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Santa Clara woman worked on Manhattan Project, became advocate for science education

March 14, 2018 GMT

Floy Agnes Lee, one of the many unsung heroines who worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos during World War II, died in her sleep March 6 in her home at the Kingston Residence of Santa Fe, her daughter said. She was 95.

Lee, a Santa Clara woman who earned a doctorate in zoology and conducted pioneering research in radiation biology and cancer, “became a fervent advocate for science education and really wanted young people to be able to learn it and look for opportunities to have careers in science,” said her daughter, Patricia Stroud Reifel.

After earning a Bachelor of Science in biology at The University of New Mexico, Lee started working at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a hematology technician in early 1945, before military officials and scientists tested the first atomic bomb at Southern New Mexico’s Trinity Site in July of that year.

Though she knew and hobnobbed with such renowned scientists as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Alvin Graves, she said in a 2017 interview for the Voices of the Manhattan Project, an online oral history archive, she had no idea who they were or what they were developing.

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“We didn’t know we were working on the atomic bomb,” she recalled. “We thought they were doing chemical warfare [experiments].”

Lee’s job was to take blood samples from lab workers to test the impact of radiation on blood cells. She took blood from physicists Graves and Louis Slotin after they were exposed to severe doses of radiation during an experiment in May 1946. Slotin died shortly thereafter, but Graves recovered and lived nearly another 20 years.

Slotin’s body, Lee recalled, ballooned seemingly overnight, and his energy waned in the aftermath of the accident.

“I couldn’t believe what was going on from this person I was taking blood from every day,” she said in the Voices of the Manhattan Project interview. “For him to get so large in such a short period of time. I didn’t think he was going to live because his white blood cell count … was so low.”

With a laugh, Lee described how Manhattan Project officials tried to cover up the activities of the many scientists, doctors and military veterans at the site, including women, by explaining that Los Alamos was a “hideout for pregnant WACs” — members of the Women’s Army Corps. “Santa Fe loved that story and many believed it,” she said.

Before embarking on a career in science, Lee had her own military ambitions. She learned how to fly in the early 1940s, hoping to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, a short-lived program that relied on women to fly noncombat missions. She had only one remaining qualifying flight to make before the program was disbanded late in 1944, she said in the Voices interview.

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She also recalled that she often played tennis with Fermi, unaware that he was anything more than a common worker. She beat him every time, she said, until she learned who he was following the end of the war with Japan and the news that the U.S. had developed an atomic bomb.

“When we went out to play tennis later,” she said, “I didn’t beat him. I tried not to.”

It was Fermi, she said, who encouraged her to continue pursuing a career in science.

Later in 1946, Lee moved to Chicago to continue her education and to work for the Argonne National Laboratory, then housed at the University of Chicago. She continued to research radiation biology and cancer there and helped pioneer the use of computers in analyzing chromosomes. Eventually, she earned her doctorate in zoology from the University of Chicago.

When her father came to Chicago for a visit, she said in the Voices interview, he looked out at Lake Michigan and said “all of that water and none in New Mexico.”

In the 1960s, her daughter said, she returned to Los Alamos to work as a radiobiologist. She also was a founding member of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and other scientific organizations.

Known by her friends as “Aggie,” Lee was the daughter of educators. Her father, a Santa Clara Pueblo man, and her mother, an Anglo woman, were both teachers who met at the now-defunct Albuquerque Indian School. They instilled a deep passion for learning in Lee, who was one of five children, Stroud Reifel said.

Lee was married three times. Her husbands all preceded her in death. Along with her daughter, she is survived by son-in-law Robert D. Reifel, two grandchildren, and several cousins, nieces and nephews.

The family celebrated her life during a memorial at Santa Clara Pueblo last week, her daughter said.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.