Leona Woods: Bombs, Potatoes, and Secret Underground Labs

By Jaime Seltzer

Leona Woods was an integral part of the Manhattan Project, otherwise known as the quest to build the bomb before the Nazis could, and later known as the thing that destroyed Hiroshima.

“She did calculations and engineering and physics in the daytime and then she drove out to dig potatoes, after which she presumably relaxed and kicked back by drinking the tears of lesser PhD students.”

Leona was a super-genius born in 1919 in La Grange, Illinois. By the time she was fourteen, she’d graduated high school, and she finished college at the University of Chicago at the ripe old age of eighteen. Her status as a person of a certain gender made it rather difficult to continue her education however, so she went to talk to James Franck, hoping he would be her academic advisor as she earned her doctorate.

Franck reputedly replied, ‘When my advisor agreed to help me, he said, ‘Since you are a Jew, you will starve; so I feel obligated to tell you that, since you are a woman, you will starve, like, twice over.’ Leona took note of how hugely plump he was, lifted one, dark eyebrow and took her soon-to-be-world-famous business to Robert Mullikan, instead. He was kinder in the face of Leona’s awesome, often saying to her, ‘shockingly, you don’t appear to be a complete waste of my time.’ From Mullikan, this was the equivalent of kissing her feet.

she did calculations and engineering and physics in the daytime and then she drove out to dig potatoes, after which she presumably relaxed and kicked back by drinking the tears of lesser PhD students.

Leona Woods Marshall at the University of Chicago in 1946, and as pictured by illustrator Francis Collie in the Women in Science card game.

Leona earned her PhD a year after the first successful nuclear test and got married; and just in case you haven’t yet been convinced of this woman’s science superhero status, she was pregnant while she worked on a second nuclear reactor, Reactor B. She was afraid she wouldn’t be allowed to stay on the Project if anyone knew, so she wore super-baggy work clothes and didn’t tell a soul, driving up every day in an army van, stumbling out, tossing her cookies into the bushes, and then pretending that no such thing had just happened.

Reactor B would eventually produce the plutonium used in Fat Man, the nuclear bomb that the United States dropped on Nagasaki. To her dying day in the 1980s, Leona was unrepentant, viewing this as a terrible job that nevertheless needed to be done to bring the war to a close.

After the war, Leona turned her attention to slightly less explosive pursuits – you know, quantum physics, climatology and “the general structure of the universe.”

The simple things.

Bibliography:
Folkart, F. (1986, November 13). Leona Marshall Libby Dies; Sole Woman to Work on Fermi’s 1st Nuclear Reactor. L.A. Times
Libby, L. M. (1980). The Uranium People. New York: Crane, Russak
Thompson, B. (2014). Badass of the Week: Leona Woods

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