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Interview of Melba Phillips by Alexei Kojevnikov on 1997 December 2,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/32719
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In this interview, Melba Phillips discusses: Bryn Mawr College; group theory; Oppenheimer-Phillips process; Maria Goeppert-Mayer; teaching physics; Brooklyn College; her experience as a woman in physics; Freda Friedman Salzman; George Salzman; University of Minnesota; Frank Oppenheimer; Leo Nedelsky; Dave Bohm; Harvard University; Radcliffe College; University of California, Berkeley; status of professional women in the 1950s; Columbia University Radiation Laboratory; radar countermeasures; Federation of American Scientists; Association of Scientific Workers; Francis Bonner; May-Johnson bill; Los Alamos National Laboratory; Ed Condon; McCarthyism and universities; House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); Ellen Schrecker; Jim G. Crowther.
…and I came there. It was… Oh, it has a name. Here it is. I was a Helen Hunt [?] Research Fellow at Bryn Mawr College. It was very common for women not to be eligible for any of these things except those which were for women alone, for the simple reason that you didn’t really need a job if you were a woman, you see. You didn’t have a family to support. So I came east in 1935, and then I had again a fellowship, the Margaret Maltby Fellowship, which was university women.
And these fellowships were for teaching or for doing research?
These were for doing research, and so some of this research that I did, some of those papers I turned out… Here’s the list. I guess there’s quite a list here, but there is a list of what else… were research papers. Of course the year I was in Princeton, the only important paper, although I gave some short papers at meetings, was one I did with Eugene Feinberg because I had techniques he didn’t have and vice versa. As I have often said, and I’ve been quoted at doing this, when I grew up and went to school, graduate school, most of the people had to take glassblowing because they made apparatus. I knew some mathematics. I could make wave functions to correspond to any number of electrons you had — how many, you know. I knew enough group theory then it didn’t have to be very explicit.
Yeah, but those days group theory wasn’t that common among theoretical physicists.
Well, it was a different… It was an application of group theory: What is the symmetry? What symmetry do you have? You could set it up for any kind of combinations, you know, any kinds of electron pairing and electron… how the spins line up and all the spectral lines. And that applies to particle theory of nuclei just as well. Some of the principles are a little different, the way you saw it just a little different, as well as atoms. I had been doing atoms, so I did neutrons and protons. So that’s the way we did that paper.
And that paper and those papers, did you have to be in contact with experimentalists at that time, or was it a more or less purely theoretical topic?
The papers themselves are theoretical, but they usually work a comparison of the theoretical results and splittings and so forth with what they got from the spectra, both nuclear and…
Did you need personal contacts with experimental physicists at that time, or you just used the literature?
Not for those papers. You see, the so-called Oppenheimer-Phillips process did depend on an experiment being done. They didn’t understand why they were getting the kind of thing that… as a result of the scattering experiments that they were getting. And so that did have. But then those experiments were being done right there in the Berkeley Laboratory, so that was just… Maybe you can understand it this way. You did the calculations, fairly simple calculations, with WKB methods and so forth, if you remember what that was. It served pretty well. But these other things… We made a kind of coupling. You assumed a kind of coupling and found they ordered the levels just like they did… Well, the person who did the best job of it and made the best experimental result was what’s-her-name who got a Nobel Prize.
No. A woman. Maria.
Oh. Goeppert Mayer?
Yes. We didn’t… We had to have…We did it only for light nuclei, but at Fermi’s suggestion she tried it, and Eugene Feinberg himself did various models of potentials. He kept this up. I finally got a job teaching 15 hours a week, you know.
Where was that?
[Chuckles] Well, Brooklyn College, for one.
How was that? 15 hours a week at that time?
Yes. So you didn’t have much time to research. You did little papers in the summer when you could, because —
And these 15 hours a week were all physics?
They were all physics. Some of them may have been laboratory, but not all. You usually lectured at least nine hours a week, if that.
And how did you feel in those days when there were…
Oh, I enjoyed it.
…obvious discrimination of women in jobs and in fellowships? How did you feel about your possible career and what could you do about that?
The thing about… We couldn’t count on careers. Nobody could. The fellows were not much better off than I was. Jobs were nonexistent — I mean, jobs that could be called a career. In many ways it was a fine thing to be out of a job. Then I could write. I could take Panofsky’s notes and make a book out of it, but I couldn’t have done that with teaching, with lecturing nine hours, and teaching 15. And besides, I had good students. I’ve been blessed with very good students.
And at Brooklyn College then, what would be the percentage of male and female students?
Unfortunately, very few females, but that was true throughout. I’ve been very sorry about that, but there was nothing you could do. At this recent symposium in my honor back in May this year, there are so few female students that there was no female student at that symposium. The boys came in, and there were all the people who wrote and got in touch. They didn’t get in touch with everybody because the college lost track of some of the people, some of my favorites. Lots of people couldn’t come because school was still on, and there was not a single girl. Besides, I’d had bad luck. The best students, the two best students that I ever had both died early of cancer and things like that.
Who were they?
Freda Friedman — Freda Salzman was very good. I hate to put this down. She was quicker than her husband. They were both very good students. I smiled and hid it because she once… When I saw them later and they were publishing papers sometimes together, they both got their degrees in Illinois but they took them with different people. They had then a double set of skills, you know, in theory. But Freda said to me, very innocently, “You have no idea how many times George saves me from making a mistake.” She didn’t realize that the ideas… She was saying, “The ideas are mine.” But if they were wrong, George was very thorough and he would find out that they were wrong, so that they made a very good team.
Where were they later?
Well, they had the regular trouble that women do. People wouldn’t hire them both, and they were at Illinois for a while. They were both at University of Colorado for a while. They were promised at the University of Massachusetts tenure for both of them, positions for both of them, but when they got there, they offered George the job, of course, and she got a… Well, the same thing happened to Maria Mayer. Joe Mayer would get the job, and Maria maybe an appointment at the lab with the freedom to do research on your own, sometimes some pay. So they went there, and it turned out that she didn’t get really a good job. But then she developed a cancer, and it metastasized. They were the best pair I ever had, but at Minnesota during the war I was on leave so I wasn’t subject to the draft at least. I was on leave as teaching a theoretical physics course to seniors and first-year graduate students five days a week. That was plenty. In that class of, say 15 or 20 people, I had a half dozen people or more who became professionals. I had wonderful students, really wonderful students.
Why did you go to Minnesota to teach? Was it because the university was better?
No. No, no. They lost enough people that they didn’t have enough people to teach theoretical physics, and I was a visiting professor there with no tenure. I went to Minnesota because I was invited and I got leave from Brooklyn College at the time to go out there, so I was there three years really. I was away three years. But toward the end, there were no students that needed me. I mean, I could teach elementary physics, but so could a lot of other people. At the very end, the last six months or so that I was away from Brooklyn — and I came back because Brooklyn kept letting people go to work for the government too, in research labs. Brooklyn was doing the same thing that Minnesota had. The reason that Minnesota got me in the first place, they didn’t have anybody to teach the advanced courses — so the theoretical physics. The thing that these boys learned was what physics is about, and most of them, by the time I started with them, didn’t realize what a career in physics is about. People didn’t. There were very few people (because the city colleges grew up the way they did) who were acquainted with the research community, and I was. So I taught those senior students, mostly seniors. They were very — Although I taught sometimes juniors who took the second course in electricity and magnetism early on. So I had to come back to Brooklyn College. I had been working there doing research in the so-called Radio Research Laboratory which was radar countermeasures.
Just before we go into that, were you the only female on the faculty of Brooklyn College?
No, but they didn’t teach advanced courses. There were people who taught purely elementary and didn’t even give elementary lectures.
And in general among the faculty there, how many people would do an advanced kind of research?
At Brooklyn College, nobody. There were very few people doing research at that time. That wasn’t true, of course, of Minnesota. So every once in a while I would do… For instance, when Johnny Williamson and somebody else were doing an experiment because it was hard to get research going and they needed help in disentangling some spectra they had — what’s the model that will give this kind of spectra, you know — I did. I joined them in a paper, a little paper, because it was simple enough for me to do the calculations that they needed. They couldn’t take the spectrum apart in a way that I knew how to do it, but I never lifted a finger to that apparatus. They had the spectrum. No, I was useless.
Among the faculty in Brooklyn, did you lack female company, or did you feel like something special being a female on the faculty there?
I was used to it. [Chuckles] You see, as long as you don’t compete, the fellows treat you alright. Nobody held anything against me. Of course, I didn’t want their jobs, and they didn’t want mine.
Well, competing — how about the faculty fair, so the college affairs or the…?
Oh, my friends, I had very few friends in the college. I had plenty of a greater variety of friends in literature and music and all those things right here in New York.
Also amongst scientists?
Oh no, no. Although the seminars I went to, if you were asking about that — seminars and colloquia and so forth. I went to Columbia mostly because I knew Columbia people. After… it was about the time I started teaching… Willis Lamb came to Columbia, and he was one of my best friends from Berkeley. He was younger than I, but then he was there. It’s kind of interesting that the reason I had such a wide circle, variety of friends, ready-made so to speak, those were mostly friends of Frank Oppenheimer. They had known each other in Johns Hopkins or their relatives or somebody like that. So I didn’t have to lift a finger.
Did you contact Frank Oppenheimer often in those days?
Oh, I didn’t see much of Frank, because I once… See, he was somewhere else. He was in Europe, he was in California, and then he spent a year or two in… Where did Frank take his degree? He spent some time in Palo Alto, but also at Caltech. And as I say, Frank was… It wasn’t only Frank’s direct friends, but their friends. If you made… Well, he didn’t use much of it, but when Viki Weisskopf was writing his autobiography, he wrote and said, “I can’t remember names, and you tell me what it…” But he and his wife, Ellen, his first wife — she died, of course — used to come to 298, the house where we lived, and tell me who were some of those people? Well, I’ll let you read a letter. I find that I have a carbon of the letter. He didn’t use much of it; he just used half a page of it. He didn’t mention me; he mentioned some friends of mine. But I wrote the whole letter because I didn’t know what he wanted. For instance — this didn’t get in the book, of course; there was no reason it should. But when I saw Ellen, the last time I saw Viki’s wife, Viki was speaking at the academy here and I went to the dinner beforehand. Ellen said, “I still remember dinners at your place and spending the evening in front of the fireplace in which we burnt a piano,” and I said, “Oh, yes.” What happened was that we had a big house. Rents got awfully high and jobs were hard to — this is now the thirties. Well, one couple decided to rent a whole house, you know. Make it livable and rent out pieces of it to your friends. Divide it.
So were you sharing this house? With whom?
So I was sharing the house with all sorts of people. And she wanted to know how we got a piano. Well, one of Oppenheimer’s students, actually, Leo Nedelsky, stayed there, lived in the third floor (the old one), and maybe his girlfriend at the time lived on the third floor. But his friend from Russia was George Sheriakov(?). They had all been on the West Coast, Berkeley, and George was there. George was married to Natasha, who had a 10-year-old daughter, who shared the apartment, but it was two big rooms. All these brownstone houses had two big rooms with maybe a washroom in between, some kind of… not elaborate, but it was a bathtub and no shower, a bathroom in between the two rooms. And then a little room over the staircase, in front of the staircase. The stairs, you know, went up like this. So Natasha and George — Natasha, really — had a daughter, Tata(?). Tata wanted a piano, so they went out and bought a piano, brought the piano in. That meant that they had to make a bunk above the piano for Tata to sleep in. But she went to California to spend the summers with her grandmother, and one time we had a guest — it didn’t seem to bother Tata. We had a guest who tried to sleep up there, and it turned out that there were bedbugs in that piano. Do you know what bedbugs are? Well, Natasha and Curtis took out most of their clothes and doused that piano and all the things with kerosene, and the only thing to do — they got some help — they had to take that piano apart. There were all of the innards of a piano and the things that made fine carpet [???] and obviously soaked in kerosene. All the hammers, everything, made fine firewood in the grate downstairs. So that was what the — But I didn’t remember that the Weisskopfs were there when we were burning that piano. That’s just an example of the kind of thing we did. And that’s where Dave Bohm came and visited later.
How did you become acquainted with him?
He looked me up. He came from Berkeley, didn’t he?
Oh, okay. Was it after he got appointed to Princeton?
When he was appointed to Princeton. He came from Berkeley to Princeton, and then he looked me up and he liked what he saw and he came back.
Mm-hmm [yes]. Was he also staying at this house?
He didn’t stay and didn’t live in the house, but he visited there. I don’t know where we put people to sleep, but we had extra beds and cots and things.
How many people would live there at a time?
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. I’m not counting Tata. She wasn’t… Eight or nine.
More or less of the same age?
Yes, we were all fairly young.
And this was after your move to New York and your [???] appointment at Brooklyn College.
Do you know how it happened that you managed to have this appointment which was still at that time quite a difficult thing to do?
Oh, I applied. I wrote out an application. Now, I had been turning out some research papers, and everybody knew me; a lot of people knew me. But this, just to show you how difficult it was, a perfectly good, well-trained young woman who had spent most of her time here in New York applied at Hunter College for a job. She was told by the head of the department, also a woman, “Oh, no,” she says, “we had lots of applications that would rank higher than yours. We even have an application on file from Melba Phillips.” There just were not jobs, especially for women. I’ve never been sorry I went there because, as I say, of the quality of the students. I don’t know whether you realize it, but we wouldn’t have the same quality now because people like Dan (?), as one of the boys told me years ago, now get scholarships to Harvard and Brandeis and so forth. But they weren’t recognized at that time. And I think that’s why the fellows… that’s why they’re all grateful to me, I guess.
Well, it’s partly also because there were very few students in colleges in those days, and they were all selected at that time. Now there are many more students.
Oh. I don’t know what you mean by that.
Oh, that the college education became a much more common thing.
Yes, but what it meant was that at that time these boys were not accepted. They didn’t have the money to go to those colleges. They were Jewish, most of them.
So was it mostly Jewish kind of place?
Largely. Not altogether, but largely.
Also among faculty, or not?
No. Some. A few, but not…
Because I guess at those times Jews were still also… They were also discriminated against in academia about as much as women were.
Unless you were very much out of the ordinary like Robert Oppenheimer. If you qualified in some sense as a genius, then of course you… and if you had the kind of money that you could go to Harvard without scholarship. You see, the city colleges didn’t have tuition in those days. And the motivation counts, but also these people lived at home and took the subway, and the subway was very cheap in those days. Didn’t cost you a dollar and a half just to ride the subway. It cost you what, ten cents?
Mm-hmm [yes]. But did many of those students go into graduate school?
Oh, my students did. One year I think I — and I’m boasting, but it’s true — I think that I placed in good graduate schools 11 fellows. Eleven is a big number anywhere for physics students.
Were there female students among them?
Or did you try to encourage female students to go into…?
I never saw them. They didn’t try… They didn’t come into my classes.
Do you remember in those days, or in post-war time, was there any discussion or complaints among physicists about the fact that women were discouraged from professional careers, compared to thirties?
Did they take it for granted, or…?
They sort of took it for granted. Take Harvard, for example, when Radcliffe was a separate school. It was a very great step forward that the Radcliffe students for the advanced courses could take the same courses as the men in Harvard. But where did they sit? At the back of the room. I am not joking.
When was this?
Well, at that time these people were — [Break to change tape]
…get transcribed. Then I will do the first check, and then we’ll send you a transcript and you will be — Because the most difficult thing usually is to transcribe the names because of the well-known feature of the English language that all the names are written not as they are pronounced. So that’s the biggest trouble usually with that.
If you could recall, how did you feel about this fact that women were discouraged from professional careers in the fifties?
Well, have you seen that? Somewhere in the institute — I don’t know. It should be in my folder.
Yes, I’ve seen that.
About what it was like being a student in Berkeley?
Well, that was the way it was.
No. But then things changed to even worse in the fifties.
Oh, yes. But then I was… The fifties hadn’t changed yet, if you know what I mean. The fifties, nobody asked for anything. The fifties were dull. You don’t remember the fifties, of course. You probably weren’t born yet, but at least here, women had the… Now I’m generalizing. Women married and lived in the suburbs. I remember hearing a talk at a AAAS meeting about women, and somebody had done a study of a certain number — I’ve forgotten how many — professional women who were educated and had jobs who had daughters. What were their daughters doing? Their daughters were not becoming professionals. That was in the fifties. They returned… They didn’t follow their mothers. These were professional women whose daughters were not motivated. The society did not demand it.
Was it just as, again, a kind of a matter which was taken for granted, or were there still some complaints or discussion or at least some consciousness about the fact that things changed even compared to the thirties?
There are many — just to make myself clear — there are many changes in the society which kind of happened without being noticed, and there are some which provoked some discussion or some ambivalence.
I think it was a… Well, what were the alternatives? Times were not great yet, and let me remind you that during the fifties was when we had the McCarthy period, too. You didn’t rock the boat.
Well, some did, but it cost much.
Some did, but it cost much.
Some did rock the boat, but it was…
Oh, it cost. It cost.
It was dangerous.
Well, I hope we’ll get in that period, but we’ll go a little bit back. You mentioned that you worked at Columbia Rad Lab.
How did you get into this work? Whom did you work with and what was the…? Was it classified work? Was it in…?
Oh, yes. Well, first of all, I was in Minnesota, and the students who needed theoretical physics needed to find out what theoretical physics was were no longer there. The only students that you taught were people who needed to know Newton’s laws. I remember very well Van Vleck from J. Buchta. Jay was head of the physics department at Minnesota. Van Vleck, you know who he was at Harvard, but he was also at that time head of the Radio Research Laboratory, which was the name of the radar countermeasures research laboratory.
This was at MIT.
This was at what?
This was at MIT.
This was not at MIT; this was at Harvard. The people at MIT designed radar equipment, invented it. At Harvard we didn’t invent it; we figured out how to bring it down out of the sky. Countermeasures. So I wasn’t even asked first. Then flew in (?) Jay Buchta and said, “We need somebody else. You need Melba. Can we have Melba?” And Jay came here. I was just, as I say, teaching freshmen or future pilots or something about acceleration and that kind of thing by that time, because that was my third year at Minnesota. And this was the beginning… This was in March, terrible weather. So I went to Radio Research. Well, I was there during the invasion of Normandy and all that, and things lightened up a bit, but people were working on the bomb, and the only other theoretical physicist at Brooklyn was a man named William Marita(?). Marita had a chance to go to Los Alamos, which he’d love to do. I have always been glad I turned down an offer to go to Los Alamos, and I could because I… There are some advantages to being a woman. And I came back to teach. That was in September, and so I was —
It was ‘44. And so that was — And students, very few students when they first came… My first theoretical physics course when I was teaching what they had to know with all the equations and what have you, didn’t have very many students; I think only five or six. But two of those… One or two of the students have died, but two of the students, one of them is a retired professor. I think he’s retired [???] University of Pennsylvania, and the other one is a retired professor of pathology; he changed fields at Chicago. Pretty good sample of physicists. They both grew up nicely. But then students started coming back, and they were probably more motivated, many of them, than when they went, and the ones who’d be young enough were motivated by osmosis. The students I had then — I had 20 students in a class who wanted to learn, and you can’t ask for more. Research is not that much fun. The young man who dreamed up this do this summer, this spring in Brooklyn College, for instance, I still remember thinking — He asked a question, and I remember thinking, “Oh, what a wonderful thing. I can look forward to stumped more than once.” And there he is, still at it. Classes began to be 20 people, say, 11 of them ready to go ahead, and I don’t know [???]. I would rather do that than do research.
So for you, teaching bright students was more fun than doing research.
Was it always like this?
I never had so many before. They were wonderful. And they were wonderful at Minnesota, too. I’ve been blessed with very good students.
But you were also doing research at Columbia at that time.
Well, I was doing…
What was that?
Well, I had done research. I had done some just plain electromagnetic theory.
What kind of project was it?
Oh, this was all connected with microwaves.
Was it classified research or was it regular physics interests?
It was during the War, and then everything was declassified.
I see. Who did you work with there?
The one paper we did from Harvard was with Hamermesh and Bloch. They hadn’t known Morton Hamermesh before, but I knew Felix Bloch. He was at that lab, too. It was the same lab that Van Vleck was the head of. At Columbia, Charlie Townes was head of the lab, and the paper that I wrote there was with Willis.
But Willis wasn’t doing war research, or was he?
Yes, he was. He was working at Columbia. There was a big war research laboratory.
Did they also have a seminar there?
Did they also have a colloquium there that you would attend?
Oh yes, a colloquium on Friday. I was a faithful colloquium goer.
Because I guess Columbia was the only kind of a professional community for you in New York at that time.
Yes, and that was because —
Or did you go down to Princeton occasionally?
Oh yes, occasionally, but very rarely. Not any more than other people did. Princeton people came up more often to it, and they would stop at our house after a colloquium, because we lived at 298 West 11th.
So would Bohm for instance show up for the colloquium?
Before Bohm came there were other people. Who were they? Well, even Wigner came. Wigner was not a regular one, but he was there sometimes. When Bohm came, he came a little later. He was a little younger, although he had been old enough. He’d been a student in Berkeley. I guess that’s where they started having some troubles, he and Lomanitz.
Not yet, I think. Well, at least not before he came to Princeton.
I don’t remember the dates. I don’t remember the dates. So I enjoyed teaching all the [???].
Did you talk physics with Bohm in those days?
Very little. Very little, because there was never any occasion where I — We were never working in the same place.
He would come up with friends and they were my friends, and he was… Did I ask you that you did read or you didn’t read the Peat biography?
There were some things that were accurate, other things not.
How open was he in discussing physics with —? I mean, did he talk much about this, or was he mostly kind of deep in his thought by himself?
Oh, he talked a lot, given a chance. Everybody… For instance, because of friends of friends, I got to know Eric Burhop. Did you know Eric?
Burhop, a Brit. He was at University College. He was never here for any length of time, but… And I’ve heard the Schillers say Dave would come over in the evening and talk, do most of the talking, all evening.
On everything possible?
Everything possible, but usually physics or philosophy of some kind. It happened with the Schillers in Brazil. He never knew when to go home [unintelligible].
Did he also talk much politics?
Not very… One didn’t talk a lot of politics; you just took it for granted that everybody agreed with everybody enough… enough that you didn’t have to discuss it much.
But how many people would, for instance, understand at that time that Bohm once was a member of the Communist Party? Was it a kind of common —?
It didn’t make any difference, I think.
But would it be known to people or wouldn’t it be known? Was it ever mentioned, or would just people —?
I don’t think it was mentioned. I don’t think it was mentioned particularly.
What kind of philosophy was he talking about at that time? Was it the quantum philosophy?
No, not necessarily. He wasn’t talking much. What he said… If you, of course… Of course, Eric Burhop… The reason I mentioned Eric, neither Vigier or Dave Bohm lived in London at that time. Winifred Burr(?) said that they would come to their house (her house, for example), and they’d start talking in the middle of the kitchen. You couldn’t get rid of them, the two of them. She said she remembered Bohm was often staying there. How do you have access to your own house? They just went on talking. I thought of them because I think I’ve heard Ralph Schiller’s wife, Bunny, say the same thing. It happened in São Paulo. Dave would come over after supper — maybe before supper, but after supper I get the impression — and start talking, and keep talking. He would elicit enough to keep the conversation going, you know. And she always got out of it.
Why would… Later on he would write you these many letters from Brazil. Was it all the kind of relationship…?
I was a friend of his. The famous letter, not dated, that he wrote me — I don’t know whether he wrote to other people — was the only letter that I know, the day that they came and picked up his passport.
The American Consulate people came and picked up his passport. They lied to him. But they picked up his passport, and they certainly did not explain to him that he couldn’t travel without it except coming home. The idea of Dave’s doing anybody any harm was just incredible. He was not that kind of a person. And he loved good company, but he did most of the talking.
Were you involved in any kind with the events when he and Lomanitz were questioned?
No, I never knew… I never met Lomanitz in my life. To this day I’ve never met him. Just happens that he wasn’t here and so I don’t know him at all.
But did you know about the events that Bohm was fired from Princeton?
Were you involved at all in these things?
Oh, I wasn’t involved, except that I knew about it. It wasn’t that unusual. By the way, both Sam Schweber and Ken Ford had no use for David Peat’s book because he didn’t get any of the dates right. He’s a year off on some of those things.
Yeah, it will be very good for somebody to check the dates. I know some work at Princeton. Gretchen did a work and at least checked some documents and some dates, so there was at least some possibility to check with the things. Was Bohm involved in some of the professionalization of scientists at that time like Federation of American Scientists or…
This was before the days of… Wait a minute. Maybe not before. No, it was not. No, he wasn’t. This was all ancient stuff they were bringing up. He was not involved. And he wasn’t active at all as far as I know, and I should know.
When did you become involved in the association?
Oh, I was there at the beginning.
Was it still at Minnesota or —?
Even in the early days.
It didn’t exist then. The Federation of American Scientists was organized after the war, and I was certainly in the beginning of that.
When and by whom was it organized, and how were you participating in that?
Well, there was a… We, there was a curious kind of… Where shall I begin? The atomic scientists decided. They had this in common. There’s a little bit of… Like Oppenheimer… They had endangered the world, and it was up to them personally and nobody else. The people who didn’t work on the bomb were just not a part of it at all. They made their own organizations with the highest motives. That was the Federation of Atomic Scientists, and the various places made chapters where they were. There was Los Alamos. There was Chicago. There was — where? Knoxville, I guess. Now of course, this didn’t make sense to the people who hadn’t worked on the bomb but had worked just as hard and had done something much earlier, like all the radar work and so forth, and to go forward with it, and other things — not just the war work. So the Federation was a way enlarging the atomic scientists so that at least people… They didn’t have to have worked, but they wanted science to be for peace. And of course I hadn’t worked on the… But I had been a member of the Association of Scientific Workers, which has been written about quite a lot, which started here back in the thirties. It didn’t start here. It started, I guess, in Britain.
Were you a member of this from Berkeley days?
No. I think I found out that the association existed and starting knowing people who worked in it (Association of Scientific Workers) about the time I came to New York proper because I had been a year in Bryn Mawr as a fellow, a year in Princeton as a fellow, and then I taught at Connecticut College for a year. Then I came here. I was a member of — most physicists were in those days — Section B of AAAS, which existed before the APS ever existed, certainly before the AAPT started. So I knew a lot of people. I don’t know… Well, Francis Bonner, whom I know very well, says he remembers me at the first meeting he ever attended of the Federation, and I’d never known him before. He was a chemist and he had been at Oakridge. He was from Tennessee. There were all sorts of people. I don’t remember who. The best people I knew were interested in… Science was taking over, in a sense. We were asked to, and we did public lectures on science and welfare, and it’s not dangerous if you run it right and all that kind of thing. So that’s what we did. I don’t think Dave was active in that at all. I don’t remember him in that connection.
In connection with this activity of the association, did you have to spend time in Washington?
I did part-time in Washington, yes — during the Federation, during the time that there was real just everyday work with letters and leaflets. When I say leaflets, not leaflets to pass out, but leaflets to send to members and that kind of thing. So for some weeks I worked in Washington.
This was Federation of American Scientists.
Was it connected with some legislation or…?
We were trying to defeat the May-Johnson Bill, which gave the military complete control over all nuclear physics.
That was in what, ‘46?
‘47. The person who was very active — not from in the organization, but was very effective of course, was my friend Ed Condon.
He was at Bureau of Standards, was he?
He was at the Bureau of Standards then. It’s true, but he was working for… What was the name of the senator who introduced the bill?
McMahon was on — He worked very closely with McMahon and [unintelligible].
I see. So was it because of this connection that he would get involved in this?
No, no. We both were in the same place at that same time, and I don’t think we owed it to each other.
Do you think that Condon had a big influence on the bill and on the appropriation of —?
Oh, I’m sure he did. He did. He was not splashy like some of the others, but he had a big influence. He was really very wise and just and compassionate. Ed had most of the virtues, I think.
Did you get to know yourself some politicians when you were in Washington?
Not really. No.
Or how was political life in Washington at that time?
That didn’t attract me. I didn’t like political life, and I didn’t… I worked… I wrote the incident down and I worked with membership, but I didn’t like politicians. I mean, I didn’t like the idea of trying to influence politicians. Let the people who enjoyed it do it.
Did you do this in time spared from your teaching or were you on leave? How was it arranged?
Well, I got full-time leave at the time. I was on leave, yeah. Hi, Annie.
Anne, this is Alexei. His last name I haven’t learned yet. [Unintelligible]
So what did you do to get this bill defeated, the May-Johnson?
Oh, we sent out… The May-Johnson Bill. We did prepare stuff, and we encouraged people to write in and…
Were you working with encouraging scientists mainly or lay people?
No. We were working with the public at that time.
Did you feel that that was dangerous in a way? How was the feeling at that time?
Well, it was dangerous. I mean, some of my best friends had found it impossible — [Break to change tape]
People I know who escaped from Los Alamos, having been there, and escaped for the right reasons, because they just couldn’t take the way the place was run were Ed Condon and Felix Bloch.
They didn’t like what, the military style of the thing?
That’s right. Both of them. Neither of them could take it, and neither of them could work under those circumstances. They were both sufficiently good physicists and well known and established that they could get away with leaving. And neither of them was enamored of Oppenheimer particularly. Not that they disliked him, but they didn’t have the same virtues and the same vices.
Do you think that they feel that he was partly responsible at the way Los Alamos was run?
At least he didn’t fight with General Groves. He wasn’t the first person who put up a fight against military control of the lab there, and so he had a sort of mixed… Most people did put up with it, somehow. Neither of them, for very… I don’t mean they were the same kind of people exactly. They were personally very different. But they were both… Well, I think they were both great people.
How did Condon manage to escape from Los Alamos?
He just left.
And didn’t… Felix always… Ed was more forthright and outspoken than Felix. Felix just didn’t bother. He just went to work for Van Vleck when [unintelligible].
But that was also war work.
But was it simply because it was a different style of research or a different…?
No, it was a different style. You didn’t have the… It was something that he felt was worth doing, and you didn’t have the Army breathing down your neck.
And were they also late involved in the association?
Felix was not. He was not that kind of person. And Ed is not very organizable either. But they were certainly… I would say that they didn’t disapprove of the association at all. And they could both work. Certainly Ed could work in much higher level without being above it all. He didn’t… He took senators and representatives as they came sort of thing.
What was the feeling then about the militarization of physics, and how did different people react to that?
Well, lots of people who were active in the association didn’t approve either. There were all sorts of people who were leaders who were very influential, but I would say that acting in an association and very good at speaking were people like Bill Morris and even Viki. Who were some of the others? They were… Who were some of the people who were very influential? Well, I hesitate to name the people that I didn’t like, the people that I thought were in it for what they could get out of it. But then, you don’t like everybody, and I’m not going to name them.
But maybe you could name those who would be rather courageous [???] and principled in those days?
Oh, I’m trying to remember. Yes, there were lots of very principled people. I’ve named a few.
And was the New York Association of Scientists a chapter of the American association?
What kind of features was it involved in?
I was a member of it. I don’t think I was a very active member.
Because there weren’t that many scientists in New York at that time, as far as I know.
No, there were. I can’t think of very many that you would know. They weren’t particularly active. Because I don’t know; I don’t think they accomplished very much, and what they did accomplish was not really worthwhile doing much. They were mostly…Things started in. There were even people, it seemed to me, who were starting on the wrong war. There were people in New York who just were enamored of war, and the Cold War was fine with them. So they were willing to take on the Soviet Union, whom they saw as the next… well, all the things that the Cold War… It turned out that they were wrong, but then lots of people were wrong.
I’m just trying to find out how aware of the dangers people were at that time. Like did you know that there was an FBI interest in these organizations and there was an FBI activity within them?
Yes, but we didn’t know who was doing it. We had suspicions. Some of the scientists were… Yes, of course.
I can show you a couple of documents later, because there are some recently… Some people received documents from FBI about informers who informed what is going on in their association.
Yes. We knew that there were informers, and we guessed who they were, but how did you know? I mean, when I say “we” I don’t mean I did it in connection with somebody else, but people with whom I did agree certainly knew that, too. And they did all sorts of things. They tapped telephones, they did all… I don’t mean scientists themselves did, but they arranged furniture.
But how difficult it was to — how should I say? — to be courageous in those days? Or how much attention you have to pay. Did you have to take any precautions?
Oh, I don’t… Yes and no. People were really frightened, looking back on it. It’s the same… A friend of mine, we heard about a friend… Now this doesn’t look parallel, but there is a parallel. A friend of ours developed a cancer not long ago. Everybody is worried about metastasis and so forth and so on, and it actually was Anne who said, “Ethel has been told that she has breast cancer, and she’s afraid about it.” I said, “Well, there are things to do about breast cancer,” and she stopped and she said, “I don’t know anybody else who has taken breast cancer as…” What did she say? I think it was Anne…“as matter of course as you did.” Well, I said, “What else can you do? You cooperate. You can’t foresee the future.” And I was given choices and I didn’t want to spend every…I didn’t see how I was going to spend… I was already retired… spend every day of my life going for radiation, you know, for however long. So I had a mastectomy and I’m lucky enough that I never had any metastasis. She said, or somebody said, "I don’t know anybody else who has done this." I think I behaved in exactly the same way as I did about the breast cancer. If you understand, what else is there to do, and that you can live with yourself about? I don’t know whether you see the parallel. Do you?
I think I know what this means. And how much did you and those who understood you at that time understand that the Cold War is an inane thing?
That the Cold War was an inane thing.
Well, I do know that people were frightened, and it didn’t seem…I don’t know how seriously they took the Cold War. But for example, about Brooklyn College, which is a much misunderstood… Which reminds me: did you ever look at the Ellen Schrecker book called No Ivory Tower? No Ivory Tower is something that I hope you have in the Bohr Library, and it tells the story of what the colleges did. They just knuckled under. Very few of them were… The University — Let me tell you this one story that Ellen puts in her book. I don’t know it very well, but I’ve talked to her, and I don’t appear in the book.
One story was about a man named Darling, a theoretical physicist who was fired from Ohio State just because somebody said his wife was a communist and that he had been a member of the Communist Party along with whoever told [???]. See, the informers were people who said they were in the same organizations of these with communists. So he was fired, and he was hired by the university in Quebec, namely — not McGill but the other one, the French one, but it doesn’t matter. But he went up to the — He was asked to come for an interview, and he told me afterward he was interviewed and talked a lot of physics and about lecturing and teaching and so forth. [Anne leaves] Have fun. See you in a couple of hours.
After the committee dissolved, the head of the committee went and closed the door and he said, “Now, we know all about that Ohio business, but whatever people’s private opinions, we’re not blinded by those. Now remember that this is a Catholic university.” He said, “You know, we even hire Masons.” [Laughs] Don’t you like that? And so his only difficulty — he had to polish up his French; he had to learn enough French so that he could give lectures.
But in the meantime, his wife Barbara was very much a linguist, and she made a good salary. She came to New York and got a good salary in an organization of Brazilian firm where everything was in Portuguese. Portuguese didn’t bother her. She could manage most European languages, you know. But he went ahead and lived out a very good career, and I don’t… I’m sorry. I can’t remember the name of the university there, but it’s a big university, respectable university.
If you come back to your problems with Brooklyn College, what was the ostensible reason for firing you?
Well, what happened was they didn’t do anything about the firing, actually. Brooklyn College was [???]. There was in the state — California did the same thing. I don’t know how it was in Ohio. Ellen Schrecker probably tells the story, and I don’t know. There was a law temporarily where if you did not fully cooperate with these Un-American Activities Committees, the federal… McCarron or the house… Whatever representative was running who was the chairman, if you did not fully cooperate with them and tell them who you associated with in this organization or whatever you did, all about it, you couldn’t hold a public position. The college didn’t do a thing about it. You know, you were subpoenaed to appear before the committee, and if you refused to take… You could — a few people got away with it. Frank Oppenheimer did. Frank Oppenheimer refused to answer on the basis of the First Amendment. But most of the people who refused, like Dave, were either put in prison or they were arrested. Dave was arrested, taken, transferred… just what the book says. Just because he wouldn’t say, “I wasn’t the only one who participated in this organization,” whatever it was. It was a scientist’s…
See, there was a little red book. Things like the Association of Scientific Workers, was listed as a communist organization not because it was associated with the Community Party in any way, but it had the same policy that it refused to take part in the Cold War. That’s what essentially what you were doing. So people were frightened. But let me give you an example of what happened to the people in Brooklyn.
The head of the department went ahead and did what he was supposed to do. He arranged… Even the library, who had a stack of the reprints, had to return your reprints too, you know. He wrote several letters and that kind of thing. But on the faculty members, people, regular people on the faculty, not one person that I remember wrote to me about the situation in the physics department. However, some odd, very conservative people — It was a very conservative historian who wrote me. Somebody in sociology wrote me that I hardly knew. One mathematician wrote me. But one of the professors whom I respected very much as a physicist did teach. He was not a theoretician, but he did… He’s dead now. Francis and I wrote a book, an elementary book, together for non-science students, and Francis asked this man to read through some chapters of this to see what he… physics and [inaudible]. He did, very conscientiously I’m sure, but he said not to acknowledge him in the records. It might be embarrassing for the college. He didn’t say [???], and people were really afraid.
On the other hand, people like Ed Condon, living on the grounds of the Bureau of Standards at the time, were inviting every poor lad, Dave and all those people, to come to stay, and they were not close to any of my [???]. Of course I stayed there when I brought my young nieces back in 1947 or ‘48 to Washington with me. Of course, two of them — they were eight, ten and thirteen at the time. Where did we go with [???]? Washington. We went to the Condons, and I was doing some work at the Federation then, and they made friends with two Condon boys who were at home. But Ed was doing that, but here was a professor who was afraid that somebody would be embarrassed (he said to Francis). Now Francis wrote a book that he continued to be head of the Chemistry Department. No, he wasn’t the head of that department. He was head of the department at Stony Brook. I’m sorry; that was later. We went out to visit them last week. But that’s the way it was.
How did it happen to you that you were asked to cooperate with the committee? So were you informed in a letter, or —?
Oh, you’d get a subpoena. A man, a subpoena server, like any other case.
And were you informed about what is it about, what would you be asked to…?
Oh, no. You just… I don’t think I have a copy of the subpoena. It was just demanded that you appear at a certain time on a certain date.
How did you refuse? So did you just —?
I didn’t. I went. I didn’t refuse to go to the committee. You had to appear there. That’s a crime that everybody… But then —
So did you go to Washington, or was it here?
No. It was right here. I think Dave had to go to Washington when he was… but I didn’t. It was right here in New York.
And where was it?
Down at the Federal Building downtown.
How many people were there, and were you just…?
I didn’t… There were quite a lot people there. Some of them were… I guess that there was a room with the people. I had a lawyer.
Oh, did you take a lawyer with you?
Mm-hmm [yes], I took a lawyer.
Did you already have a lawyer, or you just —?
There were people who would be for people… One of my best friends was not my lawyer there, but there was a lawyer who would be the lawyer for all the members of the Teacher’s Union. And so it wasn’t a very personal kind of law. But I had been on some [???] committees with one particular lawyer whom I liked personally and didn’t know him very well. Before it happened, I did get in touch with him and did talk to him. He was not representing people. But he and his wife sort of picked me up, and they became… Well, she died this last year — a year and a half ago now, really. They became two of our best friends. You made good friends sometimes during this…in all these… I’ve been very fortunate in friends. I have very good friends. And I never know how it’s going to turn out, but some of the people — I don’t know whether you’ve ever read any of the popular books, science books, Science of Jim Crowther (J. G. Crowther).
It’s a Brit, right?
Yes, I think I’ve read some of them.
Well, Jim wrote a book, one of his books that I didn’t give to the library. They had some of them, but his book Fifty Years with Science — he doesn’t say “in science” but “with science.”
He was from Cambridge, was he?
No, he was not from Cambridge. He invented science writing as a war [???] thing that was concerned about working on the Manchester Guardian. He’d been reporting on a number of things, and he went to the editor and said that he’d like a regular name, you know. There isn’t one; why not go science correspondent? The editor said, “What does that mean? We don’t have one.” He said, “There is no such profession. I propose to invent it.” He came through here after UNESCO. He was one of the people in Mexico City who helped organize UNESCO in the United Nations’ early days. He came through New York — came to our house as usual — came enough times. He was good friends with William Laurence, who was a science writer for the New York Times. They didn’t agree on things, but they were good friends. They respected each other profoundly. But he liked coming to the house, and we became good friends. Look up his… I think you would enjoy that. Look up his Fifty Years with Science. I didn’t give them — You have a copy there in the library. I gave the library all the ones that Spencer wanted because he likes to have inscribed books.
Yeah. So if we turn back, how did it go with the committee? What did they ask you?
Well, they asked me if I were a member of the Communist Party, if I were a member of various organizations, scientific. I don’t remember whether they went down the list. I don’t have a copy of that. I suppose maybe I could get one. But the David Peat asked for the file — supposed to be able to do it, and David Peat says that when he asked for the file on Dave Bohm, he was told that he couldn’t. I’ve forgotten what he said. It was against public policy or a danger to the country or something like that.
Did you take an amendment?
All the ones that applied, the First and Fifth and…
And it was this which was considered not fully cooperating with…
How do you think the college was informed of this?
Oh, it’s public politics. I mean the college is informed, and I wasn’t really fired for another two weeks. I gave my lectures. I was lecturing for the big course at that time, maybe for the non-science students, non-science majors.
Was it like middle of semester?
Yes. Well, it was not the middle of the semester; it was toward the beginning of semester. It was in October, somewhere in the middle [???].
October ‘52 or October ‘51?
October ‘52. And so I went. It was very interesting. The students were very interesting in this big lecture. All the students treated…