Priscilla Duffield, at 88, is absolutely certain that famed World War II scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer was a truly great man. And who knows a larger-than-life kind of guy better than his personal secretary? To celebrate the critical role she played during the development of the first atomic bomb at a secret site in New Mexico's high desert, Duffield was recently the featured guest at a Los Alamos Heritage Lecture Series program highlighting historic figures from that fateful era.
As one writer put it, Duffield was no less than "one of the secret weapons in the Manhattan Project's secret weapon project." Oppenheimer, of course, is the brilliant physicist who, in the fall of 1942, was chosen to organize and direct a team of the world's leading scientists whose mission it was to make the bomb. Duffield, who was there from the beginning, became lifelong friends with "Oppie" and many of the now legendary scientists who made up the early, clandestine community of Los Alamos.
Duffield's elegant little house sits just southwest of Norwood, with a bank of windows that commands a sweeping view all the way west to Utah's La Sal Mountains. A few days ago, Duffield, who is my friend, enthusiastically responded to my questions about the big day at Los Alamos, where she reminisced before a packed audience of present day Los Alamos administrators. "It was just marvelous," she said.
Duffield's daughter, Libby, and her husband, David Boorkman, flew from their home in San Francisco to accompany her to this grand occasion. Libby was born at Los Alamos, and both mother and daughter still have strong ties to friends in the Santa Fe area from those early Los Alamos days. To celebrate those ties, Duffield said she hosted a luncheon at the famously posh old La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe for more than a dozen mothers and daughters from that era.
She mentions Frances Ulam and her daughter Claire, wife and child of the famed nuclear scientist Stanislaw Ulam, who later worked with the highly talented and equally controversial physicist Edward Teller. Duffield said one of her duties as Oppenheimer's secretary was to "fend off Edward Teller," who for years challenged Oppie's views on the bomb. Another luncheon guest was Marilyn Kerst. Her father, Donald W. Kerst, a leading chemist, spent the war years at Los Alamos and Marilyn and Libby were born on the same day and have remained close friends since childhood.
Duffield described 1943 to late 1945 as "a tight little three years where we got to know each other" intimately. She began dating her future husband, Bob (Duff to everyone), at Los Alamos. The Los Alamos social circle itself took in many of the world's most distinguished scientists and their families. Duffield often dealt with "the difficult" Kitty Oppenheimer. Serious socializing in those years didn't diminish the historic work these distinguished scientists did at this secret laboratory work that would forever reshape the world of science, and the politics of international power.
After Los Alamos, the Duffields would go on to top-level scientific work in places like the University of Illinois at Urbana (where in 1949 daughter Debbie was born) and with General Atomic in La Jolla, Calif., where Duff conducted research on nuclear reactors. Summers at times were spent at Brookhaven National Laboratories on Long Island where, by now a recognized nuclear physicist, Duff continued to do more research. Duff later became director of Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago.
"Yes," Duffield said, "we do know a lot of illustrious people." But what you need to know here is that this grand woman remains a charming, straightforward, no nonsense individual who can hold her own anywhere. She's equally at home in Norwood, sharing gardening tips with longtime Norwood folks, entertaining renowned physicist Hans Bethe and his wife Rose Germans, she says, love these mountains or visiting friends in New York.
The Duffields took every opportunity to spend time in New York. Meetings there of the American Physical Society kept them in regular touch with their scientific colleagues and helped sustain those lasting friendships with what Duffield acknowledged were some "pretty exotic people." She has also been an important resource for Oppenheimer biographers and authors who have written about Los Alamos and the profound events and their aftermath which these extraordinary people took part in.
Most recently, in American Prometheus, the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the authors (Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin) refer frequently to Duffield for her views on Oppenheimer during those critical Los Alamos years. She also remains close personal friends with Jeremy Bernstein, the physicist and science historian, a well-regarded writer (The New Yorker) and the author of another major work about Oppenheimer.
In 1973, the Duffields began building the home a barn first and then the house where Duffield still lives. Daughter Debbie was living in Telluride and the San Miguel area looked like just the right sort of place for the senior Duffields to settle down. Happily, Debbie and grandson Miles now live close by.
From Norwood, the Duffields traveled widely even doing an around the world adventure in their 70s. Priscilla, as you'd expect, has carried on the family legacy following Duff's death in 2000. She loves to talk about those historic times: "You can hardly stop me," she said, with obvious amusement. Her tribute luncheon in Los Alamos this spring provided the perfect set-up for her lively insights into these world-changing events.
It began in Berkeley, Calif. at the university in the early 1940s where Oppenheimer "borrowed" the young Duffield's secretarial skills. When she learned that Oppie was about to head a very secret government project in a remote and beautiful region of New Mexico, Duffield, ever forthright, said, "Take me, too." The rest is history.