THH Episode 2: Physicist Melba Phillips Vs. the Atomic Bomb and Cold War

Transcript of Melba Phillips vs. the Atomic Bomb and the Cold War

Jump to Show Notes

Written by Lindsey Beckley from the research and blogs by Jill Weiss Simins

Produced by Lindsey Beckley and Jill Weiss Simins

[general Talking Hoosier History Intro]

Lindsey Beckley: Hello and welcome to Talking Hoosier History, brought to you by the Indiana Historical Bureau. For over a century we’ve been marking Hoosier history, now it’s time to start Talking Hoosier History. I’m Lindsey Beckley, and I’ll be your host.

Beckley: Melba Phillips…a groundbreaking physicist in a heroic age of physics, yet very few people have heard of her. In fact, few people have heard the names of many women who dedicated their life’s work to the sciences. For years, scientists and educators have been asking, ‘why are there so few women in physics?’ and offering up various possible reasons and accompanying statistics. But by taking an historical view and looking at the bigger picture, you start seeing that that’s the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should be asking ‘Why are there so few women that we know about in physics?’ Women have always been there, but many times their contributions have been lost to time. Phillips’ story is one of brilliance, perseverance, and bravery and it’s undoubtedly a story we want to preserve.

Melba Phillips’ story begins and ends in Indiana, but the chapters in between were set on a world stage. Born in Hazleton, Indiana on February 1, 1907, Phillips came from a long line of teachers. That was a tradition that she would continue. She attended Union High School in Union, Indiana, where she gained a love of learning and appreciation for quality education. This would eventually lead her to the fields of physics and physics education.

Skipping “a grade or two” and graduating at just 16 years old, Phillips wanted to go immediately into teaching.  But, while she passed the state-required qualification examination with flying colors, the law required teachers to be at least eighteen years old. Instead, she enrolled at Oakland City College in Oakland City, Indiana, saying that it was “the least expensive and nearest college.” Here, Phillips enrolled in her first formal physics course; though she had fallen in love with physics in high school there was a lack of scholarship on the subject available for her in those early years. In fact, in one interview she said, “I do not remember being aware that the profession existed as a possible career.” After she had graduated from Oakland College, she began teaching at Battle Creek College in Michigan. While teaching, Phillips also filled in the considerable gaps in her education and earned a master’s degree in physics in 1928, at the impressive age of 21.

During her time in Michigan, the young physics teacher first encountered quantum mechanics, a field in which she would later work. On recommendation from one of her professors, she was accepted to the PhD program at the University of California. And there couldn’t have been a better place for a young physicist in the 1930s than UC Berkeley.

[transitional music]

Beckley: The university was chock-full of preeminent physicists including several Nobel Prize winners. Berkley was also home to J. Robert Oppenheimer, who later would become the lead scientist on the Manhattan project. At this time though, he was a newly hired assistant professor and had begun work at the university just before Phillips had arrived. When Phillips started her dissertation work, she chose two topics within the field of experimental physics to work on. Since Oppenheimer’s area of expertise complemented her choice of topics, he became her advisor, and soon, her friend. Oppenheimer was loved by his students. This was in part because he made efforts to incorporate them into his own social life, treating them more like equals than pupils. Phillips recalled that

Voice actor reading quote from Phillips: “The graduate students included a congenial lot, and the faculty were not distant. Robert Oppenheimer became famous for including his students and post-docs in a considerable part of his social life…On a social level the gulf between students and faculty seemed almost non-existent.”

Beckely: By 1933, Phillips had finished her dissertation. Even before that, her work was being published in academic journals. Just 10 years after taking her first ever physics class, Melba Phillips was making a name for herself in the rapidly expanding field and had transformed from a pupil to a peer of some of the most prominent physicists in America.

[transitional music]

Beckley: Fortunately, Berkeley was able to keep Phillips employed as a research assistant and part-time instructor after graduation. Together, Oppenheimer and Phillips published a paper describing the process that became a staple of nuclear physics, one that the New York Times called a “basic contribution to quantum theory.” Called the Oppenheimer-Phillips process, the discovery cemented Phillips’ place in the history of physics and by all accounts should have ensured her a faculty appointment.

It should have, but it didn’t. Whether this was because of a lack of open positions due to the Great Depression or a lack of opportunities for female physicists is hard to tell. Phillips herself, despite the long history of women’s exclusion from the field, generally denied personally facing gender discrimination. In one interview about her experiences at Berkley, she walked a fine line by admitting that there were few women in the field while still maintaining that there was no gender discrimination.

Voice actor reading quote from Phillips: “I was often the only woman in the class, but classes were never large, and the competition was fun rather than otherwise…during the five years I lived in Berkeley four women took PhD’s in physics . . . perhaps an equal number stopped with the M.A…. Were women discriminated against in the department? It did not seem so, certainly not as students. We had teaching fellowships on par with everyone else. It is true that there was one professor who would not take women assistants but it was no hardship to miss that option.”

Beckley: Despite maintaining this viewpoint throughout her life, one incident tells a bleaker story. This story is literally ripped from the headlines and demonstrates the demeaning light in which a brilliant woman could find herself cast by society. On February 14, 1934, the Associated Press reported:

Voice actor reading extract from newspaper article: “J. Robert Oppenheimer, 30, physics professor of the University of California, took Miss Melba Phillips of Berkeley, a research assistant, for a ride in the Berkeley hills Monday night. Professor Oppenheimer then parked the automobile, made Miss Phillips comfortable by wrapping a blanket around her, and said he was going for a walk. Time passed but Miss Phillips waited and waited. Two hours later Policeman Albert Nevin passed by. “My escort went for a walk hours ago and he hasn’t returned,” Miss Phillips told the officer tearfully. The policeman turned in an alarm and officers in automobiles searched the vicinity but could find no trace of the absent professor. So Miss Phillips drove home and the police, just on a hunch, went to the faculty club, where Professor Oppenheimer lived. And there they found him- fast asleep in bed. “Miss Phillips?” He exclaimed to the officers. “Oh, my word! I forgot all about her. I just walked and walked, and I was home and I went to bed. I’m so sorry.”

Beckley: Other outlets picked up the story, describing Phillips as “Pretty Miss Melba” as opposed to “Dr. Melba Phillips, noted physicist.” Many of the stories allude to some sort of sexual affair taking place by emphasizing the fact that it was the “early morning hours,” in an automobile, parked in a remote location. They describe Phillips as though she were a helpless woman who was driven to tears by the fact that she had been left alone by her chaperone. However, it seems a little doubtful that Phillips, who was very comfortable in the driver’s seat of a car and could even could change a flat tire with ease, would have been driven to tears over the matter when she could have just driven home if she were so inclined. As far as the allusions to an intimate relationship between the two, Phillips only ever spoke of a friendship and mutual respect between herself and Oppenheimer and there’s no evidence to the contrary.

So, in her first appearance on the national stage, Phillips, who by this time had completed her PhD and published a series of scholarly articles, was cast as a tearful, helpless woman with possibly questionable morals. But this was far from the last time that Melba Phillips’ name appeared in print and the more damaging stories were yet to come.

In the years leading up to the Second World War, Phillips advanced her professional career while also becoming more mindful of social justice issues and active in various movements aimed at improving those issues.

After the entry into World War II, the demand for scientists grew exponentially. Wars have always been times of unprecedented technological advancement but no previous war had been as dependent on the role of science and technology as this one. Many scientists, including Phillips, aided in the war-time work. But many were also concerned with the responsible use of the technology being developed. Many advocated the need to work towards knowledge for its own sake, and not just in an effort to develop new and ever more destructive military technology.

In July 1945, the Manhattan Project scientists successfully detonated an atomic bomb in the desert of New Mexico. One month later, the U.S. military dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, forcing the country to surrender and effectively ending World War II. Over 135,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and 64,000 in Nagasaki. Many thousands more died from fires, radiation, and illness in the aftermath.

A horrified public debated whether the bomb saved further casualties by ending the war or whether it was fundamentally immoral, and many scientists dealt with the remorse and responsibility of creating such a weapon.

[somber music]

Beckley: In order to escape, many physicists retreated to academia, but some became politically active, with the goal of preventing further destruction through scientific invention. Melba Phillips was part of that latter group.

As an officer in the American Association of Scientific Workers, or AASW, Phillips’ was one of several signatures on a letter sent to President Truman just one week after the bombs were dropped. The purpose of this letter was to give Truman “eight recommendations to help prevent the use of atomic bombs in the future warfare and to facilitate the application of atomic energy to peacetime uses.”

The AASW also worked to oppose the May-Johnson Bill, which if passed would have placed nuclear research under the control of the military. When the bill was defeated, President Truman wrote to Phillips thanking her work in the association. The note was addressed to one Mr. M. Phillips.

[transitional music]

Beckley: In 1945, Phillips and leading Manhattan Project scientists organized the first meeting of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington D.C. The goal of the federation was to prevent further nuclear war and to “undertake a program of education to influence legislation on scientific matters.” Phillips, who was elected to the administration council of the federation, took this mission to educate in the wake of the bomb quite seriously. At the New York Federation of Science Teachers Association meeting, she said

Voice actor reading quote from Phillips: “Since the birth of the atomic bomb, science has become a political matter, and that means students must be taught that science is no longer an individual matter but belongs to everyone. Great discoveries are now in the eyes of all nations.”

Beckley: The birth of the atomic bomb also brought about the Cold War. Living in the shadow of the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union induced anxiety among Americans and their political leaders. Fear of communists in America reached a fever pitch resulting in a period of political repression during which the government formed special committees to persecute alleged communists. This period is known as the Red Scare.

Senator Joseph McCarthy is the figure most widely associated with the Red Scare but he was far from the only politician who participated in the paranoia-fueled witch-hunts of the post war era. In 1950, Senator Pat McCarran put himself in the spotlight when he sponsored the McCarran Internal Security Act. The act allowed for investigation of subversive activities, made an emergency allowance for detaining people suspected of such activity, and even went so far as to make picketing a courthouse a felony if it intended to obstruct proceedings. The act also set up a five-member committee officially called the Subversive Activities Control Board, but more commonly referred to as the McCarran Committee. It was headed by, who else, but Senator McCarran himself. The committee set to their task of rooting out communists, communist-sympathizers, and other so-called subversives without delay. They started with the persecution of Americans who were in positions which they had deemed as potentially ideologically subversive. This group included educators and journalists, and, more specifically, it eventually came to include Melba Phillips.

The persecution of Phillips began two years before her U.S. Senate hearing. The United States government was far from the only entity focused on sussing out people involved in “un-American activity.” The government of New York, where Phillips was teaching at Brooklyn College, passed laws requiring educational institutions to purge all faculty with communist affiliations. As you might suspect, their definition of a communist affiliate was quite loose. Many colleges and universities demanded that their faculty sign so called “loyalty pledges” or take “loyalty oaths” in order to prove that they weren’t communists. This was a demand which Phillips was strongly against. She and a colleague from the American Association of Scientific Workers published an article opposing these oaths. In it they wrote:

Voice actor reading quote from Phillips: “The integrity of science and scientific education in this country is seriously jeopardized and can be maintained only if scientists…are alerted to the dangers inherent in the requirement of clearance and “loyalty oaths” for research fellowships and nonsecret work. It would be folly to expect that these oaths would not be followed by some sort of investigation…Oaths of this kind open the possibilities of irresponsible accusations, and of legal procedure based not on acts but on opinions… The chain of associations is endless.”

Beckley: Her prediction that persecution and investigation would follow on the heels of these loyalty oaths was alarmingly accurate. On March 12, 1950 the Brooklyn Eagle published a column which questioned Phillips’ involvement with the Congress of American Women, which had been labeled a communist-front organization by the [House] Committee on Un-American Activities the previous fall. He concludes his tirade by clarifying that his scathing article was produced not out of animosity but to protect the students who could be influenced by this woman, saying:

Voice actor reading extract from newspaper article: “The point I want to make is this: Is Dr. Phillips, a well-educated woman and well versed in world affairs, gullible? Is she the innocent victim of the slick organization so well described by the House Committee? When she saw her picture in the Daily Worker was she still blissfully unaware of the background of that rally? I ask the questions not in the spirit of malice but on behalf of the 10,000 students of Brooklyn College and specifically those who are taught directly by Dr. Phillips. And in conclusion I say that their parents have the right to know why Dr. Phillips spoke at that meeting. Why did you, Dr. Phillips?”

Beckley: Obviously, the author did not think Melba Phillips was a gullible, innocent victim. He thought she was a communist! And he was starting the crusade against her.

[music transition]

Beckley: Skip ahead to December 1951; Phillips received a letter from the New York Joint Committee Against Communism, endorsed by 50 people and listing 11 organizations and events she had joined or participated in which were suspected of having communist affiliations. The offending actions included sponsoring a Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, sponsoring a Bill of Rights Conference, and opposing laws designed to root out suspected communists in academia, which were considered by many academics as an attack on open-mindedness. Over all, reading the list of grievances doesn’t raise any red flags for a modern reader but in the middle of the Red Scare it was enough to raise a whole host of them. Instead of denying or explaining her involvement in the activities like most people would do, she returned the letter but not before adding a conference which she had sponsored but hadn’t been listed by her accusers. It was a sort of protest.

In the fall of the next year, Phillips was summoned to testify before the McCarran Committee. The summons read: “United States of America, Congress of the United States, to Melba Phillips…Pursuant to the lawful authority, YOU ARE HEREBY COMMANDED to appear before the Internal Security Sub-Committee of the Judiciary Committee of the Senate of the United States, 1952…then there to testify what you may know relative to the subject matter under consideration by said Committee. Signed, Pat McCarran.”

While preparing to meet this summons, Phillips had the guidance of those who had been tried before her. The early victims of this committee, including the famous Hollywood 10, had tried to defend themselves using the First Amendment and argued for their right to associate as they pleased as long as they obeyed U.S. laws. They had received jail sentences. Since then, most witnesses invoked the Fifth Amendment, citing their right not to incriminate themselves. While this did manage to keep them out of prison, their refusal to cooperate lead the committee, and the public, to believe that they were guilty. Many people lost their jobs, if not their freedom.

Phillips stood in front of the McCarran Committee on October 13, 1952. Over and over again, she explained to her accusers that invoking the Fifth Amendment should not be equated with her guilt. When asked if she had ever been a member of the Communist Party, Phillips answered:

Voice actor reading quote from Phillips: “My response to that question is dictated by my view of professional and personal ethics, first to do my professional job as well as it is humanly possible, and second, to defend and maintain my individual and personal right which I thought was my right so long as I was a law-abiding citizen. I know you conduct these hearings by certain rules which make it necessary for me, in order to stand on my principles, to invoke the Bill of Rights.”

Beckley: When she was pressed to admit that she was invoking the fifth because her answers would incriminate her, she said:

Voice actor reading quote from Phillips: “My ancestors fought for that Bill of Rights and I am very glad to make use of the first, fifth, and sixth amendments.

Beckley: In fact, to many people in the country, the persecution of teachers for the so-called crime of unionizing was seen as a witch-hunt. On the day that Phillips gave her testimony, 200 college students marched outside, denouncing the happenings in the courtroom.  One of the chants used by the picketers was “Pat McCarran, hit the sack. We want our professors back!”

Despite this protest and others like them, and despite the outpouring of support in the form of letters from colleagues, Phillips was fired from her university positions at Brooklyn College and Columbia University. This was due to a law requiring the termination of any public employee who invoked the Fifth Amendment. Papers across the country announced her termination with headlines like “Three Teachers Linked with Reds” and “Teachers Discharged on Loyalty Suspicion,” showing a distinct lack of compassion and without acknowledging the complexity of the situation.

[Interlude/break promoting Hoosier State Chronicles]

Beckley: Since you’re listening to this, chances are you love Hoosier history just as much as we do. If you’re interested in conducting your own research and don’t know where to start, check out Hoosier State Chronicles, Indiana’s digital historic newspaper program at  The project is operated by the Indiana State Library with financial support from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services along with the National Endowment for Humanities’ National Digital Newspaper Program.  At Hoosier State Chronicles you can search nearly a million pages for FREE! You’ll find many great resources at Hoosier State Chronicles, including the article about Phillips we just referred to, titled “Three Teachers Linked with Reds” from the Daily Banner in Greencastle, Indiana. You can explore “Yesteryear’s Newspapers at Your Fingertips” at

[Episode resumes, somber music]

Beckley: In an eloquent response to the inquisition, Phillips wrote an essay in the magazine Science published that same October. In the essay, she wrote about science and ethics and all the ways they had been changed in the era of McCarthyism and the Cold War. She wrote:

Voice actor reading quote from Phillips: “Freedom of thought and of communication has always been considered essential to science. Yet it is taken for granted that the scientist, as a valuable but untrustworthy piece of property, must have his speech constrained and his freedom of movement restricted…Restrictions of scientific intercourse, both domestic and international, further infringe on the freedom of the scientist and limit the advance of science itself… The Cold war is invoked to justify an evident corruption of ethical standards.”

Beckley: In the essay, Phillips also called fellow scientists to guard and uphold the standards by which they live and to make no compromises on moral values.


Beckley: Phillips took her opposition to the oppression of McCarthyism to another level in 1953 when she, along with others, organized a public protest of the continued investigations. During the protest, the group put McCarthy himself on trial. Newspapers from the time labeled the group secret communists but all we can tell for sure is that it consisted of academics, union leaders, students, and clergymen. During this mock trial the witnesses for the prosecution included a Columbia University professor, two local union leaders, the reverend of a Brooklyn church, and Phillips, among others. Unsurprisingly, the press was not supportive of the demonstration. One journalist called the trial “one of the most evil and un-American activities I have ever heard about.”

The mock trial took place on January 6, 1954 in New York City and convicted McCarthy for being a fascist and for government by terrorization and accusation. Phillips was one of three main speakers and she “warned of the danger that a new generation may be brought up with never a chance to learn freedom or other scruples.” Even the critical papers of the time begrudgingly admitted that the event was a success.

Just a few months later, in the real courtroom, the New York Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision to fire Phillips. And on February 7, 1955 the battle was lost when the [New York] Supreme Court denied the appeal.

While her university employment was officially lost, she had stuck to her morals and eventually persevered professionally as well. One of her early mentors offered her the associate director position of a teacher-training school in St. Louis. From there, she joined the faculty of the University of Chicago and she soon rose to the position of president of the American Association of Physics Teachers. Here she was the first female president and one of its most memorable and effective leaders. While she officially retired in 1972, she continued to teach at other schools as a visiting professor.

In the early years after her brush with the McCarran Committee, Phillips received more awards and honors than I can mention here, but a few are quite noteworthy. In 1981, the American Association of Physics Teachers awarded her the first Melba Phillips Award, created in her honor “for exceptional contributions to physics education.” In 1987, 35 years after she was terminated for exercising her constitutional right to invoke the Fifth Amendment, Brooklyn College publicly apologized for firing Phillips. In 1997, a scholarship was created in her name at the school.

Through all of these adventures, Phillips somehow maintained a piece of her family’s farm back in Pike County, Indiana. She returned there to live with her niece towards the end of her life. There, she died on November 8, 2004 at the age of 97, not far from her birthplace.

Phillips faced obstacles with dignity, persistence, and even humor. She was passionate about sharing knowledge in the hopes that it would encourage the ethical and peaceful application of science, and in sharing that knowledge touched the lives of many young scientists. In 2008, two of her former student published the article “In Appreciation: Professional and Personal Coherence: The Life and Work of Melba Phillips.” In it they said, “The dedication she poured into the understanding of Nature, the responsible stewardship of science, and the welfare of her students, are enduring monuments to her devotion and integrity.”

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. I’d like to give a shout out to Jill Weiss, whose paper “Melba Phillips: Leader in Science and Conscience” was the basis for most of the research for this episode. Jill is also my recording engineer, editor and general master of all things in the studio.  Also, a big thanks to Justin Clark who is the voice of all newspaper clips here on Talking Hoosier History. He’s a project assistant for Hoosier State Chronicles and works hard every day to bring you new issues of old Indiana newspapers. And lastly, thanks to Dani Pfaff, retiree of and volunteer for the Indiana Historical Bureau, who played the part of Melba Phillips in this episode. Find us on Facebook at Indiana Historical Bureau and Twitter @in_bureau. Read blog posts on this subject and many more on our blog, Blogging Hoosier History. And finally, please subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts!

Before we go, let’s hear once more from Dani, as Melba Phillips, reading from her article in Science Magazine.

Voice actor reading quote from Phillips: “We believe that it is the responsibility of scientists, as citizens and beneficiaries of the humanistic traditions of our culture, to guard and uphold the standards by which they live. We do not think it possible to maintain anything of value while yielding these standards, since they are themselves among ultimate values. Specifically, we believe that there are certain conditions for the advancement of science that permit no compromise.”

Show Notes for Physicist Melba Phillips Vs. the Atomic Bomb and the Cold War


“Three Teachers Linked with Reds,” The Daily Banner, Greencastle, October 29, 1952, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

“Professor in Adage’s Proof,” Sun Bernardino County Sun, February 14, 1934, 2, accessed

“Absent Minded Professor Leaves Girl in Car, Walks Home and Retires,” Salt Lake Tribune, February 14, 1934, 13, accessed

“Peace Rests of Science Use, Says Professor,” Brooklyn Eagle, November 1, 1944, 4,

“Calendar,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 15, 1946, 7,

Peggy O’Reilly and Ken Johnston, “Leftists ‘Convict’ A Senator; Mock Trial Brands McCarthy a ‘Fascist,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 7, 1954, 1, accessed


Dwight E. Neuenschwander and Sallie A. Watkins, “In Appreciation: Professional and Personal Coherence: The Life and Work of Melba Newell Phillips,” Physics in Perspective 10 (2008), accessed INSPIRE, Indiana State Library.

Jill Weiss, “Melba Phillips, Leader in Science and Conscience,” accessed Indiana Historical Bureau Files.

Blog Posts

Jill Weiss, “Melba Phillips: Leader in Science and Conscience Part One,” Blogging Hoosier History.

Jill Weiss, “Melba Phillips: Leader in Science and Conscience Part Two,” Blogging Hoosier History. 

Special Thanks

Jill Weiss

Jill did all of the primary source research on this topic for her paper “Melba Phillips, Leader in Science and Conscience.” She has presented her research in a variety of venues and I appreciate her allowing me to present it here. Jill is the Digital Outreach Manager for the Indiana Historical Bureau. She also serves as my recording engineer, editor, and general master of the recording room.

Justin Clark

Justin is a project assistant with the Hoosier State Chronicles newspaper digitization project. In this episode, he played the part of newspaper announcer. If you’re interested in reading historical newspaper articles, visit Hoosier State Chronicles online.

Dani Pfaff

Dani retired from the Indiana Historical Bureau in January, 2017 but has graciously donated her time to come in and volunteer for us. In this episode, she makes her debut as the voice of Melba Phillips.

Music Notes

Our featured track of Episode Two is “Look Back In” by the award-winning musician Moby. Hear it around the 18:20 mark.  The song was licensed to IHB for this production courtesy of MobyGratis, a unique resource providing Moby songs for creative projects.

“Look Back In” by Moby, courtesy of MobyGratis,

The Talking Hoosier History theme song is:

“Rock and Gravel” by Syd Valentine’s Patent Leather Kids, courtesy PublicDomain4U, accessed

Indianapolis trio Syd Valentine recorded “Rock and Gravel” in 1929 in Richmond, Indiana.

Other Music from Episode Two:

“Cease” by A Himitsu, Soundcloud, accessed, creative commons

“Ether” by Silent Partner, YouTube Audio Library, accessed, creative commons

“Tomorrow” by Bensound, YouTube Audio Library, Royalty Free Music, accessed, creative commons

“Morning Walk” by Jingle Punks, YouTube Audio Library, Royalty Free Music, accessed, creative commons

“War” by GoSountrack, YouTube Audio Library, Royalty Free Music, accessed, creative commons