Leona Marshall Libby Dies; Sole Woman to Work on Fermi’s 1st Nuclear Reactor

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Times Staff Writer

Leona Marshall Libby, the only woman to work on Enrico Fermi’s first nuclear reactor at Stagg Field at the University of Chicago--which brought about the atomic age--has died, it was reported Wednesday.

Mrs. Libby, most recently an adjunct professor of environmental science and engineering at UCLA, was 67.

Her son, John Marshall III, said she died Monday night at St. John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica. He did not disclose a cause of death but said his mother had been ill for some time.


The woman who was politely told to pursue more feminine pursuits when she entered the scientific world at the age of 23 went on to academic and professional achievements in chemistry, physics, astronomy, geophysics and environmental studies.

One of her most intriguing projects was the study of tree rings in an effort to prove that they reflected annual changes in air temperature.

In 1981, Mrs. Libby, widow of Nobel laureate Willard F. Libby, himself a proponent of irradiation, suggested that fruit tainted during the Mediterranean fruit fly scare be treated with gamma rays rather than sprayed with malathion.

Those theories came many years after she first entered the world of scientific research, which few women then occupied.

“She said there were people who tried to discourage her and she just sort of outworked and outshone some of the best of them,” her son said Wednesday.

She became one of the youngest members on Fermi’s staff at the onset of the Manhattan Project, which was to lead to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Born Leona Woods, she was studying at the University of Chicago when she saw the man who would become her first husband, John Marshall Jr., smelting bricks of metal in a hallway.

“She said to him, ‘You guys have discovered how the chain reaction works!’ ” her son recalled her telling him. “The next day, Fermi said that she should be working with them.

“The (Manhattan) project was so secret they had to figure out something to do with a clever woman.”

At the university, she worked in the metallurgical lab, placing enriched uranium into the atomic pile for the world’s first reactor.

Heavy Water Research

In 1943, she married Marshall, and the two went to Hanford, Wash., to conduct research on heavy water for nuclear reactors. Thus, they were not at Alamogordo, N.M., for the test of the first atomic bomb, but were involved in the design of virtually every early nuclear reactor.

She divorced Marshall in 1966, and the next year married Libby, a chemist who also had worked on the Manhattan Project. He died in 1980.


Mrs. Libby did not regret her contribution to the project, which developed the first atomic weapon, her son said.

“As awful as that bomb was, she said it saved a lot of lives, with the invasion casualties estimated at at least a half-million people.”

Worked With Oppenheimer

After the war, she conducted research with J. Robert Oppenheimer at Princeton, worked for the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica as a physicist and later joined UCLA where she and Libby helped organize the department of environmental science and engineering. The department trains scientists in skills to counter effects of world pollution.

At her death, she had published about 200 scientific papers and wrote three books, including “The Uranium People” and “Past Climates.”

Mrs. Libby also is survived by another son, Peter Marshall of Maui, Hawaii, and four grandchildren.

Instead of a funeral service, a symposium at UCLA will be dedicated to her early next year. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Willard F. Libby Foundation, in care of the Institute of Geophysics at UCLA.