In the Footsteps: Jean Dayton (Part 15)

The Guard at the gate on The Hill, checking IDs
The Guard at the gate on The Hill, checking IDs

Last Wednesday, Lofty Ambitions introduced Jean Dayton and our serendipitous meeting with that woman of the Manhattan Project and nuclear history. You can start with that post by clicking HERE.

Jean Klein Dayton would have been 88 years old this past Sunday. In continuing with our theme of chance, of serendipity, we hadn’t thought about Jean in quite a while, but recently, when tidying up the Manhattan Project area of Doug’s writing space, something in the stack of books, notes, photos, and maps brought Jean into a moment’s focus. Later, fingertips on laptop keyboard, Doug did a quick search for Jean (“jean klein dayton manhattan project”). Almost at the top of the search results was Jean’s obituary in the Corvallis Gazette-Times newspaper. She had died more than three years earlier in March 2009.

Also in that first page of results were links to information about Jean in Manhattan Project related websites and books. In particular, Doug was drawn to the passages about Jean in the book, Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project. It was a more-than-appropriate reminder of how we came to interview Jean in the summer of 2004. That summer was a furious maelstrom of activity. Doug was focused on writing up the results of his PhD research, Anna copyedited, and together we planned the moves necessary to reunite our household after five years of maintaining one residence in Oregon and another in the Midwest.

Doug hadn’t so much forgotten about his encounter with Jean Dayton and her association with the Manhattan Project as he had boxed them up and put them away like holiday decorations in the attic of his mind. Doug’s novel project, set in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, could easily consume weeks of time. Time that took him away from his dissertation. Time that he couldn’t afford if he were to finish his degree. Eventually, after some lengthy self-bargaining, working on the novel became a reward. It was a present Doug would give to himself for finishing his dissertation. But toward the end of that summer, running out of time if he were to finish before the move back to Illinois, Doug found himself fingering the spines of books about the Manhattan Project in Oregon State’s Valley Library. What had started out as a simple errand to return a stack of books about software engineering and qualitative research methods—two topics not often seen together at the time—had become a mini-break away from the drudgery of academic writing.

ID cards from the Manhattan Project
ID cards from the Manhattan Project

When Doug came across Their Day in the Sun, he instantly remembered the woman that he’d run into after the Cold War lecture more than a year earlier. He quickly skimmed the book’s index for her entry. Upon finding and reading Jean’s pages in the book, Doug was once again fascinated by this person and wondered if there would be time to interview her before leaving Corvallis for good. We quickly discussed the situation and decided that we would just have to make time for the interview. The phone call to set up the interview was very much like the last time that Doug and Jean spoke: quiet, full of pauses, and somewhat awkward. We agreed to a meeting in the cafeteria at a hospital in Corvallis. Jean or her husband was undergoing treatment at the time.

The interview began with lots of background about Jean’s life. She’d gone to Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project as the wife of a physicist, Henry Hurwitz. After the war, Hurwitz would be a leading thinker in the area of the nuclear power plants and made significant contributions to the design and development of nuclear submarines. Jean and Henry would ultimately divorce, but during the war, like many of the smart, capable scientists’ wives at the Manhattan Project, she pitched in.

Doug reminded her of their meeting after the Galison talk where she’d indicated that she worked for Edward Teller. She nodded, but said nothing. Even after further prompting, Jean was unwilling to provide specifics about the nature of her own work. In fact, before agreeing to the interview she required that we provide her with any notes that we took so that she could forward them to the security office at Los Alamos.  We kept our word, and we can only assume that she did too. Jean exuded a calm competence that suggested when she said she would do something, she did. About her work during the Manhattan Project, Their Day in the Sun has this to say:

Trinity Test, 1945

“Dayton started in the Electronics Division, making Geiger counters and other equipment and installing an interoffice phone system. She transferred to weapons testing in order to get outdoors, and she later helped to design the detonation system for the hydrogen bomb. John von Neumann selected her for the job because he felt that a mathematician would take to long to figure out the system. A person working intuitively, he hoped, would be more efficient.”

Although the book’s description doesn’t precisely coincide with Jean’s recollection—she indicated that she worked for Teller (von Neumann’s countrymen and friend)—it does pinpoint her thinking as to the reason that she was chosen. Also, given Teller’s role in the creation of the hydrogen bomb, it’s likely that she was collaborating with both men.

During the interview, Jean was much more open about day-to-day life on The Hill (one of the many monikers that Los Alamos went by during the Manhattan Project). Jean was reluctant to mention the names of many of the personages that she encountered during her time on The Hill. After mentioning a dinner party that she held where three of the attendees would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize, we developed a habit of guessing whom she was talking about. If we guessed correctly, she’d confirm our guess with a quick nod. One of the attendees at her dinner party was a young Richard Feynman. After we made that connection, Jean fondly recalled broadcasting an advice-for-the-lovelorn radio show with Feynman. She also related that Feynman had developed a bit of a crush on her. Still married at the time, Jean introduced Feynman to her sister, and the two dated for a time.

It’s been more than eight years since we interviewed Jean. Jean arrived at Los Alamos in 1943. She was nineteen years old, younger than many of our students. Jean Dayton was our first interview as a team. We feel like we did a pretty good job, but now that we’ve done more research and visited Los Alamos ourselves, there are many things that we wish we could ask.

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