Atomic Women

The Untold Stories of the Scientists Who Helped Create the Nuclear Bomb


By Roseanne Montillo

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Bomb meets Code Girls in this nonfiction narrative about the little-known female scientists who were critical to the invention of the atomic bomb during World War II.

They were leaning over the edge of the unknown and afraid of what they would discover there—meet the World War II female scientists who worked in the secret sites of the Manhattan Project. Recruited not only from labs and universities from across the United States but also from countries abroad, these scientists helped in—and often initiated—the development of the atomic bomb, taking starring roles in the Manhattan Project. In fact, their involvement was critical to its success, though many of them were not fully aware of the consequences.

The atomic women include:

  • Lise Meitner and Irène Joliot-Curie (daughter of Marie Curie), who laid the groundwork for the Manhattan Project from Europe
  • Elizabeth Rona, the foremost expert in plutonium, who gave rise to the “Fat Man” and “Little Boy,” the bombs dropped over Japan
  • Leona Woods, Elizabeth Graves, and Joan Hinton, who were inspired by European scientific ideals but carved their own paths

This book explores not just the critical steps toward the creation of a successful nuclear bomb, but also the moral implications of such an invention.



July 15, 1945, New Mexico

In a cabin on the grounds of Harry Miller’s Tourist Court, in the town of Carrizozo, Elizabeth “Diz” Graves and her husband, Al Graves, were busy setting up their equipment. Intertwining wires of various colors crisscrossed the room, and odd contraptions with several buttons to press sat atop window sills, along with timers ready to buzz, all to monitor the level of radiation that was about to drift in from the test area. “The Gadget,” as the test bomb was originally known, had been brought to an isolated desert spot in New Mexico known as Jornada del Muerto, Spanish for “Journey of the Dead Man,” a name many people would eventually find very appropriate. The secret mission, and the Gadget itself, had been code-named “Trinity,” referencing a poem by the famous English poet John Donne.

Diz and Al Graves had also lugged to the cabin a seismograph (an instrument to measure the ground’s vibrations), a Geiger counter (a type of particle detector to measure emissions during a nuclear blast), a shortwave radio (a type of long-range radio transmission that allowed Diz and Al to hear signals from a distance), and a portable electric generator. The man who’d rented them the cabin had found it all very strange, this young couple dragging along so much unusual equipment, and asked out loud if they planned to blow up the area. Diz and Al hadn’t answered him but merely smiled—a private joke passing between them, one the man would never understand. They went on to tell the owner that they would stay just two nights, as they were driving across the country and were only stopping for a short rest. The owner must have thought it odd that a heavily pregnant woman would be driving so many miles in the heat, for any reason at all. But he didn’t say anything and he didn’t require any further explanations.

On entering the cabin, Al had spread their gear on the floor and atop one side of the bed, leaving a portion of it empty in case Diz needed or wanted to lie down, although he didn’t think she would take advantage of a rest.

Diz was now a little over seven months pregnant and, suddenly worried that the radiation would hurt the unborn child, had asked her superiors for an assignment some distance away from the test site. Compared with the experiments she’d undertaken before, this project was the most dangerous of them all.

Her husband had supported her decision, although he had been surprised by her request to be away from the main site. When he’d met her during his graduate studies, such a thing as a little radiation would not have bothered her. Her fearlessness and drive were the two character traits that had appealed to him more than anything else about her personality. She had also possessed a bit of a gruff exterior that dared anyone to tell her how things ought to be done or to disagree with her. That’s why he found it odd to see her so skittish, so concerned about the outcome of the experiment, though he knew it was because of the baby.

As he unpacked his equipment in the cabin, Al watched his wife walk up and down the room, either worried about the blast or because the baby was moving wildly inside her. Diz was excited, and while she knew that she was still some weeks away from delivery, she hoped the pressure she felt wouldn’t induce contractions.

The cabin in Harry Miller’s Tourist Court had a window facing west toward the test site, and on its sill Al had propped the Geiger counter. They checked all the instruments, and as darkness cloaked the area they began to listen over the shortwave to the voices coming from the test area. Hours later, they heard the countdown, and they began to whisper along with it as it inched forward. During the last seconds, the shortwave radio failed, and the voice faded away. Diz continued to count on her own, keeping track.

Although the test site was nearly thirty miles away, they heard the blast clearly, and Diz Graves knew that the bomb had gone off. All her worries and questions would now be answered. The radioactive fallout brought along by the wind did not reach them until some hours later, and by the afternoon, Diz was alarmed to see the readings on the Geiger counter as its needle swung to the right. As more hours passed, the needle on the counter shot all the way off the scale. Al shared his wife’s concerns and he decided to telephone base camp to see what the scientists were doing. He was informed that General Leslie Groves and various members of the military were trying to figure out whether or not the area’s residents needed to be evacuated, but while Al was on the phone, he learned that they had decided against evacuation. Diz continued to take readings, her mind eased by the fact that by late evening the radiation levels had tapered off. Al made a quick telephone call to the officials to let them know the latest developments.

Despite their eagerness to complete the project, Al and Diz Graves, like many in the scientific community, had come to suspect that they were leaning over the edge of the unknown and were afraid of what they would discover there. While the bomb was being constructed, they had wondered what truly would happen if and when it exploded. Would it actually work? What would the outcome be if it did?

They had joined the others in Los Alamos because they feared that the Second World War would last for several more years, that Adolf Hitler would be the first to build the bomb and unleash it on the rest of the world, and that every other country would have to pay the consequences. They had, in a sense, asked no questions about the validity of their work; they had not wondered about the lives of the innocents who would be caught in the middle of the conflict or whether they should have built the bomb just because they had the means to. It had seemed to them that what they were doing was justified, the only course of action they could have taken to save their lives and the lives of others.

But being pregnant and feeling the child growing inside her had changed Diz’s and Al’s ideas somewhat. What would the bomb let loose? Diz had asked her husband one night when she was unable to sleep. What would their child and the children of others inherit? How would the blast, if successful, be seen by the world at large? Those were their questions as they’d waited in the cabin for the bomb to go off. Now they would get their answers.

Not too far from the cabin where Diz and Al Graves had set up their apparatus, Diz’s younger coworker, Joan Hinton, huddled under a blanket, trying to protect herself from the rain that night. Joan was shaking, not only because she was cold and jittery, but also because she was feeling angry and, in a strange way, profoundly offended. She hadn’t been officially invited onto the test area to view the explosion, and she didn’t know why. Unafraid, she had decided to see it anyway. She deserved to, she had told herself over and over as she left the dormitory; given all that she had contributed to the bomb’s construction, she deserved to see it.

She had given the officials plenty of time to change their minds, but the invitation hadn’t arrived, so Joan had asked for the help of a friend who also worked for the Manhattan Project—a research and development project undertaken by the United States during World War II to produce the first atomic bomb—and who happened to own a motorcycle. Off Joan and her friend went, riding wildly to the site as they tried to dodge government jeeps. When they arrived, they met another couple who also had wanted to view the blast, and together they quietly sneaked inside the perimeter while it was still dark and waited for the countdown. They settled on a hill some fifteen miles away from the official detonation area; in spite of the distance, they knew they would get a very clear view of the explosion.

The air seemed bitterly cold to Joan, even though it was July. Deep darkness engulfed them, but they could not light any matches or portable flashlights, as they feared being discovered by the authorities. It took a few moments to get accustomed to the surroundings, but when they did, Joan’s eyes could distinguish the slopes of the mountains, the hills around her, and the fine blades of grass that swayed in the breeze. Up above, a thick layer of clouds covered the sky, and there were no stars flickering that evening, no moon to guide their view.

She was aware that the test was going to happen sometime that night, but then the hour passed and nothing happened. Looking up, she knew that the rain was to blame. She scanned the sky and the hills, wondering what would happen if the test did not go ahead as planned, what failure would do to her coworkers, to the scientists and engineers who had been working nonstop for months.

But then, at 5:30 AM, it came. They noticed an astounding ball of light cutting through the sky and felt the heat coming toward them as the bomb went off. Joan and her friends felt a blast shake the ground. It was a ripple at first, then a more powerful and erratic tremor beneath them, the earth shaking and rumbling as if protesting. “It was like being at the bottom of an ocean of light. We were bathed in it from all directions. The light withdrew into the bomb as if the bomb sucked it up. Then it turned purple and blue and went up and up and up,” she said later.

“We were still talking in whispers when the cloud reached the level where it was struck by the rising sunlight so it cleared out the natural clouds,” she went on. “We saw a cloud that was dark and red at the bottom and daylight on the top. Then suddenly the sound reached us. It was very sharp and rumbled and all the mountains were rumbling with it. We suddenly started talking out loud and felt exposed to the whole world.”

Everything was suddenly illuminated, and where darkness had been a few minutes earlier, she could now see clearly for miles around. The mountains, the hills, the sky, the grass, the stunned faces of her friends—everything was aglow. There was a moment of pride when she reflected on what she had contributed to the project, and also a moment of apprehension for precisely the same reason. But, regardless of how she felt, one thing was true: The atomic age had just arrived.

Sitting at a desk in her laboratory in Washington, DC, Dr. Elizabeth Rona was interrupted by an assistant who brought in a telegram. She reached out and unsealed the envelope, then looked up at the clock affixed to the wall: It was early morning, before classes started. All around her were tubes and microscopes and bubbling gases; the essence of her work. Here, in the United States, she had tried to replicate the laboratories in which she had worked in Europe, but it seemed to her that something was always missing. She didn’t know precisely what.

The air all around her seemed to vibrate. She remembered the time months earlier when she had received a similar telegram, also marked RESTRICTED, inviting her to help in a secret effort to end the war, asking her to offer her expertise on plutonium. And, intrigued by the possibility, she had accepted without hesitation.

Today, it appeared as if that expertise had come to fruition. The bomb had exploded, the telegram said. The test in New Mexico had been a success. And she had not even been invited to view the explosion. But it didn’t matter to her whether or not she had witnessed it; what mattered was that the Americans had succeeded first. At that moment, she thought of her friends and relatives still stuck in Europe and the innocent people caught in the middle. What would happen to them?



A European Beginning

chapter one

All That Glitters

Marie Curie slowly slid into bed and looked at the small tube resting on her night table. It glowed fiercely, bright and shiny, like a most precious jewel. She was fascinated by it, and while she didn’t know whether it was necessarily a good idea, she decided to keep it nearby to mark its discovery, which had happened in December of 1898. She and her husband, Pierre Curie, knew that it was a highly radioactive substance, but neither of them believed that such a small amount would cause them any harm. In fact, Pierre himself had snatched a small amount of it from the shed where they worked and now carried it with him at all times, hidden in the pocket of his jacket. It was good luck, he told people. And it was good to feel it there, to remind him of how far they had come and of how far still they had to go.

Marie and Pierre Curie met in 1894, when Pierre was an instructor at the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris. A friend of Marie had made the introduction, thinking the two might hit it off. Marie was twenty-six years old, and Pierre was thirty-five and studying the properties of magnetism. Pierre and his brother had also been involved in designing manual instruments, such as scales, one of which later became known as the Curie scale.

Pierre and Marie quickly found themselves in a passionate relationship, based as much on emotions as on their shared love of science. The union developed fast, as they were alike in many respects: They lived for science; they hardly ate anything all day; and they suffered from intense bouts of insomnia. Even if sleep overcame them, at some point each awoke with a start, as if feeling guilty for sleeping when they could have been doing something more productive. Neither Pierre nor Marie was very good with people, particularly when deeply involved in a project. They were single-mindedly devoted to science, and everything else they deemed a nuisance.

Pierre had insisted on marrying Marie almost from the moment he met her, but she refused. She was not French, and she wanted to return to her native country of Poland to teach and continue her research. It was only when Pierre assured her that he would be willing to give up his life, his work, his family, and everything else that was meaningful to him in Paris to go with her to Poland that she said yes. Only a man who truly loved her and wanted to be with her would have promised something like that, she reasoned.

While she had been in Paris for years, Marie always thought of Poland as home. She was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, the fifth and last child of Wladyslaw Sklodowski and Bronislawa Sklodowska (née Boguska), both well-known professionals. Her father was a professor of physics and mathematics, and her mother was a principal at a private school for girls until Maria’s birth.

From a young age, Maria Sklodowska had been an excellent student, and her father provided her with additional learning opportunities that she did not have at her school. But while initially she seemed to thrive on the demanding schedule that she imposed on herself and that her father helped her sustain, the reality was that the pressure she felt eventually led to a handful of physical breakdowns, which she continued to suffer from as she grew older.

But her devotion to knowledge continued, and it did not surprise anyone when she graduated from high school at the age of fifteen, earning top standing in all her subjects. She intended to continue her studies, but given that the area they were living in was ruled by Russia, girls were not allowed to attend university. Maria came up with a plan. She made a pact with her older sister, Bronislawa, known as Bronia: Maria would find work as a governess and help Bronia through her medical studies in Paris. When Bronia finished school and became a doctor, Maria would then move to Paris and live with her, and in turn Bronia would repay the favor and help Maria attend university and follow in her path.

It had seemed like a perfect plan. And so Maria took a position with a wealthy family in the Polish countryside, where she met and became involved with the family’s oldest son. It was with him that she experienced passion for the first time. But when his family learned of the affair, they refused them permission to marry, in view of their different social status. While their relationship continued unbeknownst to his family for some time, it eventually ended when she realized that she could never marry him.

When Maria’s work contract ended, Bronia tried to persuade her to move to Paris, where she could keep her end of the bargain. Instead, Maria decided to stay in Poland. With her father’s help, she was assigned laboratory space in a museum, where she began to replicate experiments that she had read about in several papers devoted to physics and chemistry that her father had given her.

She stayed in Poland for a year, refining her experiments and her research skills. But she now found herself with some money in hand, and she finally decided to travel to Paris. She stayed with her sister for a while, but Bronia had married and was pregnant. Finding that she needed more privacy, Maria moved out.

Despite not being fully proficient in French, she had enrolled at the Sorbonne, using the French style of her name, Marie, and continued to excel, graduating in 1893 with a master’s degree in physics. Just as she had done in high school, she placed first in her class. Not satisfied with that degree, she earned another degree the following year in mathematics.

It was around this time that she was introduced to Pierre Curie, and their romance moved swiftly. In July 1895 they married in a simple ceremony where they did not even exchange rings and for which Marie chose a simple dress that she could wear afterward in the laboratory.

A little over two years after the wedding, Marie and Pierre Curie’s first daughter, Irène, was born. Marie tried raising her daughter herself but realized that she needed outside help. Pierre’s father, Eugène, who had lost his wife, didn’t mind moving in with them to care for the baby. Life became a little easier for Marie with her father-in-law looking after her daughter as well as taking care of some of the household chores and doing a bit of cooking, skills at which she had never really excelled.

During this time, Marie studied the properties of magnetism. As she delved more deeply into research for her doctoral thesis, something else caught her attention. It had nothing to do with her research, but it intrigued her all the same. She learned of Henri Becquerel’s work on uranium salts. Becquerel had noticed that his uranium salts emitted some kind of perplexing invisible rays of energy on their own without exposure to light. Marie Curie was captivated by this discovery and wanted to uncover what those rays were about, to measure them, and, more specifically, to find out why this phenomenon happened. Her detailed experiments allowed her to come up with her own hypothesis: There were traces of another substance in the mineral, and it was more radioactive than any element anyone had ever seen before.

She continued her experiments with more excitement and discovered the existence of two previously unknown elements. In 1898, she identified polonium, which she named as a nod to her native Poland. Mere months later, the second element, radium—named for the Latin word for “ray”—came to light.

Discovering the two elements had not been easy, but now Marie set herself an even more difficult task: proving their existence by isolating and purifying them. In order to start the process of purification, Marie had to get a decent amount of pitchblende, a form of uranium ore now called uraninite. This she dissolved in acid, separating the elements. She had to stir huge pots of boiling solutions with a long iron rod, a process that was strenuous and left her drained. Over and over, she undertook this process, distilling thousands of gallons from the pitchblende, which left her with only enough radium to fill a bottle cap.

That she had managed not only to discover radium but also to isolate it and determine its atomic weight stunned the scientific community.

As if that work to isolate radium weren’t hard enough on its own, Marie began working part-time as an instructor at a teacher training college for women in nearby Sèvres, while at the same time she and Pierre continued their experiments. It was trying work that allowed her barely enough time for eating and sleeping. However, she would later recall those days as being the happiest time of her life. Some assumed it was because of the birth of her daughter, but the reality was that Irène had nothing to do with it. It was the hours of working in tandem with Pierre that made her happy, focused on her research in the hopes of another discovery. She would say that this pursuit had given her life meaning.

To only a few friends did she reveal that her mothering duties sometimes kept her away from what she loved to do the most: work in her laboratory. When she could not leave her child with her father-in-law, she brought Irène to the lab and left her in a small crib nearby. In fact, baby Irène was sleeping peacefully when her mother isolated radium, the test tubes glowing bright in her parent’s hands.

When people learned that Irène had often been left in her grandfather’s care or perhaps didn’t receive as much attention from her parents as she should have while Marie and Pierre engaged in their experiments, it was Marie who bore the brunt of the criticism, not Pierre.

What helped Marie to be seen in a better light was the fact that radium could be linked to medical cures. She had dedicated her life to the betterment of humanity, and her detractors eventually agreed. If her daughter had been slightly neglected—which she was not—millions of others benefited from it.

In 1903, the Curies won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their research into radioactivity. They shared the Nobel Prize with Henri Becquerel, who had inspired Marie in her scientific quest. Marie did not know it, but there had been a quiet movement within the French scientific community to prevent her from receiving the Nobel Prize along with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel. Despite all that she had accomplished, and all that she had discovered, some still believed that Marie did not deserve the honor.

As it turned out, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences had found out about the plot, and a Swedish mathematician had alerted Pierre Curie to the schemes occurring behind their backs. Pierre let it be known that a prize relating to radioactivity could not exclude Marie Curie. Henri Becquerel had inspired her concepts, but Marie had seen them to fruition and had isolated the radioactive elements. How was it possible to exclude her, to deny her the prize and the acclaim that went with it, when she was responsible for everything?

Despite Pierre’s imploring and his acknowledgment that she had spearheaded the project and the discoveries, it was widely assumed that Marie had received the prize more because she had assisted Pierre than because she deserved it on her own merits. That belief became blatantly obvious when the Nobel Prize was handed out. The president of the Swedish Academy of Sciences illustrated the couple’s success by uttering the proverb “Union is strength.” Then he quoted the Bible: “It is not good for Man to be alone; I will make a helpmate.” The clear implication was that Marie had served as Pierre’s wonderful and faithful assistant during his experimentation.

This was also the time when Marie lost a baby, a little girl who was born too early. Marie always blamed herself for that death. She admitted that she had worked too hard during her pregnancy, particularly in the few months before the birth. She later gave birth to another daughter, Ève, in 1904, which eased her sorrow somewhat.

After Marie Curie received the Nobel Prize, she continued her teaching and research. She didn’t know it at the time, but her discoveries would have huge and devastating consequences in the rush to build the atomic bomb. Had she known this, she likely would have not been so eager to open her space to other scientists—especially the many female students—who wanted to learn from her. Their research with their mentor Curie would later make all the difference once World War II started.

chapter two

A Shy and Quiet Girl

Lise Meitner wanted to continue her scientific research and decided the best place to do so was at Marie Curie’s laboratory in Paris. Lise applied to study with the noted scientist, but she was saddened to read the response letter: Curie had rejected her application to study in her laboratory. Lise Meitner didn’t know why. She thought of Marie Curie as the mother of radioactivity and had sent a letter not only expressing her interest in the field but also listing her qualifications, and that she believed she would fit quite nicely in the Parisian laboratory. But Lise had been denied.

Swallowing her disappointment, she continued her life in Vienna. But soon, seeing no future for herself beyond teaching, she decided that attending Max Planck’s noted series of lectures in Berlin would be worthwhile. Planck was a noted German physicist, and while he was not her first choice, Lise knew that he would have much to teach her. However, she didn’t know whether he would be open to the possibility of having her study with him. She knew that while Planck was not thrilled about women scientists and academics, believing them mainly capable of being mothers and housewives, he sometimes made exceptions. To her surprise, he agreed; he would allow her to attend his lectures at the University of Berlin. Although this was not Lise’s original plan, it was a new direction and a new opportunity, so she took it, assuring her parents that she would remain in Berlin for only three months, six at most. She didn’t think she would find the environment in Berlin as stimulating as Vienna’s, she told them, or the one she would have found in Paris with Marie Curie. However, she needed to give it a go, regardless.

Lise adjusted herself in her seat and felt the train chugging forward and watched the cityscape of Vienna morph into more pastoral surroundings. She thought back to how her journey had started so many years ago, and how her love of physics had brought her to this life-changing moment.

She had entered the kitchen one morning, as she did every morning, to have her usual breakfast. She had found her father sitting at the table, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper before heading to work. He was always very interested in the latest news, and splattered across the pages often were stories of Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, who had just discovered radium. The papers suggested that one day, radium would be the cure for everything.

Lise did not ask her father what radium was, nor did she bug him for more information about the Curies. Even within her family, she was a shy and quiet girl who had a hunger for books. She would remain that way growing up—though when her notoriety as a scientist grew, her shyness gave way to confidence.


  • "Montillo's detailed and organized writing stresses the importance of these women, who were as indispensable to the Manhattan Project as more well-known men."—School Library Journal

  • "Recommended for readers with an interest in the sciences, women's studies, and who support the ethic of giving women their due for their accomplishments."—School Library Connection

  • "Lively, well-researched, and comprehensible. A useful work of scientific history."—Kirkus

  • "An eye-opening historical reconstruction that respects the intellectual diversity of the women behind and within the Manhattan Project."—BCCB

  • "Montillo's woman-centered narrative fills a major gap in the popular understanding of how the atomic bomb came to be."—Publishers Weekly

  • "A well-researched book on women scientists and their roles in developing the atomic bomb."—Booklist

  • "Montillo powerfully explains how the brilliant figures of Atomic Women overcame gender bias and pursued scientific passions....[A]n impressive commemoration of extraordinary scientists."—Shelf Awareness

On Sale
May 19, 2020
Page Count
272 pages

Roseanne Montillo

About the Author

Roseanne Montillo is the author of three works of nonfiction, Fire on the Track, The Lady and her Monsters, and The Wilderness of Ruin. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, where she taught courses on the intersection of literature and history. She lives outside of Boston.

Learn more about this author