Born October 5, 1899
Green Lake, Wisconsin
Died April 17, 1961
Oak Ridge, Tennessee
"Elda Emma Anderson not only worked on the atomic bomb, but was also a pioneer in the field of Health Physics, the study of the effects of radiation on human health."
—Cited from the Penn State University College of Engineering Web site
Elda Anderson was a member of the U.S. team of scientists who developed the atomic bomb during World War II (1939–45). She was a physicist with the Manhattan Project and was present at the Trinity Event, which was the first atomic explosion that took place in the New Mexico desert in 1945.
Following the war Anderson became an internationally recognized authority on radiation protection and health physics. In 1955 she was a founding member of the Health Physics Society that sought independent status for the new science. In 1960 she helped formally establish the American Board of Health Physics, a professional certifying agency. Anderson was the first person to serve as chief of education and training in the Health Physics Division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. She published a Manual of Radiological Protection for Civil Defense, and was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
A scientist's journey
Elda Emma Anderson was born on October 5, 1899, in the small Wisconsin town of Green Lake, the second of three children of Edwin A. and Lena Heller Anderson. Elda enjoyed math and science as a child and aspired to be a kindergarten teacher but ultimately set her ambitions on a career in science. Her early display of intellectual ability showed promise to her family, and they fully supported her academic plans. It was very uncommon for women to attend college in those days.
Emily Dunning Barringer
Like Dr. Elda Anderson, Dr. Emily Dunning Barringer (1876–1961) was a woman of science who would prove to have a major impact on World War II (1939–45). Barringer attended Cornell University and Women's Medical School in New York City, graduating in 1901. She ultimately received an appointment to the staff of New York's Gouverneur Hospital to complete her internship and residency (on-the-job training required to complete one's medical education). The public announcement made headline news as she was the first woman in America to be given such an opportunity.
Barringer's initial application to the hospital had been refused because she was a woman. Acceptable employment for women outside of the home at the end of the nineteenth century included teaching, dressmaking, and even nursing, but in the world of medicine, female physicians were struggling to establish their place. The general municipal hospitals of New York City and the large private hospitals held to the tradition of not recommending qualified women physicians for the staff of general medical and surgical services. This denied them residency, or internship, which was required in order for the woman physician to have equal opportunity with the male physicians in all hospital training before entering private practice.
Once Barringer was accepted as a regular intern in the hospital from 1902 to 1904, part of her training included riding the horse-drawn ambulance on emergency calls in the city. She was the first and only woman ambulance surgeon in the world at the time. In 1905 Barringer became the first woman to serve as house surgeon in a New York City hospital. She campaigned for women's access to medical education and, by her example, she secured the opening of general city hospitals in New York City to women.
During World War I (1914–18) the American Women's Hospitals (AWH) War Service Committee was staging a financial drive in order to allow women's participation in the war effort. Barringer was vice chairman of the AWH at the time and one day she rode her ambulance up and down Wall Street (the financial center of New York City) raising money to finance women physicians on their way to devastated France and Serbia in Europe. Barringer would ultimately practice medicine for fifty years, including clinical work in Vienna, Austria.
During World War II the comptroller general of the United States ruled that the law permitting the president to commission qualified persons for service in the U.S. Army did not apply to women physicians. Barringer was called on to chair a special commission of the American Medical Women's Association to change the law. The commission asserted that when judged solely on merit, women perform equally as well as men. The group was successful in its lobbying for legislation to allow female medical doctors to secure commissions in the U.S. Army and Navy. Bill H.R. 1857, called The Sparkman Act, was "An act to provide for the appointment of female physicians and surgeons in the Medical Corps of the Army and Navy." President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) signed the bill on April 16, 1943. For the first time the United States went on record as commissioning women physicians in time of war.
Elda Anderson graduated from high school in Green Lake and then attended nearby Ripon College, earning her undergraduate degree in 1922. She obtained a graduate assistantship in physics from the University of Wisconsin and earned her master's degree from the institution in 1924. Anderson went on to teach in local colleges and high schools before joining the physics department at Milwaukee-Downer College, where she became chairman of the department in 1934. She continued working on her doctoral degree, which she received from Wisconsin in 1941.
The atomic bomb
In 1941 Anderson's career took a dramatic turn. She requested a sabbatical leave from teaching and became a staff member in the Office of Scientific Research and Development at Princeton University in New Jersey. Soon after the United States entered World War II in December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) learned that the Germans were working on developing an atomic bomb. (European and U.S. scientists had been working on developing the fission process of splitting the uranium atoms for energy in the 1930s, and thought of its use on atomic bombs arose in 1939.) He immediately established an American atomic research program called the Manhattan Project. The main laboratory was set up in the secluded community of Los Alamos, New Mexico, in order for the scientists to be able to work more closely together and in secret. Anderson's work at Princeton led her to become a member of the Manhattan Project in 1943, as the department she was working at became the Manhattan Engineering District. She moved to the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico, where she joined other scientists working to develop an atomic bomb. There was great pressure to ensure that the United States developed the bomb before Germany. The hectic pace at Los Alamos often demanded eighteen-hour days.
Anderson was part of the cyclotron group that used an accelerator to propel particles such as ions and protons at very high speeds. Her research focused on spectroscopy, the physics that deals with interactions between matter and radiation. This research was vital to the construction of the atomic bomb and also of use in nuclear reactor design. (Nuclear reactors are devices in which a nuclear reaction is started—and controlled—thus producing heat, which is usually used to generate electricity.) The group of physicists completed its construction in the summer of 1945 and took the bomb to the Alamogordo Bombing Range in the New Mexico desert. Their work culminated in what was called the Trinity Event, the explosion of the first atomic bomb on July 16.
There was great excitement among the scientists at their accomplishment and yet great anxiety about what it meant for the future. Germany had already surrendered by this time, and Japan became the ultimate target for the use of two atomic bombs as military weapons in August 1945, killing 150,000 Japanese citizens. In reaction to this experience, Anderson left Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1947, determined to work toward protecting people and the environment from the harmful effects of radiation.
A new beginning
After her work in Los Alamos, Anderson returned to Milwaukee-Downer College to resume her chairmanship of the physics department. In 1949 she moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to become the first chief of education and training in the Health Physics Division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Her extensive physics background and pioneering spirit led her to explore the new field of health physics, which was the study of the effects of radiation on human health. Anderson was both mentor and friend to the graduate students she taught at Oak Ridge. She encouraged them to expand the science, and they were her legacy to ensure the work would go on. Anderson also worked with faculty members at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, to create a master's degree program in health physics at their institution. She organized international courses in her field in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1955, followed by Belgium in 1957 and Bombay, India, in 1958.
Anderson worked throughout her life to promote health physics as a profession. Much of her early work was later used for peaceful applications such as the construction of nuclear reactors. Stricken with leukemia in 1956, Anderson also developed breast cancer in 1961 and died in April of that year. The Elda E. Anderson Award is given annually in her honor to an outstanding individual in the field of health physics.
For More Information
Barringer, Emily Dunning. Bowery to Bellevue: The Story of New York's First Woman Ambulance Surgeon. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1950.
Parry, Melanie, ed. Larousse Dictionary of Women. New York: Larousse, 1996.
Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. New York: Random House, 1992.
Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1980.
"Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Emily Dunning Barringer." U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_23.html (accessed on June 30, 2004).
"Great American Women: Elda Emma Anderson." Engineering Projects in Community Service, Purdue University. http://epics.ecn.purdue.edu/iwt/pciki/GAW/Wisconsin.html (accessed on June 30, 2004).
"Women in Science and Technology: Elda Emma Anderson." College of Engineering, Penn State University. http://www.engr.psu.edu/wep/EngCompSp98/AFischer/Elda.html (accessed on June 30, 2004).