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Interview of Alice Armstrong by Katherine Sopka on 1979 June 11,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, Alice Armstrong discusses: her family and childhood; her time at Wellesley College; her work at the Bureau of Standards radiation lab, inlcuding the radiation standard and her first radiation accident; her time at Radcliffe College; x-ray induced illness; and her interactions with Marie Curie, P. W. Bridgman, O. D. Kellogg, William Duane, Emory Leon Chaffee, Theodore Lyman, and Robert Havighurst.
I am visiting today with Miss Alice Armstrong, who has kindly consented to share with me her recollections of her long career in physics. We are meeting in the apartment of Dorothy Heyworth in Wellesley, Mass, where Miss Armstrong has come from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the 60th reunion of her class at Wellesley College. Miss Armstrong, could we begin by asking you about your family background and your early childhood? I understand that you were born in Waltham, Mass.
My father was a lawyer with an office in Boston, Massachusetts. Our home was about ten miles outside of Boston, in Waltham, Massachusetts, up toward the Lexington border. I was the child of his second marriage. His first wife had died. There were two boys from that marriage. One was nearly 18 years older than I, the other 14 years older than I. I hardly became acquainted with the older one, who was in college when I was born, until I was well into my teens. Immediately after college he left to work in New York City as an engineer. Later he was made head of the New York City Board of Water Supply. My other brother was in business in Boston.
Were there any other children by your father’s second marriage?
No....We went to the Universalist Church in Waltham Massachusetts. I started church going at a very early age, probably about five. I remember that, to keep me quiet during the sermon in my early years, I had a lovely beaver muff. I loved the feeling of that muff. I could stroke that while the minister preached.
Was your mother much younger than your father?
14 years younger.
Had she worked before she was married?
Yes. She had worked in the State House in Boston, she had a secretarial position. In connection with my church going, my family sat in a pew about the fifth row. That church was heated by a hot air furnace in the basement. The control f or the damper was by a chain that came up through a hole in the floor, right by our pew, and my father was in control of the temperature of the church. Sometimes it would become very hot. He would go to sleep and nod and I would poke him, and then point to the chain, to remind him that something needed to be done about the temperature. He was a very absent-minded man. I’ll mention just this one other recollection. We lived ten miles out in Waltham and we were about a mile from the center up towards Lexington. Except in the very worst weather, he would walk to the train that he took into Boston. I think it was called the Massachusetts Central Railroad. It was not the main line. It was more of a commuter line that went to Western, not much beyond. It was his habit, before he left the house in the morning, to go down to the cellar and shake down the furnace, (he had put coal on when he first got up) He would then open the damper, shake the furnace down, close the damper almost entirely so that the fire would last throughout the day without any attention from my mother. For that job and he was elderly and had snow white hair, he would wear an old yellowed with age straw hat, of the boater type, stiff brim, but with the edges all frayed and stuck out. On one snowy winter day, he escaped from the house without my mother’s checking him over, when he appeared at the station for the local commuter train, people greeted him with smiles and he thought to himself, “Oh, this really is a friendly community. People seem to enjoy one another.” No one said anything to him. It wasn’t until he got on and joined his three friends for a game of whist before they got to Boston — he took off this hat, and he discovered that he had on his old dingy frayed furnace hat. That made headlines on the front page of the Boston paper. Perhaps not exactly a headline, but it was enclosed in a heavily bordered black box, such as is used for funeral notices.
When would this have been, about 1910?
Yes, 1910, I think probably, yes. So much for him, except that he did continue with his jaw work in Boston until he was, within a week of his death, and he died just before he was to become 81. My mother at a much earlier age, I think at about 72, when I was around 40.
Were they both born in the Boston area?
Yes. My father was born in Waltham, and I think my mother was born in Waltham also. She had relatives in southern New Hampshire. I don’t know what the size of Waltham was at that time.
It was an industrial city though at that time, more so than it is now.
(crosstalk) Yes, it was a watch factory city. I attended public schools.
Did you go to kindergarten at that time or was there one available?
No. We didn’t have a kindergarten near us anyway. I had one year in the first grade, downtown. Then when my mother’s father died, we moved up to look after my grandfather. We moved in with him, and I went then to a country school of two rooms, for eight grades. One teacher taught the first four and another teacher taught the second four grades.
That could have some advantages educationally.
Yes. Perhaps you should have your ears completely closed and your mind on your own task — but you do hear some of the questions and answers of the older students. That was an interesting school house, very well known, I think, at the time. The teacher of the first four grades was a very good teacher. She doesn’t stand out in my memory quite as much as the teacher of the next four. She had a reputation as or of the best teachers in the state of Massachusetts, in spite of handling four grades. The school house was within walking distance of my home, in good weather, but in the winter, a sleigh would pick us up and take us up to the school, in snowy weather. The school was situated partly up a slight hill, with just a lane for walking from the lower road to the upper road — one went up toward Weston and the other toward Lincoln. In the winter, the skating was good on the pond nearby. We would take our skates to school, eat our lunches in five minutes, and dash down to the pond and skate until the warning bell was rung. If it was snowy and the snow was good, the boys had, among them, two double runners with teams to operate them, one to steer and one to drag his foot to brake. They would load all the students in the school on those tw0 double runner sleds and take us down the upper road, drag their feet and turn around the sharp turn at the intersection of that road with the other, make a sharp turn and come back almost as far as the school house, on the momentum we had. They saw to it that every child got one ride, during lunch hour.
About how many children would have been in your class?
Probably not more than eight. I think there couldn’t have been more than 30 in either room, maybe 25 or so. Divide that by four. So we really got quite a bit of individual instruction during that short period the teacher had to give us.
You went there for eight years, then went into the Waltham High School?
Except for first year of school when I was down in the town, so I went there for seven years. Then I went to the Waltham High School, which was down on the side of town nearest us. I could walk in good weather. I have no vivid memories of those four years. Oh, I did have an outstanding teacher in French and German. She’d been a high school classmate of my mother’s, but she was known as one of the best teachers in the state. She gave us very good preparation in both languages.
Presumably you had a college preparatory curriculum?
Yes, with four years of Latin and I think we had three years of German in the school, only two of French.
Did you have science?
I don’t remember any science as such. I think not. Not then.
But you presumably had four years of mathematics?
So we can’t decide that you were attracted to science before college?
No. Oh, I know how I got into physics. When the time comes I can tell you.
All right. How about you’re outside activities? Did you enjoy things other than skating and sledding?
Not so many. We lived rather far apart. We could get to each other’s homes, if we were taken, but we didn’t have many get-togethers. We did have some. I can remember bobbing for apples at some Halloween party and there may have been some others, but I don’t remember many parties.
Did you have any musical training?
Do you still enjoy the piano?
Very much, but I don’t play it. Haven’t for some years.
How about reading, were you an avid reader?
Yes. It was a reading family, too, — my father was very well read. He could recite whole Shakespeare plays.
Did he read aloud to you?
Some, when I was younger. And my mother did also.
Do you recall any other adults that you came in contact with in those formative years?
Friends of my family. They were quite active in church work, Universalist, later joined the Unitarian, and one of my language teachers, I think I mentioned, was a school friend of my mother’s. I saw her. But I don’t recall many adult friends. They went out a good deal. My father was a trustee of the local bank, went to bank meetings.
How did you decide to go to Wellesley?
There was a girl in town whose younger sister was a very good friend of mine. We were playmates and friends all through school. Her older sister went to Wellesley, and in her senior year, invited me over for a day at Wellesley. I went around with her to classes and so forth. She had liked Wellesley very much and knew that I wasn’t quite sure where I would go. My mother, who had hoped herself to go to Smith but couldn’t, rather wanted me to go to Smith. But I think my parents were rather glad to have me rather near home. I went home purposely no more often than the other girls did. I went home, I know, for Thanksgiving, and not all the girls could go to their homes. But that was the only time between opening of college and Christmas vacation, just so that I wouldn’t miss too much of the college activities.
You didn’t have any trouble adjusting then to college life? You weren’t homesick?
No. I don’t remember that I was. I do remember that I was very shy and I was slow to get acquainted. Finally we became very firm friends. We were in a small dormitory here, named Webb, which I believe burned down or was taken down to make room for another building, not many years ago. I think there were 16 of us there as students, all freshmen. At that time, because of the big fire at Wellesley, all freshmen were housed in the village. The two big dormitories were Niwonet and Eliot, and then, students were scattered in private homes throughout the village. Webb did have its own dining room, so we didn’t have to go out for meals. Some of the other students in nearby private homes came in for meals. Of that original group of 16 of us, in Webb, seven of us have been here for our reunion.
Oh, that’s quite a record.
Yes, it is.
That must have been a great reunion.
I don’t think we have had it all the time since we graduated, but some years ago, we started a round robin, and that’s been going for quite a number of years among this group in Webb originally.
Are you the one to have come from the farthest way to the reunion?
No. I said good-bye an hour or so ago to a classmate from Oregon. I think she was the farthest.
You mentioned the fire. Was that before you came to Wellesley?
Yes, the spring before I enrolled. I think it was May or so. A temporary administration building was built very quickly and I guess they just doubled up the students in other rooms for the rest of that year. I don’t know just how they worked it out. I think that during our freshman, maybe even our sophomore year, some rooms were made into double rooms which weren’t intended to be. Then, Tower Court I think was built very soon afterwards on that hill, where College Hall had been.
I understand the physics department facilities burned down in the big fire.
Yes, they did. And so we had temporary quarters.
Did you take physics then as a freshman?
Yes. And here is the reason I chose it. My engineer brother was at home then. I think I asked him and my father since I’d had no science in high school what they thought would be a good science for me to start out in. The engineer brother of course said, “Physics,” and my father went along with that. So did I. I hadn’t intended to major in physics. I had intended to major in French and German. I had three years of German, two of French in high school, and then had the not very practical vision of getting into some sort of Foreign Service with my languages. But I wouldn’t have had enough of the languages or of the background in social sciences and history that I would have needed. So that went by the board. And the chairman of the physics department persuaded me to major in physics, so I did.
Was that Miss McDowell at the time?
Yes. And I took three years of mathematics, which took me through calculus. Now the mathematics is planned so differently that students get some of that in their first year of mathematics. Then my second science was chemistry, my minor, only two years of that, I think.
Wellesley has always had a nice group of extracurricular activities.
Did you partake in those?
Not a great deal. No. I was not very athletic, to start with. Tennis is my sport and I had wanted to play tennis. I had played a bit fitfully near on courts near my home, but I was late getting started here. I registered here, and that night had an attack which was diagnosed as appendicitis, next day. So they sent for my family to come and get me and take me home. No, they didn’t, they put me in the infirmary here. No, I was taken home, because I know I missed that whole first week of introduction to campus life and getting acquainted, so I came here a week late, feeling very much a stranger, but I was cured of that attack. Two years later I had to have it out, but it was the middle of the summer so it was all right. But it got me off to a slow start. I was shy. My freshman roommate was shy. But we had plenty of students in the house who were not, and we all got acquainted quite quickly.
Were there many science majors among your friends? Or was it pretty unusual for a girl to be majoring in physics then?
Well, there were not many of us in any one class. I may have been the only one in my class. I don’t remember. There may have been two or three. There were many more in mathematics and more in chemistry, many more in chemistry, but few in physics.
Did you know Sarah Frances Whiting?
No. Was she still at the observatory when I came, do you know?
She died in 1927, or ’28 and I believe that at the time you were an undergraduate, she would have been in the observatory, yes.
Yes. But I took no astronomy.
I see. Who else did you have as a teacher besides Miss McDowell in physics? What courses did you take?
I cannot remember the one who was second to her; can’t remember her name. Miss Heyworth may remember. She didn’t come till later. I just don’t know. I can’t remember it. A small Englishwoman… I can’t remember.
In general, did you feel that your physics undergraduate training was good and strong?
Yes. Yes, I thought it was. There weren’t any problems when I went to graduate school.
I understand that after the fire, it was quite difficult for the physics department to operate.
— oh yes, — and to have sufficient apparatus.
I understand, before you went to graduate school, however, you were working at the Bureau of Standards.
At the Bureau of Standards. Yes.
How did that come about? Did you want to get a job before you took up graduate work?
Yes. I had no intention of taking up graduate work, at first I wanted a job and I wanted to be away from home. My family also wanted me to have the experience of being away from home other than just this being at college. And I got a job at the Bureau of Standards. In my physics at Wellesley I had become interested in radioactivity, the discovery of it by Madame Curie and so forth. And there was at the Bureau of Standards in Washington a radium laboratory, where all the radium mined in the United States had to be measured and certified. None could be sold to hospitals or doctors or such, the treatment of cancer — that’s what they were using it for them, cancer, tumors — without having gone through the Bureau of Standards and having been certified as to amount. And it was there that I had my first accident with radiation.
Who was in charge of that section? Do you recall who your boss was?
Yes. The man who had been in charge and who left just a few months before I came there, was a Dr. Dorsey. He was very frail, quite ill, and had, I think resigned maybe two or three times in a year, just to see how things were going. The man who had been brought in to replace him had a stomach ulcer, was out ill a great deal of the time. So, after only a few months, I found myself more or less in charge of certifying all the radium sold in the United States.
It could have been six months or something like that, I don’t know. I was there for two years in that section.
Were there many other women at the Bureau at that time?
Quite a number, in various sections, making measurements. My first year there was spent in what they called the Time Section. That was just after the end of the war and the job at the Time Section there was still checking and certifying wrist watches f or the Army. They were inexpensive watches and not very good. Many had to be discarded. But that, I may say, was rather boring work. We had an electric clock, I suppose it was and we had to check the watches against it a number of times, before we could send them out. I had hoped to get into the x-ray and radium section when I went there to work. I knew I wouldn’t, but they said, perhaps after I’d been there for a while, perhaps a year, I might be able to be transferred, and I was, to the radium section.
I’ve been told that Miss McDowell as the first woman to be hired as a scientist at the Bureau of Standards, and it was during the war?
I don’t remember that.
Well, I was amused to read since, in a history of the Bureau of Standards, that Stratton, who was the head of the Bureau at that time, was quite opposed to having women around, and he is quoted as having said that he felt that the sight of his scientists in shirt sleeves would upset any ladies whom might be given jobs —
(laughs) I don’t remember anything about that.
So by the time you came, they had some more women and you felt at home?
No, there were not many women, but a few. I’d guess offhand, about half a dozen.
Your associates accepted you?
Yes… We did have one or two, I think perhaps two women in the radium section.
Were they young women like you, just recently graduated from college?
Yes. I think there was or Smith girl. Oh yes, and we had a girl from Long Island, I don’t recall what college she had gone to. I remember, one night we had to work late. We had to get something measured by a certain deadline, and the only way we could do it was by working half the night, for two or three nights. The Bureau of Standards at that time was very much out in the country, or seemed so — now it’s built up way beyond that - - and we would be working late. We’d known ahead of time that we were going to have to do quite a bit of night work, and she’d gone back to her home in Long Island to bring her gun back with her, to protect us while we were working there, because there had been an unfortunate item in the newspaper, given a fair amount of prominence, that we had this unusually large amount of radium to be treasured there. Because of the frequent illnesses of the head of the group at that time, one of the other technicians and I often had to work late at night, in order to keep up with the load of measurements. During that period, we had an unexpectedly large shipment come in to be measured, and the only way we could get it done was to work during the evenings, into the night, for quite a period of time. The other technicians did as much as they could during the day time. We would come in about 4 o’clock to see what had been done. At 5 when they left, we would take over. I can’t remember what we did for dinner. There was a dining room there. Maybe our meals were sent over to us. Maybe we took time off, one at a time, to go over for dinner. There had been an item in the newspaper, just about the time we began on this night work, about the large shipment of radium that had just come into the Bureau of Standards for measurement, and how the entire quantity of radium in that shipment could be put into a thimble. We feared therefore that some person might think that that would be a wonderful haul, and try to steal it, to get in to steal it — although there was a fence all around the Bureau of Standards, and a gate and a gate keeper, still it would have been possible, we thought, for someone to crawl in under the fence, wire fence, in some other part of the grounds. The technician with whom I was working lived in New York, in a Long Island summer home, was used to handling a gun, thought we would be safer with the protection of one, and went home , a quick trip up to New York to get her gun, came back. We made an arrangement with the gate keeper that if we were in trouble, if we were about to be, she would fire the gun out the window twice. He would then alert the police or the other watchmen, police, who would take over from then on, we hoped. A need for that gun never arose, but we felt much safer with it. Before we had finished all this extra work, part of the days and well on into the night, this other woman fainted on a downtown street in Washington. I managed somehow to keep on my feet when I had to. But we were very glad when that job was finished.
Do you remember your co-worker’s name?
Yes, Frieda Kenyon.
Was she a young person like you?
Yes. I think she’d graduated perhaps from Bryn Mawr a year after I had from Wellesley.
Now, what did you actually do? You checked the radium samples —
— against a standard. We had standards of several sizes. And we checked them against those, by the amount of ionization they caused. I won’t go into details about the very simple measuring instrument we had, but — Because of that, we felt that it would be possible f or someone to get into one of the buildings and from one of the buildings into the tunnel, without being detected. And felt much safer with a gun when we went out at night. At 2, 3 in the morning.
Did you live nearby? Or have a long trip?
Yes, I had a rather long trip by trolley, well, perhaps only a mile or so, and luckily the trolley ran. I don t know if it ran all night, but it ran long enough so we could get home.
You mentioned that you had your first accident about that time.
What happened there?
The primary stand of the United States was one that had been made by Madame Curie, who, at the same time, had made standards for France, Germany and England. These standards consisted of a small amount of radium barium sulfate enclosed in a small glass capsule. It happened that the German standard exploded. I might inject the remark that the effect of the gamma rays, the wavelike rays from radium, passing through glass weakened the glass it was realized later, so that an accident could easily happen. The first one was in Paris itself. The corresponding laboratories of Germany and England were notified, and they purposely broke their standards in water, later evaporated them and put them in new capsules, sealed in. But if word had been sent to the United States, it did not reach our group, and therefore we were totally unprepared for that accident. It happened when I was using it, making a comparison with an unknown. We had standards of smaller amounts of radium that we used for the small amounts, but for the larger ones, we used this particular standard. This standard, put, up by Mme Curie, was used only for measuring, every so often, what we called our secondary standards, and we had perhaps three of varying amounts of radium, so that we could use as a standard for comparison whichever one contained an amount fairly near the unknown we were to measure. That is, we would do a preliminary rough measurement see what it might be near. Have I told you how the accident happened?
No. You just said it was a surprise that you weren’t at all prepared for any accident.
Our standards were in a V shaped metal trough; a very small one, maybe one or two inches long, mounted on a stand so that it was at the same level as our very crude measuring instrument at that time. This was a gold leaf electroscope that consisted of two thin leaves of gold foil, attached to some small metal posts. The leaves, before measurement, would hang down vertically. When we would make a measurement, we would have a telescope focused on the gold leaves. We could, by some means, get a charge on those gold leaves. When the gold leaves were charged, they spread apart, except where they were attached to the main rod, because two bodies of like charge tend to repel each other. Therefore the leaves would form an inverted V. When a capsule containing radioactive material was brought near, the rays would penetrate the thin glass walls or thin steel walls charging the air between these separated gold leaves, and they would gradually discharge and come together. And the rate at which they would become discharged is what we scale measured. We had a telescope with a scale in the eye piece. We would look through that toward the gold leaves and determine the rate at which the leaves were coming together. By knowing the rate at which our standards caused them to, we could determine the unknown amount of radium in the sample.
At the time that this accident took place, did the sample just disintegrate in your hands?
No. We picked up our standards with forceps, very gently, and once when I was handling the standard, I’m not sure whether I dropped it a couple of inches to the table or whether as I was holding it in the forceps, it exploded. The time had come when it would have exploded anyway, as they had found in Paris. I was terrified, chiefly, not so much for any danger to myself, but for what I had done to the primary standard of the United States. Of course I notified the chief of the division. I was more or less, physically shaken or told to shake myself, and the room was sealed. I was sent home.
They gave me a huge sheet of heavy brown paper. I was to go home, put it down on the floor of the bathroom, possibly in the tub, shake myself thoroughly, undress, put all my clothes in that piece of brown paper, roll it up tightly, fold it up, take a thorough shower and dress in other clothes, and take the radium back to the Bureau. I think it was put in a furnace in the chemistry division and most of it salvaged. I’m not sure of just that salvaging process. I think that was what it was.
Was it the radon gas that was trapped in the sample that would have caused the thing to explode?
Yes, it was the pressure of the gas and any jar set it off. They said it would have happened sooner or later, — but that was small consolation to me. The gas pressure would build up more and more and more, and the glass was weakened by the radiation through it anyway, so that eventually it would have happened.
Did this happen before Mme Curie came to the United States? She came in 1921.
No, it happened afterwards, ‘22, I think.
Did you meet her when she came?
Yes. Yes, I did. Yes.
Do you have any recollection of her?
Well, why don’t you tell us about her?
I don’t have much.
Well, why don’t you tell us whatever you do?
I think she did not come to the Bureau of Standards. She came to the White House, and she was given a gram of radium, and I was at that ceremony, since I happened to be in charge of measurement of radium at that time. So I saw it presented to her. I remember seeing her on the raised platform, where I was sitting down below, in the front row, and I was present when they gave it to her. This has nothing to do with me, but when I saw a movie about her, I did not like the actress who portrayed her. She did not look like my recollection of her, and didn’t act like her. Mme. Curie was an extremely shy person, very modest. The woman who played her, I thought was rather a...
Are you speaking now about the old movie that was made by Hollywood or about the recent television series?
The recent TV movie.
You must have enjoyed that.
Yes, except I didn’t like the woman who portrayed Mme Curie. She didn’t seem at all like her to me.
Have you read the book that goes along with that television — the book actually preceded the television.
Yes. Now, I was lent that book, for a while. I think I read most of it.
It was quite a bit more informative than Eve Curie’s biography of her mother that was written in the thirties.
You stayed at the Bureau then until 1922, is that right?
Yes. Then I went to Radcliffe and started graduate work.
What decided you that you wanted to go on?
I’d gone about as far as I could in earning capacity until I had more background, and I wasn’t content to stay at this very small level. Also I wanted to know more.
Did you have any difficulty, not just being accepted by Radcliffe, but being accepted by the physics department?
Were you the first woman graduate student?
No. There was one who’d gone there for a year, the year before I did. But she knew she’d be there only a year. She was married after that. There’s another one I think who’d gone for a semester, or maybe she entered at the same time I did. I don’t remember whether I was the second or third one to start there.
There was a Katherine Shea who would have been there about the same time as you.
Oh, I think she was there before me.
But she only took a Master’s degree. She didn’t stay on. I’ve corresponded with her. When you went did you expect to become a doctoral candidate or did you just apply for a Master’s program?
Just for a Master’s degree, as I say, for the high ambition that I wanted to earn more money.
Well, and learn more physics.
And yes, to learn more physics.
For the Master’s degree, was it necessary just to take four courses?
Yes. That’s what I did.
And did you have any laboratory associated with those courses?
I think I didn’t that year. Let’s see, one was mathematics, which of course I had none. Thermodynamics — didn’t have any. Theoretical electricity and magnetism — didn’t have any. Well, the one semester course in radium might have had, but I’m not sure.
Do you remember who your professors were for those courses?
Some of them.
Was thermodynamics with Bridgman, or not?
Advanced thermodynamics was. Let’s see, what was it I had over at Radcliffe? Bridgeman was theoretical electricity and magnetism. Mathematics was advanced calculus with a Kellogg as professor. I can’t remember what my fourth one was, or have I got four there?
You said there may have been one in radium or radioactivity?
I couldn’t take it. Being a woman, I wasn’t allowed to enter a classroom; at least certain professors wouldn’t allow women in the classroom.
Oh well, you were enrolled at Radcliffe.
But your courses were not given at Harvard, they were given at Radcliffe?
The one in thermodynamics was given at Radcliffe. My mathematics course was a Harvard one and it must have been at the whim of the professor, or something. I know there was — I wonder, maybe it was Duane in x-rays and radioactivity, and I wanted at least to audit it. I wasn’t allowed to do even that. But I asked if I could sit on a stool outside the door, and at least write down what I heard. No, I couldn’t do that. I’m very sure that was his course, because I went there, I wanted to work under him. Now, I did do research under him later.
At that time Radcliffe had an old wooden building, didn’t they?
Byerly Hall wasn’t built until much later than the period when you were there.
No. I’ve never been a diary keeper.
Well, some things, like which courses you took, can always be retrieved out of the records if one really needs them. How did you get into working with Duane, then? He didn’t allow you to take his course, but later you got your Ph.D. degree under him?
I’m not sure whether he was the one. I know why I couldn’t. It wasn’t his fault. It simply was a course that was open to advanced undergraduates at Harvard and I was not allowed to take it. They couldn’t have a woman in an undergraduate classroom at Harvard in those days. That was why I couldn’t get into the classroom.
Oh. But if it were a graduate course, you could at that time?
Yes, if the professor were willing, but it didn’t follow, naturally. And I guess I couldn’t get into the optics course. So finally I studied up on optics by myself. I had had quite a bit at Wellesley, and I took the written exam in it, given not by the professor who taught optics, I can’t even remember who did, but by the chairman of the department for Radcliffe, Chaffee.
Chaffee had the title of chairman of physics for Radcliffe, at that time?
I think it was he. There were two men and I can’t quite straighten them out in my mind.
Did you meet Theodore Lyman? He was really the head man at that time.
Well, there is the story about that. He didn’t want any women in the sacred halls of Harvard. His office was on the ground floor, at or end, and I think to get in and out of the building, I had to pass it. Well, I walked along the hall and a few times he might have come out of his office, walking along the hall in the opposite directions I’d turn into a little gray mouse and scuttle along the floor on the opposite side of the hall, so he wouldn’t see me. He couldn’t bear the sight of a woman in the building — that’s what was said of him, anyway. And I believe he taught the optics classes, and that’s why I had to take an exam in them, and the professor gave it to me, decided to give me an oral instead of a written — no, I took a written examine in optics, on the basis of what I learned at Wellesley, a very good course. But there was some course I was supposed to take that I couldn’t get into. Chaffee was the head of the department for women. For my language exam in German he decided to give me an oral examination instead of bothering with making out a written one for one student. And when I went into his office to take it, he riffled through some journals on his desk, and he handed me a journal, and opened it up and said, “Suppose you translate a paragraph of this.” I looked at it. It began down on the lower page, and was about half a dozen lines. Well, I looked at it and I thought, “Heavens.” I recognized “die” and perhaps two other words in that paragraph. But I just didn’t, I couldn’t — and I’d try, I fumbled along and tried to guess what some of these words would be, from what parts of them were, and he burst into laughter, and took the journal away from me and said, you passed.” I said, “How could I? I got one word out of ten right.” And he showed it to me. It was a Dutch Journal.
Oh my goodness.
He did it just as a joke.
You were going to tell us about taking the optics.
Yes, the optics examination I took in the president’s office. I was the only one to take it. There was something else I took in the swimming pool in the basement, I’m quite sure — I wasn’t the only one taking examinations there. There were other girls around and it was frightfully hot. We were in the swimming pool part of the gym. Perhaps, Radcliffe would tell you that never happened, but I think it did.
But then you did get to start thesis work?
With Duane. I don’t know why he took me. I think he didn’t approve of it at all. He had two post graduate students, who already had their Ph.D.’s and were on fellowships.
Yes, one at a time, maybe. And I worked sort of as an assistant to one of them in his research.
All of this would have been in the old Jefferson Building?
There was no Lyman laboratory at that time.
No. Oh, I read the spectrometer. See, we had, there were, let’s see, Samuel Allison, who went to University of Chicago. I think he already had his doctor’s degree from Chicago.
Yes, he did. He was a post doc.
And I think there was Robert Havighurst.
Robert Havighurst was there.
Working with Duane?
Yes. I don’t remember if there was anyone else. Oh, there was a German fellow who came on, I think in a later year, from Germany — maybe that first year. He was difficult. He already had his doctor’s degree and just wanted to do some work with Duane. He thought he could make better x-ray tubes than Duane could.
There was a company that made x-ray tubes, I don’t know if it was GE or not, a special laboratory they had outside, and they would make them up with the electrodes in the ends, and there’d be one little opening, one end or the other, to which the tube would be attached, which in turn would be attached to a vacuum pump, and we had to pump them out, and it was quite a job. The tube was up on supports so we could see it, and in a lead three sided chamber with lead glass windows, through which we could look at the x-ray tube, and the back was open just to the wall of the room, and we would turn the vacuum on, and then very gingerly, at a low voltage, start putting the voltage across the tube, and step it up by slow degrees until we saw a flash in the tube, hastily turn everything off, wait a moment or two, go back to a somewhat lower voltage but not way back to the beginning, and keep going through this process till we got up to a high voltage. And then, the German fellow, no, I guess the glass blower from nearby would come over and seal the tube off. And that — We made several that way. That was my undoing, physically, because I got what was determined to be a half-fatal dose of x-rays. I was out of commission for at least half a year, if not more, put out to grass. You won’t be able to report how we knew something was the matter with me and what caused it. I stopped menstruating, and there was no other reason for it, and it was known that an overdose of x-rays could produce that effect. Oh, it was months before it came back. And by that time I was in this very weak condition. I could hardly sit up. I just had to stop work, was put out to grass. After a while I would be able to take short walks. We lived out of town pretty far.
Were you living on your own then?
No. I was with my family. Both my father and my mother were alive. But the doctor thought that this sickness of mine was what really shortened my father’s life. He worried so about me, afraid I’d never come back and be able to look after myself, earn money, anything. The doctor was quite outspoken about that. My mother lived to see me able to go back to work a few years later. Well, I went back to work before that.
Were there other people at Harvard having x-ray induced illness at that time or was it just you who happened to get this —
— I was the one who was doing this menial work. There was a man, who was doing something up there, but I was the only one up there, except this German fellow would come in to check the work.
Where was this in Jefferson? They’ve remodeled Jefferson so much now —
It was up in some attic room — I just can’t remember. I was out of commission for months.
When was this? How long after you got your Masters? You got the Masters in ’23, according to the record.
And I taught at Wellesley for a while. I took ‘29 and ‘30 off to finish up and get my degree. I wasn’t in very good shape even then. I just can’t remember, but I know I was out for months, just limp as a rag and then gradually began to go out doors and walk a little bit, and then take slightly longer walks and so forth. I cannot remember exactly when it was. I never kept a diary, so I don’t really know.
Was the only treatment rest?
There wasn’t anything they could do for you.
There was no solid radioactive material in me; just the effects of radiation. I guess probably they knew from having done x-rays of patients that if you get too much, it has a bad effect. I think that they knew it would cause a reaction, long before that.
Well, I understand from your biography in AMERICAN MEN IN SCIENCE, you were also at the Rockefeller Institute?
And at the Huntington Hospital. That was all while you were still a degree candidate?
Where’s Huntington Hospital, is that in Boston?
— I believe —
I needed to earn some money and somebody called up or wrote to Duane asking if he had a student who could come down and work at the Rockefeller Institute in this x-ray spectroscopy, as they called it. There was a man there at the head of the group. He was really a rival of Duane’s, in a way — but a good deal younger. He wanted one of Duane’s students and he took me.
I worked there for two years, hoping to use the work I did there, the research, for my thesis. And I had hoped to write it evenings and weekends and so forth, but the man I worked for worked terribly hard himself. He kept late hours. He worked until 8 o’clock. But he lived ten minutes walking distance away in a cooperative apartment house so he went home for dinner and had dinner served to him. He lived in high style, had a social life, he could go home, while I had to go out for dinner, walk a mile or so to a place, get there, eat dinner, then go home. So I didn’t fare quite as well as he did.
Was this after you had had your illness?
Yes. Duane got that job for me, when I needed to earn money, so I was down there two years. Then Harvard sent word to me, I’d done enough under Duane to get a thesis out of it, in spectroscopy, and I had intended to write my thesis while I was at the Rockefeller, but the man I worked for got there at 8, left at 8:30 or quarter to 9, and I was expected to work. There was another assistant who already had his PhD, a Cornell man, but we were both expected to stay there and work.
But then you did come back to Cambridge and finish up your doctorate.
And got your degree —
— in physics that year, I think they gave it to me somewhat out of pity.
Do you think Duane and Harvard were upset about your condition, or do you feel —?
Oh yes, they felt that I had a rather rough time there. This other fellow, I’m sure, didn’t intend it.
Oh no, I’m sure that it was an accident, but I wondered —
Oh yes, Harvard, that part, I think they felt so. Then, I’d done my research there at Harvard, but I still had to write my thesis, and I thought I’d do that nights and weekends, but there weren’t any, so I finally went back and did write it.
Then you got a job at Wellesley, teaching.
Had you, along the way, begun to think that teaching was what you would like to do —?
— yes —
— rather than working in a laboratory full time?
Not wholly, but I liked to do it.
And you’d had one year as an instructor at Wellesley —
— yes —
— in the mid-twenties before going back to Harvard?
Yes. I can finish it up rather quickly. Did you have special questions you wanted to ask?
Well, I just wanted to ask, what kind of courses you taught at Wellesley, and how your students —?
— elementary, you have to ask them. I was never anywhere nearly as good a teacher, much as Miss Heyworth…as I knew all about, but I was never — I had one or two advanced courses. I can’t remember exactly what they were. I remember one, in mechanics, grade 3 courses they called them at the time. I don’t remember all the others. Then, the time came when — maybe Miss McDowell suggested, that I take a leave of absence. We’re supposed to go away and get refreshed eventually. I had thought vaguely about and may have even written to UCLA or someplace out west in California — about going there to study. And then, I went to physics meetings at Christmas time and January in New York, and I hadn’t put my name on the bulletin board, but there was this scout, from Los Alamos laboratory, not a physicist himself looking for a woman physicist to go out there for a year, two years, to supervise a dozen women microscopists who were doing an experiment in nuclear physics that involved photographic plates, with a special kind of emulsion. The plates were made nowhere except in England, and they would be put into what was called a camera (???) and there would be a target of some particular material, and a beam of projectiles. Sometimes the projectiles were hydrogen atom; sometimes neutrons, and later oxygen atoms, and that was — all this business of the plates, and the radiation that came off in the collision events would go into the coating on these plates and make dark lines. Neutrons made no tracks. We had a way of identifying neutrons, by (???) that would come off at the end, as a result of what was in the plate, but they were of very different character. We could spot those. But we could tell by analysis, the diameter of the tracks that were made, pretty much what the atom was, and by its trajectory, by its length, we could determine its energy, and so, you get information about these different nuclear reactions. The neutrons themselves didn’t make a path to the target, but they would travel, and then they would hit an atom in the emulsion, photographic emulsion and then there would be this secondary particle given off. From that we could get a lot of information about the neutron.
So you were supervising a group of women. How many were there?
At its maximum, there were 24. But it started with about a dozen, I think, a dozen or 15.
Were they scientifically trained?
No. Most of them were housewives. Either they had no children or their children were at school. There were not many activities available to them at Los Alamos. It was soon after that Los Alamos was made an open area. Some of the women had been technicians of one sort or another before they married, but they all wanted to do something. At the height we had 24, 12 in the morning, 12 in the afternoon, but the usual group I think was around 15.
Was that between 1950 and 1952?
Yes. Then I came back here, while Miss Heyworth had her leave of absence. Los Alamos had already asked me if I would go out there permanently, and I said, “I don’t think I want to leave an academic atmosphere.” They said, “Well, don’t make up your mind now. Go back, think it over, and let us know one day that you’re coming later.” But I had to hand in my resignation to Wellesley if I were leaving. It took me to that last moment before I could make up my mind to go out there. So, after the secretary had gone, I typed up my letter of resignation, took it over, put it under the president’s office door.
So then you moved to Los Alamos permanently.
And what kind of activity did you have then? Were you still working with the plates?
Yes. Always from then on I worked with these photographic plates, frequently special ones. One sideshow that I took part in was the launching of a balloon from Cape Canaveral. It was to be picked up in the Caribbean, as was done on one of the launches previously, so they were pretty sure of the techniques. Biologists had some rats on board. They were going up above what they called the Van Allen Belts, to higher altitudes than that, to find out what particles were in the upper atmosphere up there. But that was what I enjoyed the most of anything. And those plates came back, after being flown in a rocket, with a balloon that had inflated and was picked up down near Cuba somewhere, and they were retrieved and brought back. We had two flights, but on one of them, the plates didn’t survive or weren’t recovered.
How long did you continue to work at Los Alamos?
Until my retirement in March of ‘64. I was just a little over 66 years old.
And you’ve been enjoying your retirement?
With non-physical activities?
Yes. I really felt and I knew this somewhere along in my career that I was not cut out to be a physicist. That what I would have really loved to do would have been to be an architect. I’ve always been interested in that, for a long time. But it wouldn’t have done any good if I had recognized my desire, because in those Depression days, architects starved. In those years people lived in houses that already existed, or they could design houses without architects. So that was only a pipe dream. I couldn’t have followed through on that earlier, but later I helped design my own house. I worked with the architect and had quite a bit to say about it.
We did miss one episode in your career, though — when you worked at the Underwater Sound Laboratory during World War II.
Does that have anything worth recording?
No, I don’t think so. I was asked if I’d go in and it was really a technician’s job.
Did you have to stop teaching at Wellesley?
Yes. It was through Miss Heyworth’s kindness, to shoulder it alone, that I could be away. But as I said, what I did was routine measurement, mostly, and because I was a woman, I wasn’t allowed to go on a boat out on Massachusetts Bay, where tests were being made. We had what we called a tank, but it wasn’t a very big one; just a small one in the laboratory room. So for the ocean tests, they had to go out on Massachusetts Bay. But, I was a woman — there were no facilities for women on board the boat -– so I couldn’t go.
Well, as you look over the years since you entered physics, do you think that women are in a better position today, or not much different?
Oh, I think they’re in a much better position. Yes. I do. Oh, I should say so.
You mentioned having gone to an APS meeting, where you were recruited to go to Los Alamos. Have you gone to APS meetings over the years?
Yes, quite a bit. I used to, when I was at Wellesley; I went to a good many. When I was at Los Alamos I was expected to go to at least one a year.
Did you enjoy the atmosphere of the meetings?
Yes. Oh yes. I think physics has probably gotten more complicated — I’m sure it has. No, I found them interesting.
Well, I think we’ve covered all the things that I had thought to ask you. Do you want to add?
No. There was another little episode — but Miss Heyworth and I have an engagement, so I will have to stop here.
Well, I would like to thank you very much, Miss Armstrong, for giving me this time from your busy schedule.