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.


Mariette Kuper (second from right front in front row). BNL's first Director, Philip M. Morse is also in this photo, first row, third from left.

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

McKeonI 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.