You know how roughly 80% of all Internet Blog Posts™ these days are frustration-soaked rage-fueled diatribes complete with blatantly-inappropriate email snippets and brutal Twitter screenshots horrifically illustrating the murderous uphill battle most women have to face when attempting to be taken seriously for their work in the fields of science and technology? Well give this shit a second to rattle around in your dome: Leona Woods was a hardcore nuclear physicist who found work in a military tech field in the 1930s, at a time when the women’s rights movement was something that made Mad Men look like the fucking Lilith Fair, and as the most prominent woman working on the Manhattan Project she helped create the world’s first nuclear chain reaction, developed techniques that would completely change the understanding of particle physics, built at least three nuclear reactors (one of which was on a tennis court underneath an abandoned football stadium), and helped forge the Plutonium that was used in the world’s first atomic bomb detonation.
She was also tough as shit, never took no for an answer, made no apologies for anything she did in her life, and went to her grave ardently defending her role in personally crafting the Fat Man fission bomb that leveled Nagasaki and brought World War II to a grinding halt with one earth-cratering explosion.
The Manhattan Project team that built the world’s first nuclear reactor.
Born in 1919 in a suburb of Chicago, Leona Woods was a child prodigy who graduated high school at 14 and received her B.A. in Physics from the University of Chicago at 18. You’d think that possessing a Doogie Howser-level IQ and earning a college degree from a prestigious university before you’re legally old enough to chug beer would make it fairly easy for a person to gain entrance into a graduate program, but Woods found herself hindered by her lack of a dong and when she asked her Nobel Laureate / Iron Cross recipient professor to be her academic advisor he calmly told her that if a woman wanted to pursue science professionally she should be prepared to starve to death.
Undeterred, Woods went to a guy named Robert Mullikan, who wasn’t a Nobel Laureate yet but would become one in a few years when he’d discover some way to compute the size and shape of a various molecules. Mullikan was impressed by Woods’ academic experience and aptitude in a bunch of experimental and theoretical fields that sound really impressive to a person like me who doesn’t know shit about advanced particle physics, and signed her on for a top-secret, ultra-black-ops military project he and many of his fellow scientists had been assigned to work on:
The Manhattan Project. The quest to harness the power of the atom, achieve a man-made nuclear fission reaction, and get the fucking Nuke before Hitler.
“If the Germans had got it before we did, I don't know what would have happened to the world.
Something different. Germany led in the field of physics, in every respect, at the time war set in,
when Hitler lowered the boom. It was a very frightening time.”
In November of 1942, a joint team of British and Norwegian commandos launched a daring night raid on a remove German research installation high in the snow-covered mountains of Norway, where the Nazis were harvesting large amounts of heavy water for use in the production of nuclear weapons-grade plutonium. The mission was a complete failure. Two of the gliders crashed, killing most of the crew, and those who survived were tortured for information and then executed by the Gestapo. The fallout from the mission was bad – the Germans, who already had a head start on their mission and were employing some of the greatest physicists on Earth – knew the Allies were on to them. They were going to accelerate their project, and God help the world if Hitler got The Bomb before we did.
Dr. Enrico Fermi knew this. An Italian physicist who’d already received the Nobel Prize for fucking discovering Plutonium a few years earlier, Fermi had worked with the Germans for a while before ultimately deciding to flee Mussolini’s reign. He knew what they could do. And he had to beat them to the punch.
Fermi’s plan was bold – he was going to build the world’s first nuclear reactor. Operating on a squash court in the tunnels beneath the stands of the University of Chicago’s football stadium, he drew up plans to build a 20-foot-tall, $2.7 million nuclear reactor out of graphite and uranium. He brought in 50 of the best physicists he could find, including Leona Woods, swore them to absolute secrecy, and set them to work.
Pile-1, the world’s first nuclear reactor.
Leona Woods wasn’t just the only woman on the project; at age 23 she was also the youngest member of the team. Hell, she hadn’t even completed her Ph.D. yet, but she was out there working long hours in the freezing-cold dungeon below an abandoned football stadium building boron triflouride counters to monitor radiation emissions and forging together the granite bricks they used to buffer the uranium in Pile-1. The reactor, which didn’t bother with stupid bullshit like radiation shielding, emergency shutdown procedures, or a cooling system to protect the crew from the six tons of pure uranium that were packed into the fucking proto-reactor like .45s in a Tommy gun’s barrel drum magazine, was constructed from the ground up by a hard-working team that was ultra-dedicated to their mission of, you know, saving the fucking world from Adolph Hitler. One story tells about how Leona Woods was out in a hallway under the stadium with a goddamn blowtorch welding together a canister packed with beryllium and radium salt when she was approached by some d-bag numbnuts who was all like, “yo toots you’re not gonna be able to have kids if you keep exposing your junk to a football-sized package of radioactive isotopes.” In response, Woods flipped up the visor of her welding mask, looked the dude in the eyes, and told him it was more important to her to get this shit crafted correctly.
Despite working brutal dawn-to-dusk shifts doing everything from straight-up slide-rule physics to hardcore manual labor working with ultra-dangerous fissionable materials, Leona Woods also found plenty of time to head over to her family farm and help her mom take care of that year’s potato crop. Leona’s brother usually helped out with that sort of thing, but with him serving as a Marine Corps flamethrower operator on some unnamed island in the South Pacific he was a little busy.
“She was a tall young girl built like an athlete, who could do a man's job and do it well.
She was the only woman physicist in Enrico's group.
At that time, her mother, who was also endowed with inexhaustible energy,
was running a small farm near Chicago almost by herself. To relieve Mrs. Woods of some work,
Leona divided her time between atoms and potatoes.”
On December 2, 1942, one month after the failed British raid and almost exactly a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the world’s first nuclear reactor was ready to blow shit up at an atomic level. Leona Woods was seated next to Dr. Fermi so she could call out the readings from her equipment, well aware that if things didn’t go right the only emergency contingency plan was for a so-called “Suicide Team” to run in there with buckets full of a cadmium-water solution to literally try and douse a nuclear chain reaction fucking volunteer firefighter bucket brigade style.
She witnessed the first time in human history that man was able to control the power of the atom. In the 28-minute experiment, later referred to by the commanding officer of the Manhattan Project as “the single most important scientific even in the development of atomic power,” the reactor generated 200 million watts of nuclear fission energy in a controlled environment. It was proof of concept. It formed the foundation for the creation of nuclear reactors that provide power to thousands of cities and towns throughout the world.
And now it was time to blow shit up.
Leona Woods got her Ph.D. a year later, married a guy she’d worked with on the team, and was redeployed to Hanford, Washington to work on the creation of fissionable materials to use in a nuclear bomb. Refusing to take time off work even while pregnant (she would ride a shitty Army bus to work in the morning, barf in the bushes on her way into the office, and spend the rest of the day doing SCIENCE THINGS), Woods oversaw the construction of three much larger nuclear reactors that were built off the specs from Fermi’s Pile-1 back in Chicago. The most famous, Reactor B, stood five stories high, utilized over 200 tons of uranium, and was the first large-scale reactor to produce weapons-grade plutonium-239.
Because it was a military project, naturally when they first turned it on it didn’t work. Leona Woods was on the team that fixed it. She realized that there was a contamination of xenon that was fucking everything up, so she and her team found a workaround.
The B Reactor went online in September 1944, operating at 250 million watts – roughly half the power of a modern-day nuclear power plant. Its superheated radioactive energy forged large amounts of fissionable material, and it was Woods’ project that sent the Plutonium to New Mexico to be used in the first nuclear detonation at Los Alamos.
Once again finding herself the only woman on the team, Woods made note in her autobiography that the Du Pont company was nice enough to build her a separate bathroom.
The Nazis were a little too busy getting their asses kicked to finish their weapons program, but the Manhattan Project would play a critical role in ending World War II on the other front -- the war with Japan. Leona Woods and her team at Reactor B would ultimately produce the Plutonium used to craft Fat Man, the nuclear bomb that obliterated Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. When asked whether, hey, maybe it was overkill to drop two bombs on Japan, Woods responded like a badass – double-middle fingers, fuck you guys, I’d rather nuke a country I’m at war with than face the massive casualty numbers estimated for American troops in an invasion of the Home Islands.
In her mind, that nuke had saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and Marines. She may have been right. We’ll never know because history doesn’t really work like that.
After the war Woods was one of the most prominent female scientists in the United States. She had a long, successful career studying “climatology, diatomic molecular spectroscopy, fundamental particle physics, the general structure of the universe, quantum chemistry, and quasars,” which sounds impressive because aside from “the general structure of the universe” (which sounds like a fucking hell of a scientific endeavor) I don’t know what any of that other stuff actually even means.
Dr. Leona Woods Marshall Libby wrote three books, over two hundred academic papers, built the Pile-3 Nuclear Reactor in Chicago using uranium and heavy water. She helped create and taught at the UCLA Department of Environmental Research with her second husband, Willard Libby, who you might know as the guy who won the Nobel Prize for inventing Carbon-14 dating. She spent the later years of her life advocating for nuclear power, arguing that we should use radiation as an alternative to pesticides for cleaning food and purging it of harmful microbes, and determined a way of using the rings in a tree’s stump to determine what the climate was like in ancient times.
Libby, Leona Woods Marshall. The Uranium People. New York: Crane, Russak, 1979.
Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey and Joy Dorothy Harvey. The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. Taylor & Francis, 2000.
Sanger, S.L. Working on the Bomb. Continuing Education Press, 1995.
Wayne, Tiffany K. American Women of Science Since 1900. Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2011.