The Earliest BNLers
First Female Employee, Mariette Kuper
By the end of March 1946, before the Lab had a site or a name, it had its first two employees: Clarke Williams, a Columbia University physicist hired to help coordinate the pile project, and Mariette Kuper, wife of J. Horner Kuper (BNLís first Electronics Department head) and ex-wife of mathematician John von Neumann. Her job history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Radlab during the war had included assembling radar sets, then rising to foreman and supervisor of the technical training program for female personnel and metal shop production. Highly recommended by Radlab veterans, she started work on March 27, 1946, as the executive aide to Lee DuBridge, ex-Radlab Director, who headed the Initiatory University Group that was planning BNL in 1946.
As explained by Lab Historian Robert Crease of Stony Brook University in his book, "Making Physics," Kuperís first task on the job was "to figure out how to get herself hired, cleared, and paid." Fascinating stories from Crease about these and other times include unforgettable glimpses of Mariette Kuper's forceful charm, outstanding organizational ability, social grace, amazingly outspoken vocabulary, and "formidable" martinis -- a rare combination that was to contribute to Lab history for some 28 years.
Reminiscences of Retiree and Envoy Marilyn McKeown
I came to work at BNL in September 1947. The Lab had opened in March of that year but had already hired over 1,000 people. My life number is 1197. I had just graduated from college that spring and this was my first job. I can honestly say that I fell in love with Brookhaven and the surrounding area because it was very rural and I was happy being so close to water -- the ocean on the south and the Long Island Sound to the north.
It was somewhat unusual in those days for women to major in physics as I had done, and I was delighted to be hired in a scientific position. My first job was in what was then called the Electronics Department, headed by Dr. J. Horner Kuper. His wife, Marietta Kuper, was a well-known, very colorful BNL employee (see accompanying photo and caption). Most of the buildings were the barracks left behind from the Army's use during World War II and even some from World War I. My building is where the Post Office is today. The BNL glassblowers worked there also, and I became friendly with many of them, even though I was assigned to the detector group of the Electronics Department, which made Geiger counters and cloud chambers. I remember that high-energy physicists carried out experiments in the mountains in the west, mainly in Colorado, as big accelerators didn't yet exist.
The science of these early days is documented elsewhere so my focus here is on life at the Lab. First, there were only barracks for men, so I had to find housing off site. The Lab was helpful and I found a rooming house in Patchogue with two other BNL women, who worked in the Biology Department. None of us had a car. However, one amenity provided at that time was a bus to and from the Lab. The bus ran during the day and in the evening, allowing me to stay late to work or participate in a social club.
At this time, the Smith Point Bridge to Fire Island did not exist, so many scientists had picnics at the ocean beach in Westhampton. The beach was less commercial then; it had no parking lot or boardwalk. We socialized around campfires (which were allowed at that time). At one of these picnics, I met well-known BNL researchers Maurice and Gertrude Goldhaber, with their two young boys. The atmosphere of the Lab then mirrored that of a college campus. Since both the number of buildings and employees was small, you knew almost everyone and there was a great feeling of friendship and camaraderie. During these early days at BNL, I saw two major research facilities commissioned. One was the Brookhaven Graphite Research Reactor (BGRR), which started operating in 1950, and another, the Cosmotron, the first large accelerator (started 1952). I was saddened when the BGRR was replaced by the High Flux Beam Reactor (1965), but it was all part of the progression of science.
In 1954, I stopped working to raise a family, but I returned to work at the Lab part-time in 1960 and continued working until 1993 in the Solid State Physics Group in the Physics Department.
I remember those early years as a carefree, happy time. Over the years I made many friends and watched the Lab acquire Nobel prizes and achieve many scientific accomplishments. I didnít know that when I signed on in 1947 that I would be one small part of the advancement of science for women and for the world. For me, 1947 was the beginning of a great career and the starting point of lifelong friendships. Simply stated, the Lab was the perfect place to work.