Modern tech journalism would likely look far differently today, if not for the efforts of Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and a host of other trailblazing female reporters who staffed the Science Service throughout the publication’s history. These journalists were among the very first science communicators, making sense of the newfangled technological wonders of the 1920s through 1950s and bringing that understanding to their readers — often in spite of the personalities and institutions they were covering.
In Writing for Their Lives: America’s Pioneering Female Science Journalists, historian Marcel Chotkowski Lafollette highlights not just the important work that these women performed but examines how their diverse the excerpt below recounts the hectic days and weeks in the outlets newsroom following America’s use of a terrifying new “atom” bomb.
Excerpted from Writing for Their Lives: America’s Pioneering Female Science Journalists, by Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette. Published by The MIT Press. Copyright © 2023 MIT. All rights reserved.
In the weeks following the August 1945 dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Science Service staff frequently apologized for their tardy responses to any correspondence that had arrived that month. “Just about the time that your letter arrived here, we were completely showered with debris from the atom bombs,” Martha Morrow wrote somewhat facetiously. “This note of appreciation would have gotten off sooner if we had not had atomic bombs and peace crashing down on us,” Jane Stafford told another scientist. The journalists’ internal memos, however, exuded a sense of accomplishment. They had risen to the challenge of covering extraordinary breaking news; they had collaborated, cooperated, and served their readers well.
Because Watson Davis happened to be traveling in South America during the first week of August 1945, the five editorial writers remaining in Washington worked as a team, with each person applying a different interpretative frame to explaining the development and use of an atomic bomb. Morrow focused on the physics; Stafford looked at radiation and physiology; Marjorie Van de Water concentrated on the psychological and social implications; Helen Davis explored the chemistry of explosions; and Frank Thone focused on the biological impacts. Van de Water later recalled the electric atmosphere:
The telephone ringing all the day interrupted thought and work. Two of these calls summed up neatly the problems of the writer who tries to tell the public about the “findings of scientific research.” One inquiry was concise and practical, easily answered. “What is an atom?” this caller wanted to know. I gave him a convenient definition, but he was not quite satisfied. “That’s fine,” he said, “But now could you add a little something to make this whole thing more com- prehensible?” The other was a preacher. He was alarmed at what he had read in the afternoon papers. “What are the implications of this thing?” he wanted to know. “Where will it end? Is man going to destroy himself utterly? Does it mean the end of the world?”
As she concluded, “It was not possible to think of anything else except one stupendous fact—atomic fission, atomic power, atomic destruction, unlimited except by the unpredictable desires of the human heart.”
The general outlines and mission of the Manhattan Project had not, of course, surprised these reporters. Preliminary discussions about the feasibility of atomic weapons occurred long before the imposition of official secrecy. Helen’s daughter, Charlotte, used her family’s own special code words when she wrote her mother on August 7 from Rhode Island, where she worked in a US Navy laboratory:
The first I saw of the news was on the bus at Providence last night. A small boy came aboard selling the Boston Record which was headlined “Atomic Bomb Terror.” I regret to say that with all my previous knowledge and good guesses about Shangri-La and “that other place in Tennessee” I merely said to myself “Oh well, the Record!” and went to sleep. Not until I saw the Providence Journal and the New York Times did the import of the matter dawn on me.
Helen replied a few days later, apologizing for the delay—“as you can guess, the atomic bomb has us running in circles.” Watson was scheduled to be in Buenos Aires on August 6, yet cables to him at the US embassy in Argentina had gone unanswered. Helen quipped that she wanted to send him a telegram saying, “Having an awful time, wish you were here.” Messages from the office trailed Watson around Latin America, with Stafford’s telegram (“YOUR ATOMIZING STAFF MISSES AND GREETS YOU”) eventually catching up with him in Uruguay. His reply revealed his regret at having missed the action: “WHAT DAYS TO BE AWAY FROM WASHINGTON HOPE WE PLASTERED ATOMIC BOMB.”
Once the official technical report (a document known as the “Smyth Report”) was released, newspaper clients expected succinct technical summaries almost immediately. The news service produced that material in record time. Other than Martha, Helen was the only one on the staff who understood the bomb’s basic physics and chemistry, and she complained that she felt “more like Hamlet every day: ‘Oh, wretched spite, That I was ever born to set them right!'” Helen even quickly wrote an editorial on atomic power for the next issue of Chemistry, which was just going to press. On the afternoon of August 11, having “practically disintegrated along with the atom all this week,” Helen wrote a catch-up letter to Charlotte. For the first few days, she explained, they had had only the bare announcement that the weapons had exploded as designed and civilians had been killed. In “the thick of the fight,” during the previous week, she had had doubts about their coverage, but “after seeing what the rest of the world did with the story,” she told Charlotte, she realized “we didn’t do too badly.”
Helen’s September 2 letter to Watson (who was by then in Mexico and trying to get home) offered another perspective on the complicated office politics:
So much has happened, I probably can’t do more than hit the highest spots. First and biggest, of course, was the atom bomb. We will probably never be the same again! The story broke . . . with the President’s announcement. We had the War Department releases, but Frank was sitting on them, in a complete dither, but writing like mad. Nobody dared interrupt him. He finally yelled to me to do a piece on the atom and what it is. His story and mine were all that made the DMR [Daily Mail Report] that day.
Cool-headed preparation eventually prevailed. When the writers learned that the War Department planned to release the official technical report at the end of that first week, they decided to start drafting background material yet “not get too far out on a limb.” By the time copies of the Smyth Report arrived on Friday, Thone was already on his way to a meeting in Boston. Martha was racing back from vacation. For a time, “which seemed then just a few minutes short of eternity,” Helen wrote, “there was nobody but Jane, Marjorie, and me to carry on. When we three get together and pool our talents, you’d be surprised what a good physicist we make!” She described the Smyth Report as “amazing”:
It is multilithed, and over an inch thick. We got two copies. One we kept intact, the other we pulled the staples out of, so we could work on parts of it all at once. Jane Stafford, I think, has read all the chapter headings through consecutively, for she set herself that task. The rest of us just pick up any sheet at random and find at least one story that has to be written now, without bothering with anything else.
That report, Helen told Charlotte, made “all physics and chemistry B.A.B. (Before Atom Bomb, of course) completely obsolete,” and “is beautifully written and as exciting as a detective story.” Because the War Department wanted publishers to reprint the report “in whole or in part,” Helen “rear- ranged it and wrote connecting paragraphs,” making it the central focus of the September 1945 Chemistry. That issue was later praised for its clarity. Helen not only understood the technical aspects but also had the ability to explain them, as demonstrated in her revised edition of the “Laws of Matter Up-to-Date” feature in October 1945. During those same busy weeks, Helen even sketched mock-ups and text estimates for a brochure (“Atomic Power”) to advertise the organization’s capability to answer technical questions like, “When you split an atom of uranium, what elements do you have as a result?” And she compiled a three-page list of “important dates in the history of the atom” to share with her colleagues.
The real news story, though, would involve unpacking the weapon’s social, political, and economic consequences, attempting to understand whether and to what extent the awesome power would be “good only for the destruction of cities and of people” as well as how its existence might affect future generations. The implications of that “alchemist’s dream” (Helen’s ironic phrase) intensified public interest in all science. As the editor of the Pittsburgh Press told his staff, “Abstruse science has been popularized by a situation which has made the public read and discuss material it would otherwise never have heard of—because it involved the lives and safety of their own loved ones.” All over the country, adults and students began writing to newspapers, scientists, and public officials, asking for more information about atomic energy. One young woman who planned to major in chemistry and physics at Vassar College wrote directly to Vannevar Bush, head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Bush’s secretary asked Helen to respond. Helen answered each question (e.g., “Exactly what happens within the nucleus of the Uranium atom before it splits? What are the remaining materials after the atom splits? How long will it be before these radioactive materials disintegrate?”) with detailed explanations and references to relevant sections of the Smyth Report, and enclosed the latest issue of Chemistry as added encouragement to a budding young science student.