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Norris Bradbury credited with saving the Lab and town from post-war decline

Lab’s longest-serving director took the helm 75 years ago
October 1, 2020
Norris Bradbury

Norris Bradbury in his final years as Los Alamos Laboratory director. Known as likable and unpretentious, Bradbury is also credited with shaping the Lab and the town of Los Alamos after World War II ended.


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He diversified the Laboratory from its Manhattan Project mission after World War II and was known as both the savior of Los Alamos and the architect of our Lab today.

Initially agreeing to become the Los Alamos Lab’s second director for a six-month interim period, Norris Bradbury assumed the helm 75 years ago on Oct. 17, 1945.

He stayed for 25 years, becoming the longest serving of the Lab’s 12 directors. Other notable accomplishments during his tenure include:

  • Helping assemble the Trinity test’s non-nuclear components as well as procedures for transporting and assembling the Gadget
  • Witnessing the nation’s stockpile increase from two to more than 31,000 weapons between 1945 and 1967
  • Overseeing much of the Lab’s post-WWII infrastructure

Bradbury’s early years

Born in Santa Barbara, California, on May 30, 1909 to Edwin and Elvira Bradbury, Bradbury was one of four children. He graduated from high school at 16 and studied chemistry and physics at Pomona College. He continued his education at the University of California-Berkeley, where he earned his Ph.D. in physics in 1932 when he was just 23 years old. Three years later, Bradbury joined the physics faculty at Stanford University.

Bradbury married Lois Platt in 1933, later explaining, “Lois was the sister of my roommate in college. She was engaged to someone else. The engagement fell apart and I moved in.”

The couple had three sons together and were married for 64 years.

Military service, secret science

Commissioned to the Navy Reserve in 1941, Bradbury was stationed at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia, until 1944. It was then that Bradbury joined the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, where he was appointed to lead the implosion field test program at Project Y.

Norris Bradbury

Norris Bradbury in the 1940s while at Los Alamos. Commissioned to the Navy Reserve in 1941, Bradbury joined the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, where he was appointed to lead the implosion field test program at Project Y.

In July 1945, at the Trinity test site, which today is White Sands Missile Range, Bradbury was placed in charge of the assembly of all nonnuclear components of the Gadget — the world’s first nuclear weapon.

The Gadget’s successful detonation was July 16, 1945, with the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki just weeks later on Aug. 6 and 9, respectively. The Japanese surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945, and World War II officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945.

A successor

Shortly thereafter, J. Robert Oppenheimer resigned as the Lab’s director, though both Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves, Manhattan Project Director, felt that the national security work accomplished during the Manhattan Project (top-secret research to develop the world's first atomic bombs) should continue.

While Oppenheimer believed that an individual with a scientific background would best meet the criteria to succeed him as the next Laboratory director, Groves wanted a person who had a military background to run the institution. Discussing this, the two thought the best candidate for the job was none other than Bradbury.

At the time he accepted the position, Bradbury thought he could have been Los Alamos’s last director — the wartime mission of the Laboratory was complete and many of the scientists and other staff had left the mesa.

Bradbury said the first few months as director were uncertain and undeniably tough.

Norris Bradbury

Norris Bradbury standing next to the Gadget at Trinity test site in July 1945. Prior to becoming the Lab’s second director, Bradbury, who was a physicist, was in charge of the assembly of all nonnuclear components of the Gadget — the world’s first nuclear weapon.

Post-WWII Lab, community

Bradbury began to reshape the Laboratory by shifting the primary mission to the production and development of nuclear weapons until further instructed by the federal government. He transformed the organization from a nuclear weapons laboratory to a nuclear sciences laboratory. While nuclear weapons remained the main priority, the Laboratory would venture into other areas of nuclear science, such as nuclear propelled rockets for space exploration and the research of nuclear science in the medical field.

Bradbury also reshaped the community of Los Alamos. Many of the Manhattan Project Laboratory facilities were demolished and the Laboratory was relocated to its present-day location. New homes, apartment complexes, and local businesses would be built for the Lab staff and their families for their lives on the mesa.

Norris Bradbury

Norris Bradbury during President John F. Kennedy’s visit to the Laboratory on Dec. 7, 1962. It was Bradbury’s scientific and military backgrounds that made him uniquely and perfectly qualified to run the Lab, according to his predecessor J. Robert Oppenheimer and Gen. Leslie Groves.

Award-winning, unpretentious scientist

In 1970, Bradbury was bestowed the Enrico Fermi Award, which is the government’s oldest science and technology award and honors a lifetime of achievement. This same year, Bradbury retired from the Lab and Harold Agnew succeeded him as the third director.

The Lab’s museum and science hall were renamed in Bradbury’s honor.

Bradbury and his wife continued to live in Los Alamos. Bradbury died at the age of 88 in August 1997, and Lois died in January 1998.

Known as likable and unpretentious, here’s what others said about Bradbury:

  • “He lived as though he were killing snakes every minute of the day.”
  • “Whatever he was doing, it was always zip, zip, zip.”
  • “His office door was open all day, except when he was in conference. He answered his phone himself unless he was already on the line.
  • “He was a nice man; both fair and honest.”
Norris Bradbury
Norris Bradbury with fellow Manhattan Project veteran Harold Agnew. Bradbury was succeeded by Agnew as the Lab’s Director.

Norris Bradbury
WATCH: The First 25 Years,” a short documentary hosted by the Lab’s former director, Norris Bradbury.