Lilli Schwenk Hornig '42 Featured in 'Oppenheimer' Film
July 28, 2023
Oppenheimer, the Christopher Nolan film on the making of the world's first atomic bomb, features a lesser-known yet remarkable Bryn Mawr connection. Depicted in the film is Lilli Schwenk Hornig, a Bryn Mawr alumna from the Class of 1942 and a Czech-American chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. In Oppenheimer, she is played by actress Olivia Thirlby.
While many women played a key role in the researching for the project, Hornig is the only female scientist represented in Oppenheimer as part of the Manhattan Project's research team.
Hornig was born on March 22, 1921, in the modern-day Czech Republic and moved to Berlin with her family at eight years old. When Hornig's father was threatened with imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, she and her family fled to the United States and settled in Montclair, New Jersey.
After finishing high school in Montclair, Hornig came to Bryn Mawr College, where she studied chemistry and lived in Rockefeller Hall for all four years. Outside of the classroom, Hornig was actively involved as a photographer for the College News and was the treasurer for the Camera Club. She then received her master's and Ph.D. in chemistry at Harvard University.
In the above 2011 interview for the Atomic Heritage Foundation, Hornig reflected on her time at Bryn Mawr and the transition to Harvard.
"I went to Bryn Mawr and I had a marvelous, marvelous time; marvelous education, I think. And when it came to graduate school there wasn’t much question I wanted to go to Harvard. Little did I know how women were treated at Harvard, I might say, but I found out very soon."
Hornig describes the sexism and lack of support she faced at Harvard, from there being no women's bathroom in the building to her own department pushing her to take undergraduate courses despite her admittance into the graduate program.
"One of the first things I learned was there wasn’t a ladies’ room in the building. I had to go to another building to find the ladies’ room and I had to get a key for it, which was very unusual back then. And that sort of gave me a message. And then I had to meet with the department...They were all sitting around one end and I was alone at the far end and very much under scrutiny. And the first thing they said was, 'Well, the girls always have trouble with physical chemistry, so you’ll take Harvard undergraduate physical chemistry.' And I said, 'I’m a grad student. I didn’t come here to take undergraduate courses.'"
Hornig would face similar obstacles at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and would later dedicate much of her life to advocating for women in the sciences. She and her husband, Donald Hornig, moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1944 when he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project as an explosives expert.
In Los Alamos, she was offered a job as a typist to record the scientists' reports but rejected the offer stating that she did not know how to type, although she may be put to better use given her master's in chemistry. This is how Hornig is first introduced to audiences in the film.
Hornig was then placed in the fundamental wet research team, working with other women scientists on plutonium research.
"I had a job in the chemistry department doing what was called 'fundamental wet research,' which involved working with plutonium, determining the solubility of various plutonium salts," said Hornig in the 2011 interview. "It was essentially nothing known about plutonium chemistry at the time. And there was one other woman in the division, she and I worked together and we had our little cubby hole and did our little procedures and put them under the Geiger counter. It wasn’t terribly inspiring and nobody actually really spoke to us."
When it was discovered by her male supervisors that the radioactivity of the plutonium could impact a woman's fertility, Hornig and the other women on her team were reassigned. However, Hornig tried to resist, famously pointing out that the men were at greater risk than her—another quip that makes it into the movie.
Towards the end of the project when the scale of destruction was becoming more clear, Hornig was one of the many Los Alamos members who signed a petition advocating for the bomb's power to be demonstrated to Japan instead of having it dropped on a city.
Hornig describes the conflicting emotions she shared with the other scientists after the detonation.
"That was an odd mix of feelings. I mean, certainly some triumph, and the destruction was just so incredible. I think we’ve all been a little haunted by that over the years."
After the project concluded, Hornig went on to join the chemistry departments at Brown University and Trinity College. In the early '70s, Hornig founded the Higher Education Resources Services (HERS), a nonprofit supporting women leaders. For many years, the HERS Summer Institute was held on Bryn Mawr's campus. Hornig led her life as an advocate for fighting sexism and gender inequality in academia and the sciences.
Lilli Schwenk Hornig passed away in 2017 at the age of 96.