By Rita Patel
During March’s Women’s History Month, I honor Leona Woods by telling #herstory.
American Physicist Dr. Leona Woods is best known for her work on the now famous Manhattan Project and Chicago Pile-1.
Born in La Grange, Illinois in August 1919, she graduated from Lyons Township High School at the early age of 14 (when most are entering high school), and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1938. Still not satisfied with being young and smart, Dr. Woods decided to further her education and pursued a Ph.D. in chemistry. Warned off of graduate school by professors because she was female, Dr. Woods ignored the naysayers and eventually worked on her thesis under the tutelage of Robert Mullikan, future Nobel laureate recipient.
But as a graduate student, Dr. Woods soon found herself isolated. She was the youngest and last of Mullikan’s pre-WWII students, the rest of whom had decided to join the war effort. Dr. Woods still had a few friends to count on though, like Herbert Anderson. She and Anderson would often go for a swim in Chicago’s Lake Michigan and during these rendezvous, Herbert learned of her passion and aptitude for vacuum technology (as one does during lake swims). These conversations led to Dr. Woods being hired to join a small research group, under some guy named Enrico Fermi, as both the youngest member and only female physicist.
In the renowned Fermi research group, Leona assisted with the construction of Chicago Pile-1. Using her super vacuum skills, Dr. Woods created a boron trifluoride counter which was used to detect neutron activity, a crucial step in determining if a nuclear chain reaction had occurred. When Chicago Pile-1 reached criticality for the first time, Dr. Woods was the only female present. Her detector confirmed a sustained chain reaction, which was a fundamental concept necessary for the proof-of-concept of the atomic bomb.
Shortly after, the Fermi research
By Rita Patel