For every Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin whose story has been told, hundreds of female scientists remain unknown to the public at large. In this series, we illuminate the lives and work of a diverse array of groundbreaking scientists who, because of time, place and gender, have gone largely unrecognized. Each season we focus on a different scientist, putting her narrative into context, explaining not just the science but also the social and historical conditions in which she lived and worked. We also bring these stories to the present, painting a full picture of how her work endures.
Naomi Livesay, born in 1916 in the northern reaches of Montana, aspired to one career: mathematics. She earned a bachelor’s degree in math, but when she decided to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, men on the faculty balked. Mathematics, they said, was no place for a woman.
Then fate intervened, and Livesay embarked on a circuitous route to Los Alamos, where she landed in 1944 and started as a supervisor in the computation lab during the Manhattan Project. She played, as episode guest Nichole Dale Lewis describes it, “a unique role at a unique place under unique pressures.”
Livesay was a reluctant recruit, and it wasn’t until the physicist Richard Feynman stepped in to persuade her to take the job of supervising work on the IBM punch card accounting machinery, that she agreed. And then Oppenheimer himself went out of his way to make sure that Livesay had everything she needed to get the job done.