Hempelmann: Oh, really?

Sherwin: The way I got to Peter’s house was, we rode horses over the hill from Los Pinos to Peter’s house.

Hempelmann: Oh really, yeah.

Sherwin: It was a beautiful trip, and it was very exciting. It gave me a very important sense of the relationship between Oppenheimer, the horse, and the mountains. Beautiful. It was a gorgeous day. I met Virginia, Peter’s wife, three lovely kids. 

Hempelmann: Oppie had a horse that was a half Standardbred. This horse could single-foot over the roughest trail. Of course, that’s the easiest pace in the world to ride. The horse’s name was Chico, I think.

Sherwin: Now, when you say single-foot, I am not enough of a rider to know. Is that sort of just one in front of the other?

Hempelmann: Yeah, they put all four feet down at different times in a sequence. It is not like the pacing, where they—

Sherwin: Canter or anything like that?

Hempelmann: No. It’s just like riding, like sitting in a rocking chair. In the early days, we used to ride, not quite a bit, but we would ride occasionally. He didn’t have time. But actually, we bought our first horse together. Kitty was a very good horseman. She was really European trained. She was a classic.

Sherwin: She rode English?

Hempelmann: Well, out there she rode Western, but she was trained. They found this nice little full Standardbred, who was a pacer, who had been raced down at Albuquerque. He was the cutest horse I have ever seen, nice-looking horse, but so sweet. He just loved people. 

Sherwin: What was his name?

Hempelmann: Dixie. They found him, and they told us about him. We bought him together with the understanding that if he was a good trail horse, they would keep him. If he wasn’t a good trail horse, we would keep him. If there was a pebble in the road, Dixie would fall over it. Terrible trail horse, so we ended up with him.

Sherwin: I see. Did she get a horse to replace him?

Hempelmann: She got a thoroughbred, that really didn’t work out too well. He was always hurting himself. They were always having problems with him.

Sherwin: Now, who kept the horses there?

Hempelmann: They were all in the Army stables. They were beautifully taken care of by the cavalry. They cost fifteen dollars a month per horse.

Sherwin: Times have changed today. That’s good. So you remain close friends with the Oppenheimer’s, I guess?

Hempelmann: Oh, yeah. Peter and Virginia stayed in I guess in what you might call a guest house most of the winter and spring, the weather up in the Pecos was so bad.

Sherwin: This was when, last year?

Hempelmann: No, early part of this year.

Sherwin: This year?

Hempelmann: Peter was working on a house, doing some construction work.

Sherwin: In Santa Fe?

Hempelmann: No, in this little valley called Pojoaque Valley. It would take him, if he would go home, it would take him four hours, which was just too hard on him. He got a trailer and he was living at the place under very primitive conditions. We saw him last Christmas, and told him to use this place and you could take showers and stay there if he wanted to. He stayed there off and on. Then they were completely snowed in, so they all moved in. Virginia’s doctor this spring wanted her near town. So they stayed there until after the baby was born.

Sherwin: Yeah, that was what, about March or April?

Hempelmann: I don’t know. We were there in May, and I think it was going to be soon.

Sherwin: So it was just May or early June, okay. I guess she was holding the baby when I saw him.

Hempelmann: Yeah.

 Sherwin: I have two of my own, but it’s been a while since they were that small. I can no longer judge the ages very well.

Did the Oppenheimer children stay with you during the hearings? Do I have that right?

Hempelmann:  Yeah.

Sherwin: Did Kitty call you?

 Hempelmann: No, he called.

Sherwin: He called.

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: Can you just tell me about that?

Hempelmann: We would see him off and on. We would go to Princeton. There was a physics conference, high-energy physics conference. They would come to the conference out here, and they would come and stay with us. Or they would stay with us in our place out west.

Sherwin: Do you live in Santa Fe?

Hempelmann: No, I live in this little river valley that I was talking about.

Sherwin: Nambe Valley?

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: What is the relationship to Santa Fe?

Hempelmann: It’s north of Santa Fe. It’s on the road up to Taos. You turn off after that road to go up to Los Alamos.

We were always in fairly close contact. We actually happened to be staying with them when the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] man came up to take all the documents back.

Sherwin: So he received the letter of charges late in December ’53. I would guess that the AEC man came pretty soon after that. It must have been January ’54. Is that right?

Hempelmann: I don’t know that.

Sherwin: So you were there at the time. They told you about it?

Hempelmann: Oh yeah, we knew all about it. Then he just called me and asked if we would take the children. So they came out by train.

Sherwin: Peter should have been, he was born about what, ’40?

Hempelmann: ’40, yeah.

Sherwin: So he was about fourteen then. Toni was born, what, ’44?

Hempelmann: She was born out there, ’44 I think, yeah.

Sherwin: She would be about ten. How long did they stay with you?

Hempelmann: Oh, I think they were about ten days to two weeks.

Sherwin: Oh, that’s all? In other words, it was just the period when the Oppenheimer’s were in Washington.

Hempelmann: Uh-huh, yeah.

Sherwin: Let me sort of tell you some things that I know that I have to deal with, so you don’t feel self-conscious about telling tales out of school that you feel that you really shouldn’t. I have a very good sense what family life was like to the Oppenheimer’s and how difficult things were, how they became, and about Kitty’s alcoholism, etc. What I really need is the kind of information that you could provide in terms of your medical experience dealing with all of these things in a sort of sympathetic and understanding way. I don’t know how exactly I am going to deal with it, certainly judiciously.

Hempelmann: Sure.

Sherwin: But it’s quite clear to me even now that Robert’s life couldn’t help but be very affected by the condition of his wife, etc.

Hempelmann: Oh sure, yeah. 

Sherwin: When did it start? What can you say about it? How should a biographer who is dealing in depth of personality deal with it?

Hempelmann: Well, I can’t tell you when this started. She certainly didn’t drink more than anybody did out at Los Alamos. I would guess in the early ‘50s.

Sherwin: It was even earlier than that. When she came to the Institute [of Advanced Study] in ’47, ’48, she was already before lunch drinking fairly heavily. But of course, I suppose at that time, she was handling it very well.

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: These things, I guess, have a deteriorating effect.

Hempelmann: Then there is this trial, that was very hard on them both. Later on, she developed pancreatitis. She would take pain-killing drugs for that. That would make her worse.

Sherwin: When was this? Do you remember?

Hempelmann:  Oh, in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. 

Sherwin: Late ‘50s, early ‘60s.

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: Could you tell me something about that disease?

Hempelmann: It’s very painful, and very strong painkillers are prescribed for it. Of course, that didn’t mix with the alcohol. That just added to her troubles.

Sherwin: Is the disease something that comes from alcoholism?

Hempelmann: It is often associated with alcoholism.

Sherwin: What kind of drugs do you take for it?

Hempelmann: The strongest painkillers you can get. What exactly she was taking, I don’t know.

Sherwin: You have to sort of constantly be on those?

Hempelmann: I don’t think so. I think she would just take them when she was having an attack.

Sherwin: It comes in attacks?

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: What is it? What kind of pain is it? Is it splitting headaches? Pain in the gut?

Hempelmann: No, pain in the belly, yeah.

Sherwin: Kind of like a bad stomachache or appendicitis?

Hempelmann: Yeah. He was really just a saint to her. He was always sympathetic. He didn’t ever seem to get irritated at her or anything like that. He really stuck with her very, very—

Sherwin: Yes.

Hempelmann: I mean, he was a marvelous husband.

Sherwin: Yeah, they were extraordinarily, it seemed to me, attached in ways that—in certain ways his attitude baffles me. That is, it was a very laissez-faire attitude, I think. Correct me at any point if you think my sense of it is incorrect.

Hempelmann: Yeah.

Sherwin: I am sure he urged her to try and stop.

Hempelmann: Oh, yeah.

Sherwin: But there was never any—

Hempelmann: I don’t think she was institutionalized, or anything like that.

Sherwin: I think that was raised and it was rejected.

Hempelmann: I don’t think she could have stood that. She was very independent. To be regimented like that, would have just killed her.

Sherwin: Did you see them regularly during the 1950s and ‘60s?

Hempelmann: We would see them two or three times a year.

Sherwin: Did you ever talk to Robert Oppenheimer about Kitty’s condition?

Hempelmann: He talked to me, yeah.

Sherwin: What was his—

Hempelmann: Well, he didn’t ever ask for advice of any kind, including medical advice. But he would tell me what was going on, and said that—

Copyright 2005 Martin J. Sherwin. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of Martin J. Sherwin. Rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.