Department of Energy

Five Fast Facts About Dr. Lilli Hornig

March 8, 2018

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Illustration of Dr. Lilli Horning, a chemist at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project
Cort Kreer, Energy Department.

It’s Women’s History Month on During the month of March, we’re highlighting the great contributions to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- or STEM -- fields made by women who worked on the Manhattan Project, the top-secret program during World War II that ushered in the nuclear age. 

Dr. Lilli Hornig was a chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. She studied plutonium and chemistry, and later worked in the explosives group alongside her husband. She passed away last November at the age of 96. 

Here are some other facts about Lilli Hornig you might find surprising: 

  1. She was a refugee of Nazi Germany. Born in Czechoslovakia, Hornig lived in Berlin for a few years and immigrated to the United States at the age of 12 when her father was threatened with imprisonment in a concentration camp. Hornig and her husband, Don Hornig, moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1944.  

  2. Hornig was originally offered a job as a typist, even though she had a bachelors in chemistry from Bryn Mawr and a masters from Harvard. She told HR that she was an awful typist, and was able to show her credentials and get a research position. 

  3. Lilli Hornig witnessed the first detonation of the atomic bomb from the Sandia Mountains near Los Alamos. She described the explosion as, "boiling clouds and color – vivid colors like violet, purple, orange, yellow, and red." 

  4. She didn't want to drop the bomb on civilians. Hornig signed a petition advocating for demonstrating the atomic bomb's destructive power as a warning, instead of dropping it on a population. 

  5. After the war, Lilli Hornig became a fierce advocate for women in higher education. She founded Higher Education Resource Services (HERS), which researches historic discrimination against women and challenges sexist hiring practices. She was also the first director of the Committee on the Education and Employment of Women in Science and Engineering at the National Academy of Sciences. 

Editors note: This article has been updated, an earlier version implied that Hornig had been onsite for the Trinity test, when in fact she'd been 110 miles away in the Sandia Mountains.