Department of Energy

How Women Helped Build the Atomic Bomb

March 7, 2018

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Normally, when we write about the Manhattan Project -- the secret government program that built the atomic bomb -- we talk about the men that spearheaded it: Enrico Fermi, J. Robert Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves. But from the discovery of the nuclear fission to the dropping of the bomb, women played many critical and often overlooked roles.  

This Women's History Month, we're showcasing the broad spectrum of who those women were and what they did during the Manhattan Project. Over the course of this month, we'll highlight the accomplishments of five women who helped on the project with blogs and illustrations, release a timeline of their work, and cap off the month with a coloring book of all the illustrations.  

In addition, our Grand Junction site in Colorado will host a presentation on women in the Manhattan Project next week, the Department of Energy site in Hanford, Washington will host a STEAM night with Leona Libby Middle School on March 26, and over in Tennessee the Manhattan Project National Historical Park will partner with the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge and the Girl Scouts to celebrate 75 years of Girl Scouts in Oak Ridge. 

We're kicking it all off with this photo gallery.  

In the photos above, you'll learn about Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission while working with fellow chemist, Otto Hahn, but wasn't named when Hahn was given the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work. You'll also find Leona Woods Marshall, the youngest member and only woman on Enrico Fermi's team of scientists that created the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction under Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. 

Women played important roles across the Manhattan Project complex. They worked as nurses, teachers, librarians, and secretaries. They sold and processed war bonds, worked the desks at dormitories and post exchanges, welded, and even monitored the control panels of the calutron.  

Scroll through the photos above for a closer look at just some of the jobs women took on during the Manhattan Project. Check back each Thursday throughout March, when we'll release our illustrations and blog posts.