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Norris Bradbury

1909 - 1997

Below are the text of two LANL Daily News Bulletin stories about Norris Bradbury, with some introductory commentary by Carey Sublette.


Norris Bradbury led Los Alamos Scientific (and later National) Laboratory for 25 years, from October 1945 to 1970, replacing its first director J. Robert Oppenheimer.

During his tenure, all but 7 of the 56 major LANL nuclear weapon designs to actually reach the U.S. arsenal were conceived. In comparison Lawrence Livermore, the other nuclear weapons lab, developed a total of only 15 fielded designs. Until the year 1961 every weapon in the U.S. nuclear arsenal was a Los Alamos design.

Nearly all of the principal technical developments in nuclear weapons, after their initial invention at Los Alamos, occurred at Los Alamos while Bradbury was at the helm. This includes the development of the world's first thermonuclear device, and the world's first deployed thermonuclear weapons. Bradbury could be called, with little exaggeration, the "father of the U.S. nuclear arsenal".

Bradbury sincerely believed in the importance of an effective deterrent as the best way to maintain peace in the midst of the Cold War. Although the bill for this deterrent ran into the trillions of dollars, the cost in dollars and lives was far less than that of any global war, which was in fact successfully avoided.

Even if this is granted, some aspects of these weapons development efforts are still open to serious criticism. Chief among, them the decision to conduct atmospheric weapons tests under conditions where civilan populations were subjected to fallout exposure. This has been brought home with added strength by the recently released 100,000 page report by the National Cancer Institute showing that nearly every one of the 160 milion Americans alive at the time of continental above-ground testing were subjected to internal exposures of radioiodine.

According to Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Project in Santa Fe "It is not to his credit that the above-ground nuclear test program, which was a public-health debacle of the first magnitude, was developed at that time. Norris knew it was dangerous and, to my knowledge, did nothing to stop it." Mello praised him however for saying in the late 1970s that the United States nuclear stockpile could be maintained without testing.


LANL Daily News Bulletin for 21 August 1997

Former Lab director Norris Bradbury dead

When offered the position of director of the Laboratory in 1945, Norris Bradbury reluctantly agreed to take the job for six months or until it was filled permanently, whichever came first. He remained for 25 years, overseeing the transition of the Lab from the site of a wartime crash project to one of the nation's premier research facilities.

Bradbury, who was born May 30, 1909, in Santa Barbara, Calif., died at his home in Los Alamos Wednesday night, the family said. Services are pending.

Bradbury arrived in Los Alamos in July 1944 to work on the Manhattan Project, the crash program to build the world's first atomic weapons. He was in charge of assembling the nonnuclear components for the world's first nuclear explosion, which occurred at Trinity Site in southern New Mexico on July 16, 1945.

Less than a month later, following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, World War II ended. Many Los Alamos scientists, including Director J. Robert Oppenheimer and Bradbury, planned to return to their pre-war jobs or take advantage of other employment offers.

"About 4 p.m. one afternoon, Oppie (Oppenheimer) called me in and asked me if I'd be willing to take on the directorship," Bradbury recalled for an article in the September 1970 issue of the Atom, a former Laboratory publication. "I was anxious to get back to Stanford (to teach physics), but I said I'd think about the offer." After talking it over with his family and colleagues, "I told Oppie I'd take it for a short period."

Bradbury took over a research institution that had just completed an immensely successful project, but did not have a compelling mission at that time.

As Glenn Seaborg, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, said on the occasion of the Lab's 25th anniversary in 1968: "Some of my colleagues maintained that it would never be possible to make Los Alamos attractive for competent scientists. It was remote from civilization. The wartime buildings were already falling to pieces ... . Furthermore, most of the 'big name' scientists had left Los Alamos with Oppenheimer."

Bradbury, who later said he stayed because he could not lead an institution with an uncertain future unless he was willing to link it with his own future, overcame the difficulties. He convinced the nation of the need to maintain nuclear expertise, persuaded a core of scientists and engineers to remain and tackled projects such as Operation Crossroads, a test of the effects of nuclear weapons against Navy ships.

"Oppenheimer was the founder of this Laboratory," senior fellow Louis Rosen said during a discussion of the Bradbury Era that was reported in the Winter/Spring 1983 issue of Los Alamos Science. "Bradbury was its savior."

Another wartime colleague, Richard Baker, said, "If Norris hadn't stayed, or someone like him, I think the Lab would have collapsed."

During Bradbury's leadership, the Laboratory developed the first thermonuclear weapons and continued groundbreaking research in a number of nuclear and nonnuclear weapons areas. It also maintained a solid record in basic research.

Bradbury earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and a doctorate in physics from the University of California at Berkeley for work on the mobility of ions in gases. He spent two years as a research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then joined the faculty at Stanford to teach physics. During the 1930s, he established a reputation as an expert on the conduction of electricity in gases, properties of ions, and atmospheric electricity.

He had joined the naval reserve while at UC and was called to active duty in 1941. He worked in projectile ballistics at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Va., until he was offered the job at Los Alamos.

The Atomic Energy Commission presented Bradbury with its highest honor, the Enrico Fermi Award, in 1970.

Bradbury was cited by the AEC for "his inspiring leadership and superb direction of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory throughout one-quarter of a century, and for his great contributions to the national security and to the peacetime applications of atomic energy."

He also received the Legion of Merit from the Navy, the 1964 annual achievement award from the New Mexico Academy of Science, and the Distinguished Public Service Medal from the Department of Defense in 1966.

Bradbury was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society. He received honorary doctor of science degrees from Pomona College and Case Institute of Technology and an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of New Mexico.

He is survived by his wife Lois and three sons, James, John and David.

--John A. Webster


LANL Daily News Bulletin for 22 August 1997

Norris Bradbury remembered as architect of the Lab

Former Laboratory Director Norris Bradbury, who died this week (see Aug. 21 Daily Newsbulletin.), was remembered as the architect of the modern Los Alamos National Laboratory by one of his successors, current Director Sig Hecker.

Bradbury, who succeeded J. Robert Oppenheimer as director in 1945 and served until his retirement in 1970, died at his Los Alamos home Wednesday night following a lengthy illness. Services for Norris Bradbury, the former Laboratory director who died this week, will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to the Los Alamos Visiting Nurse Service or the donor's favorite charity.

Hecker recalled that when Bradbury became director in 1945, most of the nation's scientific and political leadership thought the role of the Laboratory ended with the success of the Manhattan Project.

"Norris had the vision and the foresight to recognize that the national security job of the Laboratory was not over, but only beginning," Hecker said. "Furthermore, he had the wisdom to recognize the value of laboratories like Los Alamos to the nation in areas broader than national security -- helping to strengthen the nation's world position in basic science plus contributing to civilian challenges such as nuclear energy, magnetic fusion and the Rover nuclear rocket program.

"The nation's laboratory system of today owes in no small measure its foundation to Norris Bradbury."

Bradbury's energetic support for maintaining a broad range of research at the Laboratory was also recalled by Senior Fellow Louis Rosen, a longtime colleague.

"Norris diversified the Lab to give it a broader science and technology base," said Rosen, noting that the Laboratory's wide technical competence is a key factor in the success of one of its major current missions -- science-based stockpile stewardship.

Raemer Schreiber, who worked closely with Bradbury for years, said Bradbury did not overrate his importance. "He was just a plain guy," he said, "until questions came up when he had to make a decision. Then he became director."

Schreiber said Bradbury liked to push his chair back and listen to whatever people had to say, no matter how long it took. "Then when people got through talking, he'd come down off his tilted-back chair and make a pronouncement. There was no shilly-shallying."

He noted that Bradbury took over the Lab at a time when "about half of the civilians wanted to go back to their home laboratories and a lot of the military personnel ... just wanted to get out" and converted it into a world-class research institution.

"He also helped build up the town," he said. "The community then was just a bunch of government buildings, and the need to establish a town that had proper facilities and schools was part of his objectives. He looked at the whole thing as a necessary combination of facilities to attract very good scientists from all over the world."

Bradbury's immediate successor as director, Harold Agnew, said Bradbury was a person of great integrity and high ethical standards who helped keep the Lab from making promises it could not fulfill, particularly when promoting its abilities.

Agnew said he and Bradbury had an excellent relationship for many years, including serving together on the local school board, but they never discussed the problems or the rewards of running the Lab.

"I wanted him to come back as a senior adviser [after I became director]," Agnew said. "But he said: 'You wanted it, you got it,' and he never came back in any capacity. I guess he felt that I knew what I was doing."

--John A. Webster