January 27 marks the anniversary of the first air dropped atomic bomb detonation at the nuclear testing site in Nevada as part of the Manhattan Project. Chemist Lilli Hornig was one of the women who contributed to the project.
Born in 1921 in the Czech Republic her family moved to Berlin early in her life, but as the Nazi party gained more power the family fled to America in 1933 and in 1942 Hornig earned her BA from Bryn Mawr and was married the next year. Her husband, Donald Hornig, was recruited to the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, Nevada. Upon arrival she started searching for her own work and was given a job as a staff scientist. She and another woman worked in a chemical research lab studying various plutonium salts until it was discovered that the salts they were working with were a very radioactive isotope. Both women were fired from their positions, due to what was termed “worry about their reproductive health” Hornig was unhappy with this decision and was eventually given a position working with high-explosive lenses.
On the day of the Trinity bomb testing she and two friends drove up Sandia Mountain to get a good view of the detonation, which they witnessed in the dawn sky. After the first test Hornig signed a petition that was being circulated among scientists to ask for a demonstration on an uninhabited island rather than the bomb being used on Japan. It wasn’t long after that two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, effectively ending World War II.
After the war Lilli Hornig earned her PhD from Harvard and has held various positions at major colleges and universities. Hornig considers herself a feminist and has worked as founding director of HERS (Higher Education Resource Services) under the auspices of the Committee for the Concerns of Women in New England Colleges and has served on equal opportunity committees for the National Science Foundation, the National Cancer Institute, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She has authored three books on women in the sciences.
Written by Angela Goad