The Manhattan Project

Ruth Kerr Jakoby's Interview

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Ruth Kerr Jakoby's Interview

Ruth Kerr Jakoby is the daughter of mineralogist Paul Francis Kerr, who took part in the Manhattan Project and later advised the Atomic Energy Commission. In this interview, Kerr Jakoby recalls her memories of her father’s trips to Africa to find uranium for the Manhattan Project. She also remembers her interest in the Rosenberg trial.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
June 3, 2015
Location of the Interview: 
Washington DC
Transcript: 

Ruth Kerr Jakoby: My name is Dr. Ruth Kerr Jakoby. J-A-K-O-B-Y. I was born September 2, 1929. I am eighty-five years old. On September 2, I will be eighty-six.

Alex Wellerstein: My birthday is September 5, so we can both be Virgos together. Where were you born?

Jakoby: Palo Alto, California.

Wellerstein: You said you have a doctorate? What is your field in?

Jakoby: Neurosurgery. 

Wellerstein: Oh, wow!

Jakoby: I received my MD at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, New York City.

Wellerstein: In what year? 

Jakoby: In 1953.

Wellerstein: Wow! That is amazing!

Jakoby: I practiced for seventeen years in Washington, Neurosurgery, as an Associate Clinical Professor at George Washington University Hospital. I had a private practice, and I turned in my private practice and became Chief of Spinal Cord Injury at the VA Hospital in Houston, Texas. So you wonder, what I am doing here?

Wellerstein: I am wondering what you are doing here, and Alex [Levy] said that your father was involved in the Manhattan Project.

Jakoby: Yes.

Wellerstein: You were born in 1929, you said?

Jakoby: That is right. I was about fourteen or fifteen.

Wellerstein: Yes.

Jakoby: My father was Professor of Geology, Mineralogy, at Columbia University. He had an office at Schermerhorn Hall. He was there for over forty years, and he was head of the department.

Now in the ’40s under his office at Schermerhorn Hall in Columbia University, there was the basement. There was a spiral staircase from his office down to the basement. As a child, I used to like to play on that spiral staircase. One day, though, it was forbidden. I could no longer have anything to do with that staircase or go down in the basement or anything. I later found out that was because [Enrico] Fermi and [Harold] Urey—I guess it was mostly Urey at that time—Fermi, [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, they were all together at one time. They would visit at least at Columbia. Down there, they actually built the first atomic pile. It was not complete. They just started it.

My father was not concerned about what they were doing there. He was concerned of the hydrogen tanks. He was afraid they would burn, explode. But this was only temporary. Then they all left. I guess they went to Chicago, and you probably know the story better than I from that time on. At one time, they were even thinking of putting it in Yankee Stadium, but they did not, fortunately. Can you imagine what that would have caused in New York City? Los Alamos, they were the ones that got it.

So, all I know is that they were doing something down there. The FBI was present. One time I met a couple of people in the FBI. On the street, I was always told by my father, “Do not ever sign anything.” There were people always trying to get you to sign something. 

My sister later found out about this. She was younger than I. She was interested in physics and she went into physics at Stanford, got her Master’s, and then worked at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. She did some of that underground testing – collecting the radiation experiments. I do not know what she did exactly, but something. She was one of the first women allowed in the mine. They did not like people, women. The miners were worried about women being there.

Wellerstein: How many siblings do you have?

Jakoby: How many what?

Wellerstein: Siblings?

Jakoby: Oh, just my sister.

Wellerstein: Can you say your father’s name one more time, just to make sure we have it on the tape?

Jakoby: Paul Francis Kerr.

Wellerstein: So, you were fourteen or so. It is World War II and you are in New York. Other than this basement question, did you have any idea what was going on at Columbia?

Jakoby: No. I had no idea that they were building a bomb. It was as though he really did not believe in these physicists very much himself. He thought they were pretty far left, and this was not going to work, whatever it was. I just did not have a very good impression from my father of these physicists. He went along with it. They could do what they wanted underneath his office. It was hidden, you know. You just go down—nobody could just access it very easily. They would have to go down that staircase at his office. I do not know if the elevator had any opening down there or not.

The interesting thing, though, that sort of has followed me—in Barnard College in 1950, the Rosenberg trial came up, and there was a lot of feeling among the Barnard students that this was not right, that Ethel should not be killed. But since I was interested in medicine, they said, “No, do not get her [Ruth] involved with anything like this. She is going to medical school.” So other people were activists for that day and age. They did not call them “activists.” But I was sort of interested in Ethel Rosenberg. I guess she was the second woman ever killed for being a traitor.

Then, after practicing a number of years and everything and being at the VA, I got interested more from the veterans that I took care of there and the problems. It is a long story. I got interested though in the law, the health law, and so I got a J.D. One of the first ABA [American Bar Association] meetings that I went to, they had this mock trial of Ethel Rosenberg. I was very impressed with this trial. They had all the evidence, and they put it on like it was the actual thing. They had only six people who were going to be the jurors. Over that time, the interest of people had changed.

At that time, when they were killed, Ethel executed, there was a great fear of the atomic bomb. People were afraid that Russia would get it, and there was a lot of animosity. Now, much later with this mock trial, the jurors – just picked ordinary people – were not that afraid of it. Actually, it was a partly hung jury about Ethel. They did not think necessarily there was enough evidence to kill her. Just something about the typewriter, as I recall, that she had access to. They thought the defendant’s lawyer perhaps was not as good as he could have been, as far as eliminating some of this evidence. There was not enough really to convict her. That was sort of the theory. They had it all computerized so that the jury, if they were impressed with the evidence, they could show it and you would have a graph. 

To me, who just finished law school, it was very interesting about how a jury reacts and how to select a jury and all that. But even more so than that was the fact that when Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed, they had a twelve-year-old son and a younger one. It always occurred to me how awful this could be, for a young boy to lose both his parents.

Well, much later, I guess this was around 1990, say ‘50 to ‘90, at least forty years later, maybe more, these boys would be grown up and one of them was there at the trial. He was asked, because he could see that perhaps this lawyer that had his father and mother’s defense did not do quite a top-notch job. Somebody was talking to him, and asked sort of how he felt about this. He said he did not care, the lawyer did his best and the lawyer saved his life.

These sons evidently were taken care of by this lawyer, giving them a different name and sent them wherever to grow up so that he could become a professor at one of the northeastern schools and have a more or less normal life. I thought that this would make the real story, how a young boy could face that at a knowledgeable age—he was twelve—and could grow up and be a good citizen extensively. I do not really know all the facts. I just saw him and maybe said a few words to him but nothing very personal, except for somebody who asked about it and he said that lawyer saved his life.

So, somehow that lawyer did a great job with the sons. He may have missed one or two things but he probably could not have changed the outcome of the trial anyway. I think the son realized and respected the lawyer for all he had done for the two children.

So it is funny how as you grow up the things you keep close to you, you hear about it, and so I was very interested in this meeting when it came up. I do not know if the two sons knew about this meeting or the people at this meeting know about the two sons. Only one of them was at this ABA meeting.

Wellerstein: I met one of them once.

Jakoby: Oh, you have met one of them?

Wellerstein: When I was an undergraduate, he came and gave a talk.

Jakoby: He was a professor where you were?

Wellerstein: No, he was just visiting. Meeropol is the last name. Coincidentally, the lawyer [Abel] Meeropol who adopted them wrote the song, “Strange Fruit,” the Billie Holiday song about lynching. It is a small world.

Jakoby: That is very interesting. It is a small world, isn’t it?

Wellerstein: Do you know anything else about what your father was doing during World War II?

Jakoby: Yes, he had Q clearance, top clearance, and they sent him to Africa to look for uranium. He found an old mine there, which was closed then, but formerly uranium. He examined it and decided that would be a good place to get the uranium, so the mine was reopened. I was young then. I do not know exactly where in Africa it was.

I just know that the family was very worried about this. My mother was pretty frantic. They had an insurance policy on him, $10,000 in those days. That is nothing for these days. My mother was extremely anxious about his going to Africa. The story is, there was some general who wanted to get on the plane but he was displaced by this Q clearance civilian, and could not understand that.

Wellerstein: Do you know how long approximately he was gone? Do you remember?

Jakoby: Less than a month.

Wellerstein: Okay.

 Jakoby: I do not know the exact amount.

Wellerstein: Did he ever tell you much about this after, years later?

Jakoby: He brought me back an ivory bracelet of a snake—you cannot have ivory nowadays—and some bands from an elephant tusk. Oh, I guess some carved objects too. But he never talked to me about the mine or what he found there. But I made many field trips with him later before he died, after my mother died. He was alone, so I took some geology courses and took field trips where I had gone with the professors. I would take him if he had not been there or even if he had been there, I would show him what we found. It was a wonderful experience, really.

Wellerstein: Do you remember him saying anything after the atomic bombs were used or announced?

Jakoby: I know he worked for the Atomic Energy Commission, AEC. We knew about the bomb and everything, the pros and cons. Ending the war, killing all these people, civilians, and all that. I do not think that I talked to him much about that. His was just finding the uranium, and he really thought they would not succeed. He did not believe in it. They were there doing something.

Wellerstein: The story of them finding the uranium is one of these stories that was not talked about very much after they used the bomb, because it was still secret, and it was secret for a long time in part. I do not know if your father knew about this, but what the Army wanted to do was locate all the sources of uranium in the world.

Jakoby: That is right. Well, he did find it in the United States. Later on, they found deposits and in Canada. I think he probably helped them find all that. Although he was a professor during the academic year, every summer he did these field works for mining companies. We would go out west and I would stay with my grandmother as a child, and my sister. We would both be at my grandmother’s home, and he would be working. We would not see him all summer long.

He would be doing fieldwork with his graduate students. I do not know the variant of it, but quite a few, forty some-odd Ph.Ds. he helped. He found a job for all of his students, which they do not always do now, but he made sure that his students got a job.

Wellerstein: They definitely do not.

Jakoby: So, we never talked about that. Now, the last three years of his life, he did have angina pectoris. He would get pain in his chest and down his arm if he overexerted. We drove around to all these mines and fields, anywhere the car could go, that was fine. Then he would walk around and pick up ore bodies, but no real going up the mountains or anything. But we did do that.

At that time, I was interested in geology and mining, the last three years. I picked up some mining claims, and this was a copper mine, Copper Chief Mine. I got the deed to it, and I decided I would find out what this mine was all about. So I took each of my professors at ASU, Arizona State University, down. On the weekends, they came down. One was a geophysicist, Dr. Sauk. Dr. Burk was a mineralogist, he went down, and we explored this mine.

Dr. Sauk was the first one, and as we went south of Tucson – it was in Arizona. It says, “Do not enter. Yuma Proving Ground.” Dr. Sauk thought, “Archeologists explore these areas and they have written their Ph.Ds. on geology here. There is no problem.”

So we went down to the mine and it was on the Yuma Proving Ground, which is an active Army base where they explode things and bomb things and all that stuff. But it was close to I-10 and it was sort of in a buffer zone, and they would never do anything that close to a major highway.

I conferred with the Army about this, and I said, “You have my mine. You have taken it."

“No, we have not taken it.”

We worked out a little contract between me and the Army Corps of Engineers. They would pay me $1,200 a year for the evacuation right. If they needed to evacuate me, I would go away for three weeks, two or three times a year.

They did this for several years, and then they stopped. That was when I had a J.D. from law school. I went to court, Federal Court of Claims, and said they had taken it. I should be compensated.

“No,” the judge said, “No, it is yours, you can go down there and develop the mine, take dynamite to the proving ground.”

I have this mine, which I have been trying to develop. My father went down there, and he had done a lot of work for mining companies, the Silver Bell, which is a mining company that has gone on for many years and has had over a billion dollars’ worth of copper ore. He saw the same alteration, the same type of ventilation, and he thought, “There is a 50/50 chance of there being an equally good deposit down there.” I thought that that would be a good thing to develop, and that is where I am now.

Wellerstein: I feel like I am in suspense—does it have a deposit? Do you know yet, are you still working on that?

Jakoby: It needs drilling. I have to get it drilled, several drill holes. A company was interested in doing that, but the contract fell through at the last minute. But I think there will be other companies that will get to drill. I am only a partial owner of it. There is another owner, half-owner. I did not know this when I got the deed, but I found out later.

Wellerstein: Do you remember when the war ended?

Jakoby: No, really I do not. I was still young. During the war, you know, you had rationing and things like that, I remember. We knitted little squares for blankets. I was in high school, and then college from 1946 to 1950 and then in medical school. A lot of veterans were in our class. We did not really realize that these were veterans who were different from the usual college people. I graduated in 1946 from high school, and that is about a year or so after the war. I was just a young girl. I always wanted to go to medical school. I was interested in that, and I do not think that was when the war ended. I do not think I had that exuberation that you see in Times Square.