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Jane Hall: Queen of the Hill

The Laboratory’s first female assistant director brought smarts, style, and a steady hand to Los Alamos.
October 1, 2018
Jane Hall

According to Laboratory historian Alan Carr, “When you meet people who knew Jane Hall, two things happen: first, they’re going to smile, and then they’re going to tell you stories of how much they respected and admired her.”

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“It is well known that she has fulfilled a significantly greater commitment to job and country than is normally expected. We find too few and need many more Jane Halls in our society today.” - Glenn Seaborg

On October 6, 1970, a small but notable crowd gathered at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory to watch Glenn Seaborg, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, award the AEC citation for outstanding service to the nation to Jane Hamilton Hall, the recently retired assistant director of the Laboratory.

As many of you know, the Commission has not acquired a reputation for making hasty decisions on any question, but, I must say, there wasn’t a moment of hesitation in the Commission’s selection of Jane Hall for this citation,” Seaborg told the crowd, citing Jane’s “out-of-the-ordinary and impressive resume” that included a quarter-century of employment at Los Alamos and a commitment to the U.S. atomic energy program that started during the Manhattan Project. “It is well known that she has fulfilled a significantly greater commitment to job and country than is normally expected,” he said. “We find too few and need many more Jane Halls in our society today.” 

Jane was the first woman to receive the citation since the award was first given in 1960. The citation, however, wasn’t the first time she had broken the glass ceiling for women in science.

Catching the science bug

Born on June 23, 1915, Jane Elizabeth Hamilton grew up in Denver, Colorado, where her father was a pharmacist. While attending South High School from 1929 to 1932, “she got a spark that she never talked about,” remembers her daughter, Linda Hall. “Maybe it was in high school, learning science, where she said ‘this is something that I can do.’”

Jane decided to study physics at the University of Denver before transferring to the University of Chicago in 1935. There, she began ticking off degrees: a bachelor’s in 1937, a master’s in 1938, and a doctorate in 1942. Along the way, she saw a handsome young man “walking up or down some staircase,” Linda recalls. “He had on a beautiful vest—a knitted red jumper—and she thought, ‘he’s for me!’”

That young man was David B. Hall, a New Jersey native and the son of a chemist married to a mathematician. After earning his bachelor’s degree at Rutgers University, he’d enrolled at Chicago to pursue his master’s and Ph.D. in physics. 

“They were unique,” Linda says, “a husband and wife team earning their doctorates simultaneously.” Jane’s thesis work was in crystallography; David’s was in cosmic rays. The couple married in December 1939 and completed their doctoral theses while still enrolled at Chicago but working as graduate assistants in the physics department at the University of Denver.

There, the Halls taught a student named Harold Agnew, who would go on to become director of Los Alamos in 1970. According to the March 1979 issue of The Atom, the Halls “gave straight As to Harold” and also purchased his Ford Phaeton four-door convertible so that Agnew would have enough money to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend. “He had just gotten a job with the Manhattan District in Chicago, and we told him he wouldn’t need a car in the city, anyway,” Jane told the magazine. “Of course, he was somewhat chagrined when we went to Chicago a year later—driving a red Ford Phaeton around the city.” 

Jane’s thesis, published in 1942, was titled “The Temperature Diffuse Scattering of X-Rays by Potassium Chloride and Potassium Bromide Crystals.” That year, Jane was one of 461 women to earn a doctorate in the United States—and the only woman to earn one in physics at the University of Chicago. David was one of 3,036 men in America to earn a doctorate.

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Degrees in hand, the Halls returned to Chicago from Denver in January 1943 to research graphite purity in the school’s Metallurgical Laboratory. But by then the Second World War was raging, and the Halls felt compelled to contribute to the war effort. Hardly a year after establishing themselves in the Windy City, the couple moved 2,000 miles northwest to Washington state to become part of the top-secret Manhattan Project.

“We were asked to go out to Hanford to babysit the construction [of the nuclear reactors being built],” remembered David in a 1986 interview with the Atomic Heritage Foundation.  

Officially employed by E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, Jane’s was a senior supervisor of research in health physics because anti-nepotism rules prohibited her from working with her husband on reactors. In this position, she assessed the safety of the production reactors and investigated and reported on the hazards of plutonium inhalation. In September 1944, for example, she wrote a report discussing at what size and distance from a person might a cloud of radioactive gas from a reactor be dangerous?

The Halls lived in a two-story house on Goethals Drive in Richland—one of many homes constructed hastily on government-sequestered farmland in anticipation of the 51,000-plus Manhattan Project workers at Hanford. “Our front lawn…had asparagus coming up,” David said. Another “remarkable thing was that the contractor was not able to get bathtubs for the place, and so the bathtubs were poured concrete, which were kind of gritty on your bottom.”  

By the time the Halls helped get the reactors up and running in the spring of 1945, it was apparent that “there was no real science [at Hanford],” according to David. And so the couple went back to Chicago, where Jane served as assistant to the acting director of the Metallurgical Project at the University of Chicago. On July 16 of that year, scientists from Project Y (the Los Alamos branch of the Manhattan Project) detonated Trinity—the world’s first atomic bomb—using plutonium produced at Hanford.

“Los Alamos was considered to be the fountainhead of the pure science and the good ideas [about nuclear physics],” David said.  

And so perhaps it’s no surprise that Los Alamos is where the Halls ended up in November 1945. Jane was 30 years old. 

Becoming essential at Los Alamos 

The Halls, now with newborn son, Malcolm, arrived in Los Alamos at a pivotal time for the Laboratory: the bombs had been dropped, the war had finally ended, and many scientists were leaving the small New Mexico town. But the couple felt strongly that the United States’ national security policy depended on the weapons being developed at Los Alamos.

“We went [to Los Alamos] because we believed firmly that the work on nuclear weapons had to continue,” Jane told the Associated Press in 1970. “Building nuclear weapons had to be done, there was no doubt about it.”

Jane immediately went to work in the Laboratory’s weapons research division, which was primarily concerned with the mechanics and dynamics of nuclear energy release. She earned $373 a month—a wage that her division leader didn’t think was fair. “Mrs. Hall was offered a salary which was too low on the basis of her training and experience,” wrote Alvin Graves in Jane’s 1946 performance review. “Although Mrs. Hall is one of the newer members of the group, her understanding of the work and her training makes her one of the most valuable members of the group…This recommendation [of $430 a month] is intended to bring her salary in line with those of comparable physicists on the project.”

My Darling Clementine

Meanwhile, the world’s first fast reactor was proposed and approved (see sidebar). Construction began in August 1946 in Los Alamos Canyon, a deep ravine in the Pajarito Plateau just south of the Laboratory. Under the direction of physicist Phillip Morrison, the new reactor was named Clementine after the song “My Darling Clementine,” which begins “in a cavern, in a canyon…” and is about the legendary 49ers. Morrison likened the reactor personnel to modern-day 49ers because 49 was the codename for plutonium (Clementine was the first reactor fueled with plutonium—and the first to employ a liquid metal coolant, mercury).  

When Morrison accepted an offer to join the physics faculty at Cornell University, Jane (now part of the experimental physics division) and David Hall were asked to take his place as co-group leaders on the project. The duo’s duties included planning the type and schedule of construction, testing at various stages of completion, planning experiments, taking responsibility for worker safety, writing reports, and interpreting data.

“This is a position of extraordinarily grave responsibility since on [Jane’s] judgment and skill and care…will devolve not only the success or failure of [an] extremely important and expensive enterprise, but also the safety and lives of quite a large number of people,” wrote physics division leader J.M.B. Kellogg in November 1946. “She has been extremely diligent and enterprising in her work and has made marked contributions to the program.”

After core criticality (the point at which a nuclear reaction is self-sustaining) was achieved in 1946, completion of the reactor took 27 more months, and Kellogg’s praise of Jane continued in subsequent performance reviews. In 1947, he wrote, “Since no such [reactor] has been built before, and since it is known that this reactor is more dangerous than other [reactors], the utmost responsibility is required of the Hall husband and wife. Dr. Jane Hall is not of secondary importance in the exercise of this responsibility.” And in 1948, he said, “It is well known that this responsibility is no light one. Jane Hall’s contributions to the development have been considerable, and her work has been excellent.”

That year, Jane’s contributions included researching and writing a report titled Effect of Temperature and Reactivity Changes in Operation of the Los Alamos Plutonium Reactor. “We have, in this discussion, tried to examine all dangerous conditions which might arise during operation [of the reactor] and where definite information was not available have over-estimated the expected trouble,” she wrote. “It is believed that all dangerous conditions have been considered and the probability of occurrence minimized through the safety circuits, warning indicators, and he plans of operation.”

Clemy (as Jane referred to the reactor in a 1946 letter to a colleague) operated through 1952, and most of its original objectives were realized: important nuclear weapon data were acquired and invaluable experience was gained in the design and control of fast reactors. Clementine was “another step toward finding the best type of chain reactor for the production of useful power,” according to a September 8, 1947 article in Newsweek magazine.

Pioneering poise

Jane continued to flourish in the Laboratory’s physics and weapons divisions, conducting research on reactors, X-ray crystallography, neutron physics, and cosmic radiation. “Education, career, and the latter-day duties of a wife and mother have cast no hue of sobriety on the personality of this young woman scientist,” reported the Los Alamos Times. “She retains a youthful vivacity that shows itself in a frequent carefree smile and the impression she gives of abundant energy.”

By 1950, shortly after the birth of her daughter, Linda, Jane was promoted to assistant technical associate director of the Laboratory, a position that allowed her to continue her research on nuclear weapons technology. Although she prohibited from attending nuclear tests on Eniwetok Atoll because she was a woman, she was allowed at the Nevada Test Site and often camped in the desert with her husband while setting up an experiment.

“One day, during [Operation Ranger] in the desert at NTS, I am told another scientist, male of course, saw a woman walking on the desert all alone,” Seaborg once remembered. “Naturally, he assumed this was a woman in distress and rushed up to ask if he could be of assistance. Of course, it was Jane; and she quickly assumed her womanly pioneering poise and promptly offered her assistance to him.”

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In September 1958, Jane Hall attended the second United Nations International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva, Switzerland.

Making the most of management 

That poise and confidence were among the reasons Laboratory Director Norris Bradbury promoted Jane to assistant director of the Laboratory in 1955.

“Technically, Jane was the Lab’s only female assistant director,” says Laboratory historian Alan Carr, noting that Jane was likely the only person—male or female—to ever hold that exact position. “The assistant director back in those days was the rough equivalent of deputy director today.”

Despite the 1950s being a time of frequent discrimination against women, when Bradbury named Hall assistant director, “there was no reaction” remembers physicist John Hopkins, then a summer student who would later become the associate director for the nuclear weapons program. “She was no-nonsense but easy to talk to; she was just one of the boys.”

A letter to the editor in the February 1994 issue of Physics Today agrees. “Hall commanded respect and was seen as discharging her responsibilities with strength and careful judgment,” wrote reader James McNally. “Looking back, I wonder if she would have been as professionally respected had she been seen as a ‘first woman’ rather than being recognized for her abilities.”

Even as a child, Malcolm Hall recognized that his mother was “an outstanding manager” who was “a little rueful about leaving scientific work for administration, but she acknowledged this was where she could make her most significant contributions.”

Well liked for her “cultured and slightly demure manner” (as described in a 1947 Los Alamos Times article), as assistant director, Jane was often tasked with hosting visiting scientists. “She was well known for throwing fabulous parties when luminaries such as [physicist and Nobel laureate] I.I. Rabi were in town,” Malcolm says. “She was also a good sport for squiring VIPs around; once she escorted philanthropist and socialite Catherine Hearst, then a regent of the University of California [which operated the Lab], to watch an H-bomb test in the Pacific.”  

On one occasion First Lady Ladybird Johnson telephoned to personally invite Jane to an event at the White House. “Malcolm left a note on the kitchen blackboard that ‘Ladybird called,’” Linda remembers. “And it was consternation because Mom felt she had to have a hat to wear to the luncheon; she never wore hats, but she knew the importance of her appearance.” 

Thankfully, Jane still had ties to her hometown of Denver. “It was the May Company and Denver Dry Goods that drew her to Denver—and a stay at the Brown Palace,” says Linda, noting that her mother would travel to Denver twice a year to update her wardrobe with the most current fashions. “She always did everything first class,” Linda continues. “It must have had something to do with how she wanted to be in the world that included the best.”

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Jane was often the only woman in a room full of men. Here, she sits with Nobel Prize-winning chemist and AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg (far left) during his visit to Los Alamos in April 1961. Photo: Los Alamos Historical Society.

Influencing the nuclear weapons debate

But Jane’s tenure as assistant director certainly wasn’t all entertaining and high fashion. “She really was a remarkable scientist,” Carr says. “And to have such a senior management position so early in her career and for so long was almost unheard of in those days for a woman.”

As a manager, Jane's responsibilities included briefing policymakers in Washington, such as New Mexico Senator Clinton P. Anderson and members of the AEC. When nuclear engineer Manson Benedict, chairman of the AEC’s General Advisory Committee (GAC), heard that the Laboratory was “losing its enthusiasm for weapons research and would be happier if its primary role were that of a multipurpose research laboratory,” Jane was among the “Los Alamos people” he talked to about the Lab’s “role in the Commission’s program,” according to a 1963 letter he wrote to Seaborg.

“If a scientist has technical knowledge that is going to influence the debate [about nuclear weapons], then he must participate,” Jane once told a reporter. Perhaps that’s why, in 1965, Seaborg recommended to President Lyndon Johnson that Jane be appointed an AEC commissioner.

“She has been with the atomic energy program essentially since the date of its inception,” Seaborg wrote to Johnson. “I have known her personally for the last twenty-two years and have been in a position to follow her work quite closely during that entire period. Her performance in the atomic energy field has been outstanding.”

Seaborg, a chemist and Nobel Prize winner himself, went on to tout Jane’s experience in the development of nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. He also commented on her character: “Jane Hall, in my opinion, has, in addition to her scientific ability, an unusually large proportion of the other qualities that are required in a good Commissioner…she gets along well with people and would, I believe, perform well in the complex labyrinth of human relations in Washington.”

In 1966, Johnson took Seaborg’s advice and appointed Jane to a six-year term on the GAC of the AEC. The GAC was established by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 to advise the AEC on scientific and technical matters relating to atomic energy. 

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Steve Lawroski, director of the chemical engineering division at Argonne National Laboratory, and Harvard professor Norman Ramsey were among the men who served alongside Jane Hall on the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission.

“The GAC was the real group of experts,” Carr explains. “If you were [one of the nine people] on the GAC, you were advising the people who were advising the president on very serious matters. The head of the AEC was the very rough equivalent of today’s Secretary of Energy—it was a very big deal.”

Jane, the first woman appointed to the GAC, had previously served as technical secretary of that committee from 1956 to 1959. As a commissioner, she served on the GAC’s committee on Nuclear Materials Safeguards, which was established “to assist the Atomic Energy Commission in carrying out more effectively its responsibilities for safeguarding special nuclear materials under the Atomic Energy Act,” according to a press release. “Safeguards are measures designed to prevent the unauthorized diversion of enriched uranium and plutonium employed in peaceful nuclear programs to military applications.”

She later declined an invitation by President Richard Nixon to chair the AEC. “I think it would have meant moving to Washington,” Linda speculates.

Regardless, upon her retirement from Los Alamos in 1970, Jane received the AEC citation award for her outstanding service to the nation’s atomic energy program.

“The men and women who receive this award all have certain key characteristics in common: they are men and women who, in addition to their outstanding skill and experience, generate confidence and provide inspiring leadership,” Seaborg said of the 32 people to receive the award.

An Associated Press article took a different angle: “A woman physicist who helped pioneer the development of America’s nuclear weapons, and whose hobbies include growing lilacs, iris, and tulips, was named to receive one of the nation’s highest awards in atomic energy.”

In 1971, Ladies Home Journal named Jane one of the 75 “most important” women in the country for her work on the AEC. The article, sandwiched between the “keep-your-husband” diet and advice on how to wear pants, celebrated Jane alongside other notable women, including Joan Baez, Katherine Graham, Coretta Scott King, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and others who “had made the greatest impact on our civilization within the last five years and who would continue to affect us significantly for the next five years.”

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Jane Hall receives the AEC citation.

The legacy continues

Jane’s legacy has far surpassed that five-year benchmark. “She has inspired many a young woman to take special note of science and its unique opportunities,” Seaborg once remarked. “If there are some women who still can’t find a good example of woman’s liberation in the field of science, don’t put the blame on Jane.”

Today, 33 percent of the Laboratory workforce is women, and many of those women gathered on October 4, 2016, for the dedication of the Jane Hall Conference Center at Technical Area-55, which is the center of plutonium research at Los Alamos. “It was beautiful,” Linda says of the dedication ceremony, which occurred nearly 35 years after Jane’s death in 1981. “She never talked much about work—and as a kid, I never thought to ask—so I was pleased and proud to see her accomplishments recognized so publicly at the Laboratory that meant so much to her.”