In A Nutshell
When it comes to the development of the atomic bomb, it’s always the scientists that get all the credit. But the project would have looked very different if not for the organizational genius—and warm, welcoming manner—of one woman: Dorothy McKibbin. McKibbin signed on to be a secretary in a housing project in Santa Fe, and within a few years, she was overseeing everything that went on in and around Los Alamos. From getting new recruits settled in to organizing shipments and requisitioning everything from scientific equipment to furniture, McKibbin did it all. And she did it never knowing what she was actually overseeing.
The photo above shows Dorothy McKibbin (left) and Robert Oppenheimer (center) during a party at Oppenheimer’s home.
The Whole Bushel
Officially, she was offered a position as a secretary at a housing project in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Unofficially, she was the gatekeeper, organizer, and master requisitioner for the Manhattan Project, and those that knew her called the “the oracle.”
Dorothy McKibbin’s journey to Santa Fe was an unlikely one. When she headed there in 1931, it was as a young, single mother and a widow after only four years of marriage. Her husband had died of Hodgkin’s disease and she was left with a year-old baby to care for, so she packed up her things and headed to Santa Fe from St. Paul, Minnesota. She’d been there once before, when she was young, sent to the desert in hopes of curing her tuberculosis.
Originally from Kansas City, she ended up in Sana Fe working for the Spanish and Indian Trading company until it closed up shop in 1943. When she was on the hunt for a new job, she happened to meet up with an old friend who knew of someone who was looking for a secretary to manage the new influx of scientists that were coming to the area to work on one of his new projects.
It was, of course, Robert Oppenheimer. Their mutual acquaintance told her about a job working as a secretary for a housing project, and it was only when she first met Oppenheimer that she decided she was going to take the job.
The job was only the tip of an incredible iceberg that would change history. McKibbin was given her own office at 109 East Palace Ave. in Santa Fe, but no one who was entering the project was sent directly there. First, they reported to Palace Avenue’s Bishop Building, Room 9. From there, they were sent to McKibbin, working in an office rented by a mysterious “Mr. Bradley”—Oppenheimer himself.
By 1945, more than 8,000 people were involved in the project to varying degrees, and McKibbin managed them all. While she oversaw everything from the shipping and receiving of an enormous amount of scientific equipment to the outfitting of apartments for new recruits, she also became one of the most beloved people on the project.
She offered her own home to couples who met at Los Alamos and needed somewhere to get married. She was a fixture at Oppenheimer’s private parties, and those who worked there singularly remember being put completely at ease by her warm and welcoming manner.
And she did it all while not knowing what she was really overseeing. Everything was top secret, and not even McKibbin knew what was going on at the facility. She began to put pieces together, though, coming across bits of information throughout her days working there. At the same time, locals were being told all sorts of false information to throw them off the trail of what was really going on.
When McKibbin started, she was given only two instructions. She was never to ask for a name to be repeated, and she was never to ask any questions about what she was doing. She did, however, ask the man who had put her in contact with Oppenheimer if what they were doing had anything to do with the war. (He admitted it did.)
McKibbin worked at Los Alamos for 20 years; in 1965, she gave her first interview on what it was like working at the top secret facility. She painted a very normal picture of life at Los Alamos, from some scientists that were known for playing the piano, to others who went horseback riding to relax.
Those were guarded by GIs on horses, though, and hand-picked troops drove buses and staff cars that shuttled children back and forth to school and moved scientists between their homes and the laboratories. When talking about her daily duties, she said, “It was all terribly pleasant and never-ending,” an odd pocket of civilian normalcy surrounding the race to build a weapon that would end the war.
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo credit: US Army
Atomic Heritage Foundation: Manhattan Project Spotlight: Dorothy McKibbin
America Comes Alive: Guardian of the Manhattan Project: Dorothy Scarritt McKibbin
Voices of the Manhattan Project: Dorothy McKibbin’s Interview