Skepchick Book Club: The Girls of Atomic City
Note: Details for next month’s book are at the bottom of this post. Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! This month, we read The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. The “Atomic City” refers to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the sister city to Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project (the development of the A-bomb).
Personally, I had never heard of Oak Ridge in reference to the Manhattan Project. In previous books, we have read about the scientists who played a role in the invention of the atom bomb, but this book looked specifically at the women who lived in the city where the tubealloy was manufactured. Often, the women were either wives of the scientists or (more likely) single women who worked at the uranium refinery. The project specifically sought out high-school educated girls who would do what they were told without asking questions. In town, casual conversations were discouraged (because spies could be listening) and “creeps” lurked around giving people instructions to report any bad behavior or conversations (they were supplied with envelopes addressed to the “ACME Insurance Company”).
One of the (rare) women scientists mentioned in this book was Jane, a statistician. As a college student, she had wanted to become an engineer, but when she applied, she was told that (despite her hard work and good grades) women were not allowed in the engineering school and that she should do statistics instead. So, she (grudgingly) applied herself and graduated with a stats degree. When she took a job at Oak Ridge (to be close to her dad, a widower), her university wrote her a snarky letter about her decision to stay closer to home instead of taking a “challenging” job in Washington D.C. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I guess!
There could probably be an entirely separate book about the people of color who worked at Oak Ridge because they received the worst end of the deal overall. The government had the opportunity to make an integrated city but chose not to. Black married couples could not live together. Single, white women had to live in dorms (with guards and a housemother to enforce curfew), and white married couples were allowed to live in houses or trailers, but all black people had to live in huts (because one general’s opinion was that they were “used to it”). The black cafeteria regularly served up food that made its patrons sick (with bits of rocks, glass, and trash–I’m guessing it was something that was dropped on the floor of the white cafeteria). The only black woman mentioned by name in the book (Kattie) was able to get a construction worker to make her a biscuit pan out of some scrap metal and she was able to cook biscuits on the side (in her husband’s hut).
The most shocking story in the book was that of Ebb Cade. He was a black man who was in a car accident and broke his legs. Unfortunately, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time in more than one way–at the hospital, his doctors decided he would be a good candidate to receive experimental plutonium injections (without his knowledge or consent, of course). So over the next few weeks, they injected him with plutonium and took samples to measure the biological effects. At one point, they took out 15 of his teeth, just to have more samples. They didn’t even set his bones for more than 10 days because presumably they wanted to see what would happen. One day, Cade got up and left (his reasons are obvious), and that’s his story. He lived for another 8 years. I was completely aghast while reading his story (although with the government’s history, I shouldn’t have been).
There are more stories in the book about the women of Oak Ridge. Overall, I thought this was a very readable book and provided an interesting perspective about the events surrounding the invention of the A-bomb. Each chapter had a section about the tubealloy and details on the progress of the uranium enrichment (that you would only have known if you were a General at the time). Everyone at Oak Ridge had a piece of the puzzle, but it wasn’t until right before Hiroshima that they were able to put it all together and figure out what pushing all those buttons and calculating all those numbers meant. If you’re into history and you haven’t heard of Oak Ridge, pick up this book. Or if you’ve read any books by Feynman, you may also enjoy this book.
- Secretly Working To Win The War In ‘Atomic City’ (NPR Interview)
- Author’s website (with media extras)
- ‘The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II’ by Denise Kiernan (Washington Post review)
Next Month: Sybil Exposed
Next month, we will be reading Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan. I will put up a post on Sunday, October 27th (and if you’re in the Boston area, please join our local club on Saturday the 26th). See you then!