In 1944, the U.S. pinned its hope on a secret project to win World War II. The government was counting on the B Reactor at Hanford in southeast Washington state to make enough plutonium in time. One of the physicists working against the clock was a 24-year-old woman: Leona (Woods) Marshall Libby.
Marshall Libby arrived in Richland with her scientist husband and their new baby. She had made sure to hide her pregnancy under baggy overalls so lab managers wouldn’t stop her work.
Her new job at Hanford was to help get the B Reactor started up to make plutonium for the atomic bomb that would later be dropped on Nagaski. The B Reactor was also the first full-scale nuclear reactor in the world. Decades later she told author Steve Sanger that to her, Richland was just a temporary post for her family.
“Well, we got out as fast as we could, but we couldn’t. We were babysitters,” Marshall Libby said.
By “babysitters” she meant she, her husband and other scientists were fixing problems and even sat the reactor in shifts all day and night.
The birth of B Reactor
The B Reactor hissed to life on September 26, 1944. Marshall Libby was there. So were the reactor operators, supervisors, engineers and other physicists.
“Remember this was the first reactor in the world,” Marshall Libby said. “And, here were all these big shots … So here comes startup.”
They saw the cooling water heat up.
“And you could see the control rods coming out and out and out,” Marshall Libby said.
Then, after several hours, she said the reactor was dead.
“Just plain dead,” she said. “Everybody stood around and stared at everybody.”
After years of research, for the B Reactor to fail at that moment was a disaster. The scientists were racing the Germans.
After a long night, Marshall Libby got in a government car with top scientist Enrico Fermi and headed the 40 desert miles back to Richland -- defeated.
“It was way after midnight,” she said. “And so we drove back in the moonlight. And we argued about what caused it.”
Eventually the group figured out the problem was a by-product gas called xenon. Within a few months, they overcame the xenon problem by adding more uranium fuel into the reactor core. About eight months after that, the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb with Hanford plutonium on Nagasaki, Japan. Six days later, World War II ended.
Since then, many have debated the ethics of using the bomb. But Marshall Libby believed to the end.
“It was a desperate time,” she said. “I think we did right and we couldn’t have done differently.”
Not just heroes -- superheroes
Marshall Libby was one of a handful of women scientists on the Manhattan Project nationwide. Their stories were buried in classified documents for decades.
Pnina Abir-Am, a science historian at Brandeis University, said the stories of Marshall Libby and others were not properly studied until the women’s liberation movement -- and that they’re still not fully appreciated.
“These women scientists with families were real, were superheroes, not just heroes,” Abir-Am said. “And you know we don’t know much about them.”
Marshall Libby was able to publish a book about her life and wartime work in 1979. She died at age 67, after a long illness.
Marshall Libby isn’t really famous -- but she’s always had one room at the B Reactor that was just hers: The women’s bathroom. It was there just for her. Today, just near the door, hangs a small weathered picture of her girlish face.
Photography by Kai-Huei Yau, audio and story by Anna King, design by Doug Gast. Additional materials courtesy of DOE, Michele Gerber, Steve Sanger and the Voices of the Manhattan Project, and David Bolingbroke.