The Manhattan Project

Vera Kistiakowsky's Interview

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Vera Kistiakowsky

Vera Kistiakowsky is an American physicist and the daughter of physical chemist George Kistiakowsky, who directed the Explosives Division at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project and later served as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's science advisor. Vera, who entered her first year of college at Mount Holyoke in 1944, visited her father at Los Alamos during the summer months in 1944 and 1945. In her interview, she discusses the sense of freedom she felt in the secret city and talks about the fun she had on horseback riding adventures with her father.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
July 17, 2014
Location of the Interview: 
Massachusetts
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: I am Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, and it is Thursday July 17, 2014. I am in the lovely home Vera Kistiakowsky, and the first question I have for Vera is to tell me your name and spell it.

Vera Kistiakowsky: It’s Vera Kistiakowsky. The last name is K-I-S-T-I-A-K-O-W-S-K-Y, and the reason that the spelling doesn’t match the pronunciation that I gave it is because my father, after fighting against the Bolsheviks, ended up in Berlin. There his name was spelled for the first time in the alphabet that we use, and in Germany the Russian “theh” or “th” sound gets a W. So I now have name that phonetically would be just Kistiakowsky, but that’s not the original production.

Kelly: Great. Well we’re here to find out about you. Maybe you can tell us when you were born and where and, of course, about your parents.

Kistiakowsky: I was born in Princeton, New Jersey where my father, I think at the time, was a research associate at Princeton, and my mother had come from Germany. They had met in Berlin while he was studying there, and she got an immigration visa and followed him. Her family had notified an uncle who was in the States that she was coming, and he was there at the pier to make sure that the first thing that happened that she and my father got married. So they were married and set up in a small half of a house in Princeton. I was born, I guess, a couple years later in 1928.

Kelly: Great. So what was your mother’s name?

Kistiakowsky: Hildegard Mabius. If you want to know the full truth it was Anna Marie Margarata Hildegard Mabius.

Kelly: What kind of family background does she have?

Kistiakowsky: Her father was the pastor of the Lutheran Church in Goslar, and as such he was what would be in the Episcopal system a bishop of an area. He had a wide spread of direction over surrounding parishes, and he and his wife had six children of whom my mother was the second child, and certainly the second girl child.

Kelly: What was she doing in Berlin?

Kistiakowsky: She had been studying in Berlin before she was going to be an M.D. This was a time when women did not go into medicine, but she had gone through gymnasium and was going to go the university and get a medical degree. But then the war intervened, and she became a technician in a medical lab for the units that went out and supported the people who helped the wounded soldiers directly on the front lines. Well not on the front lines, but just behind the front lines.

After the war, Germany was plunged into this depression—well no, actually it was an inflation of the currency that accompanied it, and she suffered from typhus and malnutrition. Finally, her family sent her to Sweden where they knew some people who fed her back into being a healthy woman. She came back and went back to Berlin to pick up studies, but decided at that point that she wouldn’t go into medicine, would instead go into physical therapy, which was a much shorter, easier course.

My father went to Berlin. He had fought with the White Army against the Bolsheviks and then evacuated with the last of the White Army to Turkey where he had been interned by the British. He finally managed to ease his way out of the internment camp thanks to an understanding officer there and wended his way to Ruthenia, where he worked as a glass layer. He was in contact with an uncle in Paris who had gotten out of Russia with substantial portions of his fortune intact in the form of gems sewed into his clothes and set up business as a lawyer. He was a lawyer in Paris, and that’s my Uncle Igor from whom I have the paintings that hang on the wall here.

He staked my father to an education to the University of Berlin and sent him money so he could get there. So my father went to Berlin and did both his undergraduate work. He was still in contact with his mother and she sent him papers proving that he had completed gymnasium, which he had not. He had left after one and a half years short of completing gymnasium to fight because the Bolsheviks were about to attack Kiev. There was an immediate emergency.

So until he had the papers, he had the funding and so the university took him. He did the undergraduate work that was required, passed the exams, and it was a very different kind of system from the system that we know in the United States. It’s basically possible to do it by a good deal of self-study and passing exams. Then he matriculated and could apply for a graduate student position to get his Ph.D., which was the thing that he wanted to do.

He found that very few professors were willing to take a Russian. There were a flood of White Russians who had come to Paris, and they were not viewed with great favor. But one man that father approached was Professor [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer. And he had been in the cohort of an uncle of my father. They both had been scientists together at Berlin and he had fond memories of Alexander Kistiakowsky. So he took my father on, and from there on it was just upward and onward.

Kelly: They were in Paris? Or he had already left Paris and was in Berlin when the Bonhoeffer connection was made?

Kistiakowsky: Oh he was in Berlin. Later on he moved to Paris.

Kelly: I see. Yeah. So what was his father’s name?

Kistiakowsky: My father’s name?

Kelly: Why don’t you tell us, because I don’t think you’ve mentioned your fathers name yet.

Kistiakowsky: My father is George Bogdanovich Kistiakowsky. He dropped the Bogdanovich in the United States, and he was George Bogdan Kistiakowsky. But the Russian form says he’s son of Bogdan. His father was a very interesting man that I could spend hours talking about, but I won’t. He was considered by the czar to be an undesirable person because of his political views. So it took a long while for him to achieve a professorship. Actually, he didn’t become a professor until the czar—what does a czar do, he doesn’t resign, he abdicates—until the czar had abdicated. Then he was offered a professorship at the University of Kiev and took it.

Kelly: So this is a long line of academics?

Kistiakowsky: Yes. His father was also an academic, Alexander Kistiakowsky. Before that, it had been not a family of academics. It started with an illegitimate son of a Cossack maiden named Kistiakowsky and the master of the estate, who became—when he grew up, he was still a serf—but he became the estate manager. When the master died, in his will it was stated that this great, great grandfather would be free, and his family would also be free. So their children could go and get educated in the Church system. They couldn’t immediately go the state system because the children were serfs, but their children could go into the state system and get a university education.

Kelly: All right, why don’t we pick up your story when your parents came to New York? What year was that?

Kistiakowsky: My father came in January 1926. My mother came, I think, essentially a year later. I may be off by a year, but it’s in that ballpark. I was born in 1928, and in 1930 he accepted an offer from Conant to come to Harvard and be an assistant professor. My father didn’t accept the offer until Conant gave him the guarantee that he wanted, namely that he had three years as an assist professor and then he would either be promoted to tenure or he would be out, because Harvard at that time had a very bad habit of keeping assistant professors indefinitely.

So he did prodigious work, established an excellent scientific reputation, published like crazy, and was promoted to associate professor with tenure after three years. He became a full professor by the time he was forty-eight in 1948—he was born in 1900. He also became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1948. This is pretty good for somebody who spoke broken English at a very risible level when he first arrived at Princeton.

He enjoyed very much the work at Harvard. He really enjoyed the freedom, the interaction with colleagues of all kinds. I have a very, very interesting tape of a discussion with John Kenneth Galbraith about their talks together in the early ‘30s about the Depression and the problems in the United States. 

Kelly: So he was polymath?

Kistiakowsky: He was interested in it but, you know, I wouldn’t say he was an expert then. Anyway, then things started to come apart in Europe again—I should have brought my chronology. I’m going to have trouble with the dates. Poland was invaded in ’39, right? Yes. That I think is when really the United States started to do something about preparing for war at many levels, but already Conant and [Vannevar] Bush had been talking about the fact that there was inevitably going to be a conflict and that nothing was being done to upgrade American science in the aspects of war.

So they had started something called the National Research Defense Committee [NDRC], and Conant had asked my father—let me call him George—to serve on the explosives committee and then start up an explosives laboratory in Bruceton, Pennsylvania on Bureau of Mines land with the help of Bureau of Mines people. That is how he was diverted from being a professor into the war.

In the course of that, he became an explosives expert. I’ll cut out all of the details because I have many hundreds of pages about that. In parallel with that was the development, of course, of the idea that you could make a nuclear weapon by having a nuclear fission that took place so quickly that it was explosive. People like Conant and Bush were skeptical, and there were committees of all kinds that were formed.

My father was brought in to sit on some of those committees. At first he was very skeptical. He said, “Oh, it couldn’t be made to work,” but then after he had really thought it through, he came back to Conant and said, “Yes it would work.”

Conant said in his biography that at that time, he had known it would work and he had complete faith in what George had told him, but he hadn’t told other people so that he had a point of negotiation. That was how George earlier became cognizant of what was going on. He was quite happy doing the NDRC Program, and I’m not going to talk about the OSRD. It just gets too complicated if I talk about all the ramifications in wartime.

Then they did, in fact, establish the laboratory in New Mexico to actually make weapons. They had worked for a year, and at the laboratory were many smart, young men. One of these was Seth Neddermeyer, who came up with the idea that you could cause explosive fission by having an explosion of material. Actually it wasn’t original with Neddermeyer—he heard one of the speakers mention it earlier suggest that this was possible, but Neddermeyer really worked out how it could be done.

Then Oppenheimer gave him a small group to try out his ideas, and the first thing that they discovered was that they didn’t know anything about explosives. So they went to Bruceton to learn a little bit about explosives, and that was the first that George learned about what was going on there.

The worked progressed, but it progressed very slowly because it was a small group and it was going in a very linear fashion. If you just make a small change and it still doesn’t work, it just doesn’t go very quickly. Oppenheimer became convinced that what he needed was somebody who really was an explosives expert. Charlie Thomas, who was at a big chemical company that I will remember—

Kelly: Monsanto.

Kistiakowsky: What?

Kelly: Monsanto.

Kistiakowsky: Monsanto, thank you. Yeah. He was at that meeting, and he knew George. He knew what George was doing because of links with NDRC, and he said, “Well, George Kistiakowsky is the civilian expert in explosives,” and so they started to try to persuade George to go there. He didn’t want to. He did not want to be buried in an organization, and also he was thinking of maybe joining one of the teams that went to Europe to look at what the Germans had done, following the retreating German Army.

Oppenheimer got Conant to lean on George, and so George went to Los Alamos. But he made a stipulation that he would only go if he were given adequate housing, and if his daughter could come and visit him in the summer. They were divorced by then, and I was living with my mother and step-father in Pittsburgh. My step-father was also a physical chemist, and he also worked at Bruceton. For the record, he was a very, very sweet, forgiving man to be settled with a teenage step-daughter like me.

Anyway, [George stipulated] that this daughter would come, which was perfectly okay, but then be allowed to go to college and come back the next year. That was not allowed. If you went away to college, if a child went away to school, they could not come back. I don’t know why. So I was the exception to that rule. In 1944, I went to Los Alamos for the first summer. I was fifteen going on sixteen, and I had just graduated from high school and was going Mount Holyoke College that coming fall.

I felt very grown up until I was faced with getting through the train change in Chicago from the train from Pittsburgh to Chicago to the Santa Fe line out to Lamy, New Mexico, where my father met me and we went to Los Alamos and I spent the summer months there. 

He had acquired a horse. It had been loaned to him by Oppenheimer, but with the understanding it would be returned to Oppenheimer when George left. But then Oppenheimer didn’t think the horse was getting enough exercise because George was working too much and was trying to micromanage the horse, and George offered to buy it.

The offer was accepted. Finally, he did buy Crisis. He had also bought for me at a remount sale—it had the last cavalry unit of the United States stationed there, and that is why they had cavalry horses. I got Guest, who was a half thoroughbred Bay Gelding. A friend of my father’s, Irma Shuler, got Chess, who was a chestnut horse. I don’t know, I would guess it had some thoroughbred in it, but I don’t know what his lineage was. 

Kelly: Back again. You were, let’s see, you were fifteen going on sixteen. So it’s the summer of 1944?

Kistiakowsky: Yes.

Kelly: Is that right? Okay.

Kistiakowsky: Yep.

Kelly: So your dad picks up at the train station and then—

Kistiakowsky: We drove to the Los Alamos road, which at that time was very narrow and precipitous; it had not yet been widened to its final state. So very exciting, and there were guards at the gate. There was a tall wire fence that went all the way around the area that was populated there, and that was exciting. Then we came to the little stone house that had been given to George to live in. It had originally been the powerhouse for the ranch school that had occupied the mesa, which was the flat area on which the lab was built. Before it became a place for George to live, it had been a Red Cross Center; so they would have something suitable for George.

I should explain, there was a row of houses that had belonged to the ranch school. It was called “Bathtub Row,” because it had that desirable feature. All of the buildings that were built didn’t, they had showers. So this house is on Bathtub Row, but had been not really a house before. It was, however, modified to become a very comfortable little house. It had a large living/dining area, a small kitchen—a Pullman kitchen—off it, a small bedroom, and a bathroom sandwiched between the bedroom and the kitchen. This is where we lived.

I slept in the bedroom and my father slept on a couch. I don’t remember if it was a folding couch, but it probably was or a pull-out bed or something like that in the living room. We had breakfast together there. I don’t really ever remember having lunch with him there. I think his schedule at Los Alamos wasn’t that regular, but I do remember that we used to have agreements that we would meet for lunch at Fuller Lodge, which was the big recreational area and also housing area for guests and had the best cuisine on the hill.

The cuisine in the other places that you could eat – there were two. One was the PX, I remember, but that was fast food. Then there was a cafeteria that wasn’t called the cafeteria. It had a military name because, I should add, of course, Los Alamos was a military post. It was first and foremost a military post, and that was because General Groves wanted to keep complete, total secrecy over the project.

I had certain chores that I was supposed to do, but otherwise I was completely on my own. My father went to work in the morning, and he came home after work. We had supper or went riding or whatever. It was glorious. For the first time in my life, I did not have somebody who was telling me what to do. I could go riding by myself.

I had all kinds of wonderful adventures until two things happened. I was once very late for lunch—so late that I rode my horse up onto the lawn at the Fuller Lodge where my very grumpy father was sitting at a table. I said I was very sorry. I had gone so far I couldn’t get back in time.

Another time when one of the people at the stables—they were soldiers who were taking care of the horses—complained to my father that I was bringing my horse in hot and that I really should be told not to do that. So the law was laid down that I could not go out further than making it possible for me to return in time and that had to involve time to walk the horse at the end and not come galloping home and being okay. That was a small crimp in my explorations.

I think people got on George’s case because he decided it would be nice for me to have riding companions, and there were some. The Chadwicks had twin daughters, and they were a couple years older than I was. They liked to ride, and Mrs. Chadwick may even have initiated it. I think the wives at Los Alamos were rather scandalized at the freedom I was given, that I would ride with their daughters. My attitude was that this was a fate worse than death to be condemned to ride with two young ladies, which I did not aspire to be. But that was the way it was, so we did it.

Unfortunately, they were used to park riding and didn’t know much about trail riding. By that time, I felt myself to be an expert, so perversely I sort of took the lead in what we did. Once when we were taking a short cut which involved getting off the horses and scrambling up the side of a steep hill, one of the Chadwick sisters unfortunately put her hand where my horse put is hoof and got hurt, and that sort of diminished my reliability in the eyes of their family. However, after riding by myself for a while, the other Chadwick girl said, “Why don’t we go riding together?” So we did, and her horse ran away from her. Of course, it was my fault. Not her fault, but obviously I must be the villain, so that was the end of me riding with the Chadwick girls.

You can see the things that I remember the most vividly. What else? We may have gone to Indian dances or something like that, but I don’t remember that as honestly. I have been to an Indian dance, but that was from a much later visit, probably. So I can’t tell you very much. There were parties that I was dragged to, and I didn’t enjoy them and have no distinct memory of them. The only really distinct memory I have is having Niels Bohr pointed out to me at a luncheon at Fuller Lodge by my father. That was the one thing that approached breach of security. Actually it was, because he wasn’t called Bohr. I forget what his pseudonym was. All of the famous scientist had pseudonyms, but I guess it was a minor breach.

Kelly: Baker, I think.

Kistiakowsky: Yeah. A minor breach of security. Otherwise my father told me nothing about what he was doing. The summer ended, and I went home to Pittsburgh and packed up my things and went off to Mount Holyoke. At the end of the year I went back to Pittsburgh, and then within two weeks later was on a train for Los Alamos again for the second summer.

I should have said something about Irma Shuler. She was a riding companion very frequently during the first year. Very good rider, and what you would call a very good sport—willing to suffer rough circumstances. We went on a trip where we camped out and slept out and she was up for things like that.

Anyway, I came back the second year and things were much different. For one thing, my father had found me a job. I was now going to try to finance some of my clothing needs by working at a summer job, and this was sort of the bait. If I did this job, I would have all this money to buy clothing. Because by now I was in a place where clothing counted. I mean, anybody who was anybody had, at Mount Holyoke, had cashmere twinsets. I had never even heard of cashmere twinsets. Even though I wasn’t a member of that elite collection of girls, you know, it would have been sort of nice to have one even if it wasn’t necessary.

Anyway, that was the bait. Underneath it, I sensed the fact it was going to happen one way or another. It turned out to be very, very nice, because I found a job with Ethel Furman, who was the wife of a physicist and who was in charge of the pharmacy at the hospital who was a very good mentor. I mean, I was doing chemistry already. I had finished all my chemistry and physics courses in high school, so when I was at Mount Holyoke I had not taken the general chemistry. I had started out with qualitative and quantitive analysis, so that was the rational for why I could work in a pharmacy. I knew how to do those things, and she taught me. As I say, it was an excellent mentor.

It turned out to be a very slow kind of endeavor, not exciting or anything, but a very pleasant experience thanks to what a warm, intelligent person she was. The only point at which there was a bit of trouble is that she took a week off and told the hospital that I could do everything. I went home proudly and told my father, and he called her up and said that the one thing I couldn’t do was to hand out opiates and other things like that, you know, things that were really potentially dangerous. So they had to scramble around and find a doctor who could do that, but except for that category of substance, I did all the prescription work.

I had a horse the second summer also. It wasn’t Guest. Guest had been sold at the end of the first summer. That’s too bad because it would have been nice to have him again, but I had an adequate horse—not in the stables where Crisis and Irma’s horse Chess were, but in a barn in a field on the mountain end of the Los Alamos plateau. I think his name was Pan. I’m not sure. He was perfectly adequate, and I didn’t have as much access to him because I was working, but it was all right.

The other thing was my father was terrifically busy the summer of ‘45 trying to get the final bombs put together, so we had much less time to do things. Then one day, he told me that he was going to be gone for a few days and gave me money so that I could buy food, I’m sure instructions on what to do, and disappeared. That was all I knew about it until he came back the following day, and there was great excitement at Los Alamos—but muted—and still I was told nothing.

I think everybody told their wives. He did not tell me about the Trinity test. Irma didn’t either. She knew about it. She was the manager of the personnel office, but not the official boss. The official boss was somebody else and was male of course. Lilli Hornig, who was the wife of a young chemist there and her husband later became presidential science advisor, Don Hornig. She was also a chemist. She had stopped her Ph.D. work to come to Los Alamos with Don, but she did complete it after she got back. Anyway, she worked as a chemist there and then she worked in the explosives group. Her verdict on Irma was that it took three people to do the job that Irma did when she was there, when Irma resigned.

Oh and then of course there was Hiroshima. Then I found out what had been going on. At that time, it made very little impression on me. The war had been something that had been there, and I knew it was awful. But you know, it was an emotional remove. It was not something that was immediately awful.

I must say, I have never gone to Japan and had opportunities to do so in the course of my own work, and to this day for some reason I still feel a great deal of guilt for both the initial bombing and then the denial of the fact that the radiation was killing the Japanese population. For quite a number of years, the line was, “Oh, nobody’s dying from radiation.”

Anyway, then there were parties after Japan was defeated. There was not a party after Hiroshima. They did not party. The people who knew about the weapon just could not party about it. After VJ day, there was enormous relief. The war was ended, and no more American soldiers would be killed.

One thing that did happen at that end of the summer, we did go into Santa Fe to Fuller Lodge and do things that we hadn’t done before. More because I think my father was free. He no longer had the enormous pressure to deliver the first two plutonium bombs, I mean, he didn’t do the whole bomb, he did the explosive part of it, but if you didn’t get that working right then the bomb didn’t go off. We did some more horseback riding trips. At the end of the summer, we had some time together. Then I went back to Mount Holyoke.

Kelly: How long did your dad then stay at Los Alamos?

Kistiakowsky: He stayed first because Groves was telling everybody to keep on working, to make a stockpile of the weapons. So George continued to do the work of making the weapons, but everybody was figuring out what they were going to do with their lives. He was clear in what he was going to do. He was going to go back to Harvard.

In October there was the end of the military situation at Los Alamos, I don’t know what the date was. I think it was October 10th or something like that. At that time, Oppenheimer resigned and Bradbury became director of the laboratory. George had already, I think, resigned and turned over the direction of X division to—who did he turn it over to? The name has gone out of the head again, but anyway, he turned it over to somebody who had been working there and was very knowledgeable about it and could pick up the work and do it. 

George worked on writing down exactly what they had done and basically how they had come to figuring out how to make the weapon and what the end result was. This was a larger effort. The physicists were doing their part, and the metallurgists were doing their part, and so on, and so on. So it was a big book, and George just wrote the explosive section of it. That went on until January. I’m leaving something crucial out.

In September, George and Irma became married. She moved into the little house, and they had gone for a honeymoon in the mountains around Santa Fe, in which she had been kicked by a horse—she was a long suffering woman. There had been on all kinds of adventures and misadventures. My father wrote me long letters, so I have vivid descriptions of all of these things, which is why I know all this.

When they came back from their honeymoon, they discovered that there was an outhouse attached to their stone house. George had asked that they build a shed to store items that they didn’t need indoors because it was a very small house. Now that Irma was there, it would be overcrowded with two sets of belongings. A “friend” had looked at this green shed and thought it was ideal for an outhouse and had put on the usual sign that you put on an outhouse. I guess it’s an opening in the door. When you opened the door and looked inside, there was a two-seater.

The next day George dragged this shed—no, that night I guess—he dragged that shed to the lawn of the perpetrator, or the person he thought was the perpetrator. He got it wrong, so it involved into a three cornered feud. Friendly feud, but nonetheless. 

This is from a letter that my father wrote me on September 17, 1955: 

“Here is a story you will undoubtedly enjoy even though it is mostly at my expense. Before leaving, I suggested mildly to a friend, who is in charge of such things, that I am tired of people walking by the windows of my house and also that keeping all the suitcases and trunks in the bedroom is not a perfect way to live. Seemed like a good idea, since the construction personnel is idle, and here was a fine a little job for them. Well regrettably, I did not specify the details of the proposed construction. When I returned, I found a simply formidable green, wood and metal fence surrounding my place. There, nestling against the wall by the kitchen in the most conspicuous place, a bright green outhouse of a structure reminiscent not of trunk rooms, but of certain outhouse facilities to be found on farms.”

“Somewhat perturbed, Irma and I went to open the door. I had a grim premonition that the door was adorned with a black paper moon, looking from the distance just like a ventilation hole. There staring at us was a rather life-like three header, as the farmers call it, with a little seat next to the two big ones. Irma almost gave up the ghost right there and then and went into a fit, which made me go with bowed head for two days.”

“Well putting various things together, I decided that my good Max was the perpetrator. So two nights later when the Roys were peacefully sleeping, I loaded the contraption into the back of my car, drove it up to Max’s house, very stiffly placed it against their wall, complete with a simulated covers open and even a torn Sears and Roebuck catalog on the side, just as in my trunk room.”

“The next day had vanished, and today came the rest of the story. Max insists he was not the perpetrator. It appears Bradbury is the villain, so he was surprised and moved the thing himself, this time into Martha’s husband’s garage. That’s Martha Parsons. Is this not wonderful? It seems she was today at the Bradbury house unsuspectingly complaining to his wife about the roughians on this place, which almost closes the story. Not quite, because Max accuses me of getting the thing to his house and threatens vengeance, and I have to start thinking of getting even with Bradbury. Can you suggest something vicious but somewhat short of murdering him?” 

Kelly: That’s great.

Kistiakowsky: One of the things that they had to figure out was what they were going to do with their horses. Irma wanted to keep Chess, but George decided he would return Red to Oppenheimer and did so—and my horse, of course, which was a temporary arrangement. So that was the end of that.

In the winter, there was an increasing problem with lack of water. The water system had run out, and George commented in the letter to me, “Christmas was not all Christmas should be. First, the water shortage, which continued through and is still as bad as ever. It is really a very serious nuisance, to put it mildly, when you have water only an hour or so every day and never know when it will come. The rest of the time we use water stored in the sink and a big bottle—the former for washing down the toilet by carrying over a bucket, the latter for drinking and cooking. Showers we do not take except very occasionally and surreptitiously, because no one is supposed to have them except in emergencies. The Army has not troubled to explain what constitutes an emergency worthy of shower, and you might try to figure that one out.”

Kelly: That’s great.

Kistiakowsky: The people left. One division leader left in November, two in December, three in the first half of January, and George was the last to go. On January 16th, he wrote his final letter to me from Los Alamos, and the next day they were off.

The letter that he wrote had good news, namely that he had finally found a place to live. One of the things that was not available in the Boston area was housing, because all of the academics who had been gone for the war came flooding back. The house that was found for him was in Harvard, Massachusetts, which at that time was a good two-hour drive each way, so none ideal. That puts them on their way back to Harvard. 

Kelly: So what about your story. Were you influenced by obviously your father, but your experience at Los Alamos, did you pursue your career as a chemist?

Kistiakowsky: Well, it was mainly my father. It had very little to do with Los Alamos. Los Alamos for me was a time for freedom—total freedom the first summer and moderated freedom the second summer. Although, as I said, I enjoyed the job with Ethel Furman. It had enough content to it that it wasn’t tedious. I guess by the twentieth time you make a formaldehyde solution, it gets to be a bit of a drag, but anyway.

My character was pretty much informed by a discussion I had with my father well before the Los Alamos days. We were still living in Cambridge then, so I must have been ten years old or something like that, eleven, twelve, in which he told me very seriously that I should find something to do that would support me and not rely on getting married and finding someone who would support me.

This was at a time when the gospel was that all the women should go home, because the boys were coming home and they would need the jobs. That wasn’t the way it was phrased at the time. It was phrased that the boys were coming home, they will be getting jobs, and of course, the women would flock home loving it to make cookies. I may exaggerate, but for many women, I’m sure it was true. There were many women who were doing boring jobs, and they were very happy to go home and do something where they interacted with children and other women and had that kind of a life.

I was influenced by what father said to think always in terms of having a career, basically, and it was just a question of what. When I finished high school, I thought I would become an M.D. That was because I had really seen what doctors did in terms of social interactions and things like that. Possibly also because my mother had started out to become a doctor, although she never urged me to become a doctor.

The part of it that I enjoyed was increasingly the more mathematical and the research part of it. Then I had a friend at Mount Holyoke who brought home her chick embryos in bottles of alcohol, and I all of sudden decided I wasn’t really terribly interested in investigating human bodies, so I was turned more to thinking of becoming a chemist.

The chemistry department at Mount Holyoke was excellent. Father knew the Miss Carr and Miss Cheryl who were the senior professors there. Miss Carr had worked briefly with him in Cambridge, and also Miss Picket, who was another chemist there, had spent a sabbatical there with him in Cambridge. He thought very well of them. I think one of the reasons that he told me to apply to Mount Holyoke and no other place was that it was in the country. I would be nice and safe. It was somewhere where there were people who would look out for me—mainly his friends in the chemistry department. He never said that, but having become a parent myself, I am quite sure that those things entered into the reason.

It was a fine choice as far as I was concerned. I made out of it what I needed, even though it had gone insane and the course that had the most enrollment was something like “Wellness in the family.” It was taught by a social scientist of some kind. The thing to do was to get an MRS degree by the time you graduated. I think of the 350 girls in my class—and at that time they were called girls, not women—there were maybe thirty-five of us at a guess, who weren’t concentrated on getting an MRS, but thinking of doing something else first.

So it was a mixed experience. For one thing, it for the first time introduced me to the concept of boys as being something other than objectionable. I had been very young in high school, and the only interaction was them copying my lab book. I did not have a very high opinion of them. It was the beginning of a broadening of my point of view on that issue.

They gave me a beautiful liberal arts education, which I treasure to this day. The fact that I know all of the things that are now being very carefully taken out of the curriculum so you can teach people something so they can get a job has been a source of great pleasure to me throughout my life. I took French, I took German, and I even took Russian. I’ve tried three times to learn the Russian language and can, with the aid of a dictionary, read at a very, very low level. That’s as far as I got. I took Latin in high school, too, so I have a pretty broad background.

I’ve increasingly gone in the direction of physics. I went to Berkeley, and there—I think at the suggestion of my father—I got in contact with Glenn Seaborg, who father interacted with a lot during the war. He took me on as a graduate student, which is in the chemistry department but is nuclear chemistry, which is not that different from what nuclear physics was at that time. Now there’s a much bigger divide between the two, but at that time, they were not that different. So that’s what I did my Ph.D. work on.

I used chemistry to isolate isotopes of promethium, but I wasn’t interested in the chemistry, unpleasant and difficult as it was. It was finding out what the isotopes were that was the point of it. From that, I moved on to doing nuclear scattering experiments, and then I moved on to do high-energy physics experiments. That is sort of how my career evolved.

Kelly: So the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree? 

Kistiakowsky: No. Well, as you may have gathered, I thought very highly of my father. I think he was a good—oh, you know, he was human. He had his faults. Even I will admit that, but he was a good person to emulate.

Kelly: Now he was involved a lot on a public policy basis after the war?

Kistiakowsky: Yeah, that’s the part that I’m writing right now, because first when he went back to Harvard, he had a hard time getting back into doing research in a university mode, rather than in this frantic, parallel, trying everything mode to get something crammed through in a hurry. Then they made him chairman of the department, and that took time for a few years, but he did pick up his research and begin to publish well again.

He also was asked from the very beginning, I think, to serve with the Air Force on an Air Force committee. I haven’t really researched the committees he served on enough to be terribly knowledgeable about it. That’s buried in the Harvard archives in his papers, and because I am not quite as functional as I used to be, I now have somebody who is going through the papers for me. We’ll see what comes of that. I do know he did do work on jet propulsion, and I believe there was a thing called a dinosaur, and some other very fancy—were they airplanes or were they rocket devices? It’s been along time since I read the book on that. I’ll have to go back and read that.

From this he was invited to become a member of the Science Advisory Committee to Eisenhower, which then became formally the Presidential Science Advisory Committee under [James] Killian as chairman. Killian was the science advisor. Then when Killian resigned after two years, Eisenhower asked George if he would do, and he did. He himself wrote a book about his year and a half with Eisenhower, because Eisenhower’s term ended a year and a half after he became the advisor.

During that period, his eyes were opened. He had been very patriotic. He was until the day he died, but he had always assumed that the people who were directing the country knew what they were doing and were telling the truth. When he was working with Eisenhower, Eisenhower sent him to inspect various things that were run by the military and to check up on what was indeed the situation. He had discovered discrepancies between the facts and what was really true. It changed his view completely of how to treat the whole military establishment—rather something you worked with shoulder to shoulder and didn’t question, but as an entity, which you questioned like anything else.

After he resigned, he did go on one big more government effort, and that was the Test Ban Treaty negotiation in Geneva. Eisenhower hadn’t been able to get the Nuclear Test Ban, because Gary Powers’ plane was shot down in Russia, and that put the hiatus on that. Kennedy did push it forward, and [Jerome] Wiesner pushed it. Wiesner was Kennedy’s advisor, and George went on to that Geneva meeting on that test ban.

He worked with a number of groups, but as I say this is something I don’t have a firm grasp on, so I can’t comment on it. But he became more and more disillusioned with what was going on. At the end of the ‘60s, he resigned all his government-affiliated posts because he wanted to speak out against the Vietnam War, and he did not feel that he could do so while he was on these government committees. That began the period of his life that he called his peacemaker period. He helped with the early years of the Council for a Livable World. He advised Henry Kendall of the Union of Concerned Scientists and did other things.

Oh, I left out another thing. He was very, very influential in the change in the way that the Academy operated, the National Academy of Sciences. He was offered the chance to become the president of the Academy after the war. [Nathan] Pusey had become president of Harvard, and Pusey said either he was going to be—he, George—was going to be a Harvard professor and stay home and do it, or he was going to stop being a Harvard professor and leave. He was going to have to resign.

Since the presidency of the Academy was a full time job, he instead passed on that and became vice president and ran a study of how one could reform the report system so that the reports would really be verifiable and usable. That was carried out, and it resulted in the present system where Academy reports have a great deal of creditability. You know until the end of his life, he was trying to end the proliferation of nuclear weapons. 

Kelly: Did he ever write about or tie in his own experience in contributing to our weapons? Did he have regrets about his participation?

Kistiakowsky: No. I never asked him the question that I would like to know the answer to, which is: how do you feel now about having done that? I think that was something that he did with the best of all intentions, and he just put it behind him. I mean, he had a very rackety life. He went through some very difficult periods and some troubling times and nearly died of typhus. He went through a lot of things. He just put them behind himself and went on and dealt with things as he thought they should be done now. I had found that is a very, very helpful way of operating. 

Kelly: I’m going to circle back to your life again. We had you working with Seaborg at Berkeley and then after you finished, you must have gotten your Ph.D. there.

Kistiakowsky: Yes.

Kelly: As you said.

Kistiakowsky: January ‘52. 

Kelly: Right, then what happened?

Kistiakowsky: Well in June of ‘51 I had married another graduate student, Gerhard 

Emil Fischer, known as Jerry, who was the grandson of Emil Fischer who won the second Nobel Prize in chemistry, and the son of Hermann Fischer who was an internationally known biochemist. We got an apartment in Berkeley. When I got my Ph.D., I first had a research fellowship with Seaborg for half a year. Then I got a job with U.S. Naval Research Laboratory of San Francisco. The reason that I did was that as long as I working for Seaborg, Jerry couldn’t get paid at the Radiation Lab, they had a nepotism rule. But once I was not working there, then he could have a paid research fellowship at the Rad Lab.

So that happened. I went over to the Navy Lab intending to carry out my mission, which was to set up a counting facility, because they were going to be getting radioactive waste from atomic tests in the Pacific. That was fine, putting together a whole bunch of doctors would be fun, and I could experiment with the new sodium iodide crystal methods that had just come into operation. So it didn’t sound like a bad job.

I discovered that there were some distinct drawbacks to being employed by the Navy. When they got the battleship washings, it was all hands on deck now to take care of this and forget about setting up your equipment. You’re a chemist—you analyze battleship washings. Boy, first of all I was furious, and second of all it was not the kind of thing that I enjoyed doing, you know, batch analysis like that.

I would say that by the time I had managed to get myself a fellowship, and the American Association of University Women came to my rescue and gave me Sarah Berliner Fellowship so that I could back to the Rad Lab and do research, and I said goodbye to my very highly paid job at NRDL—they paid me nine thousand dollars a year, and the fellowship was two thousand dollars. Boy, it was worth a million dollars to have that fellowship. Alvarez took me on as post-doc so that I was formally in the physics department, which made my access to some of the things that I needed, like the linear accelerator on the hill, a little smoother. It was also useful because Alvarez—I didn’t see much of him, but he was a very sharp man and interesting, even if you only saw him occasionally.

Kelly: So this is Luis Alvarez who was on the Manhattan Project?

Kistiakowsky: Luis Alvarez, yep.

Kelly: Had you known him or did your father talk about him at Los Alamos?

Kistiakowsky: I was not very cognizant of the people who were at Los Alamos. He’s not somebody that comes to mind. I mean there are other people—I remember the Hornigs very well, both Lilly and Don, and I remember Henry Linchitz, who worked for father also, but I was not into people at that time. I was into horses.

Kelly: That’s great.

Kistiakowsky: So anyway, I had my fellowship with Alvarez, Jerry finished his Ph.D., and we looked for jobs and ended up at Columbia. He was an instructor in the physics department, and I was a research fellow in the chemistry department with a nuclear chemist there. He was a really nice guy. He let me do what I wanted to. I wondered over and I got to know Xin Sung Wu, the other nuclear chemists.

At the end of the first year at Columbia, my position was formally shifted over to—actually no, I had first been sent over to her to help her with the chemical ends of her work, that was that. She supported me, and others supported me on becoming a research associate in the physics department rather than the chemistry department. So that’s how I made my official switch from chemistry to physics, and I started doing scattering experiments at Brookhaven National Laboratory. You don’t want to hear the story of my life.

Kelly: Well you know one of the things everyone is interested in is women in science. There’s a lot of young women who may be inspired by your story. You can give a broad brush rather than every blow by blow, but I think it’s very interesting.

Kistiakowsky: Yeah. Well, what next was that Jerry did not get an advancement. Basically, he was told to go. So he found a job at the Cambridge Electronic Accelerator in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at that point I was pregnant and I said I wanted to stay at Columbia because I had been told I had future at Columbia—that I could get a position, not at Columbia, but at Barnard. They would hire me as an assistant professor there, but I could continue to do the research at Columbia. So I wanted to stay in New York.

My father joined Jerry in the course of protest at the idea that I should stay in New York by myself. You know, I had puppies, and I figured the baby couldn’t be that much more trouble than a puppy. Little did I know. So, they were right. It would have been very hard to do, to manage by myself in New York. So very grumpily, I applied for an assistant professorship at Brandeis. In spite of the unenthusiastic way that I viewed the opportunity, it was offered to me, and I became an assistant professor at Brandies—not immediately. Mark was born July 3rd, and September I assumed my assistant professorship at Brandeis.

Then Garn was born two years later roughly on June 16th, and subsequently we moved. We had first lived in Robin, which was sort of half way between Brandeis and Cambridge where Jerry worked, and he really wanted to be closer to work so that he could go back at night. He was a workaholic. So we moved into Cambridge, and I got a job at MIT with a group that I had already been doing research with—I had been doing it at Brandeis, but we were collaborating. I had been offered this job at MIT anytime I wanted it, so I got the research scientist position at MIT, and that was that for a while.

Then Jerry and I split up. He wasn’t happy at the Cambridge Electronic Accelerator, and it was clear to me that he should move—I mean, he should go somewhere else. I really didn’t go somewhere else, and there were other reasons, but basically he went to California and the kids and I didn’t. I discovered that it’s very interesting to be a mother with two small children, but I had the advantage of a well-paid job and a father who helped and a wonderful step-mother. My father and Irma divorced, and he had remarried. His present wife is Elaine, who has just—they [the children] couldn’t have had a better grandmother.

At MIT, I eventually became a senior research scientist. This was doing now bubble chamber experiments, and then it evolved into doing partial experiments with other kinds of detectors. Then finally I was put up for professor, and I was voted in by the department. I was called to a meeting with the chairman of the department, and a colleague warned me I should go in prepared for bad news.

I couldn’t figure out what that was, but what it was was that—a charming physicist from Vienna, who was the chairman of the department then and I’ll come up with his name in a minute. He wrote the quantitative mechanics book—[Victor] Weisskopf. He couldn’t be the first man to appoint a woman to the physics department.

I was sort of flabbergasted, and I said, “Well, I guess then I will have to look for another job.”

He said, “Oh, no, no, no, you mustn’t do that,” because affirmative action had come into place and all of a sudden he realized that the person who had pushed it, who was Jerry Wiesner, brought his affirmative action to MIT long before there was government affirmative action, thanks to Leah Wiesner who was a mathematician—well also thanks, I’m sure, to his own common sense.

So after a few days, I was told that I was offered a position as assistant provost or dean or something to a very nice guy who’s name I can’t remember at the moment and I won’t be able to come up with, it so you’ll have to forgive me, but a man that I had known from other interactions, committees, or whatever. I was to work as an aid to him, as a scientific aid to him.

So one day he slid across my desk a document that was the affirmative action statement for the mathematics department. This now was for the government affirmative action that this was prepared, and I took it and I read it and I said, “This reads like nonsense. I don’t believe it.” I took it to my friend Vera Pless, who was a mathematician, and I said, “What do you make of this?”

She said, “This statement is false. I know this women is looking for a job and it says here that she isn’t. This statement is false. It says that there are no women qualified in this particular area,” and so and so, so and so, and so and so. 

She tore the thing apart, and I made marginal notes on all of these comments. Then I did the thing I should be ashamed of: instead of bringing them to my good friend, whose assistant I was, I sent one copy to Wiesner and the other copy of what I had done to the head of the mathematics department. If you’ll excuse me, the shit hit the fan. I was made full professor retroactive to the beginning of the summer. I never would have made a very good administer.

Kelly: Wow. That’s quite a story. Goodness.

Kistiakowsky: You know, I did other things. I organized a committee a committee on women for the American Physical Society. Fay Eisenberg had organized a session at the APS on women and science, and some of the remarks from the audience were egregious. Usually these people from Austria, there was another Austrian who came up with, “Oh, Maria? She would never have won the Nobel Prize if she hadn’t been married to Pierre.” Yeah. Sure.

Anyway, so we had a committee and worked very hard on it for a year and put together a report. Another comment I had, “Why have a committee on women? There are only three of them, and I know all of them.” He didn’t mean me, he meant Xin Sun Wu and Sulamith Goldhaber and one other woman that I can’t think of at the moment. We found that there were 450 Ph.D. women physicists in the United States. There certainly were more, but that’s the number that we came up with.

The committee still exists in a slightly different mode. It doesn’t do the surveys. It does other things. I worked with the National Research Council and Women in Science and Engineering. I did a lot of talking on it, like giving lectures. Following that, my father was becoming ill with cancer. Also there was first the registration for the draft and then Reagan and the Strategic Defense Initiative—a total insane waste of money. You know it has resulted in one good thing. The Israelis have been able to shoot down those short-range missiles. Much as I disapprove of the Israeli conduct, at least there’s one bright spot in that conflict that all these billions of dollars that the United States spent has resulted in one thing that works. Albeit not protective dome over anything.

So anyway, since my father ordered to [inaudible], I decided that I would work on nuclear issues, particularly on the Strategic Defense Initiative and spend a year boning up and then went around giving talks on that.