Elda Emma Anderson: The unsung hero

Photo provided by Megan Pickett.

As we celebrate the 175th anniversary of Lawrence University, we remember, reflect upon and commemorate the people who pioneered the success of our institution. As we reflect on our university’s history, it is crucial that we acknowledge the women of Milwaukee-Downer College — a women’s college that would eventually consolidate with Lawrence University in 1964 –and their contributions to our university and community. One woman who is so often forgotten is Elda Emma Anderson. She is most well known for her work on the Manhattan Project, and she also became the first person to create a pure sample of Uranium-235. Anderson had a passion for science and teaching, and she used her talents to not only better the lives around her but make the world a better place. Despite her outstanding contributions and legacy, the only memorial to her at Lawrence is the name of one of our share drives (ELDA)! 

Elda Emma Anderson was born on Oct. 5, 1899, in Green Lake, Wis., to Edwin and Lena Anderson (Wikipedia). Her interest in math and physics sparked at a young age, and her parents thought she should pursue her interests through teaching. 

Before teaching, Anderson earned her B.A. in physics and mathematics from Ripon College in 1923 and her master’s in physics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1924. After earning her master’s degree, she became the Dean of Sciences at Estherville Junior College in Iowa when she was just 25 years old, serving from 1924-1927. She also established the physics and chemistry program there, as there had previously been none. Then, from 1927-1929, just down the road from Appleton, she went on to become the principal and head of the science department at Menasha High School.  

As if her accomplishments weren’t already impressive enough, Anderson joined the physics department at Milwaukee-Downer College in 1929 and became the first woman to earn tenure in physics at Lawrence and  Milwaukee-Downer as well as the first woman to chair the physics department in 1934. Only two women have earned tenure in physics at Lawrence and  Milwaukee-Downer: Elda Anderson and Associate Professor of Physics Megan Pickett, who began teaching at Lawrence in 2006.  

Anderson was known for her kindness and generosity, especially towards her students. She helped her students with problems both inside and outside the classroom, and she was known to give loans to students who were in great financial need. She assisted her students during the difficulty and uncertainty of the Great Depression and World War II and shared a drink with them in times of trouble (Mummah, 2018). Not only was she devoted to teaching, but she was devoted to bettering the lives of those around her.  

After completing her Ph.D. in 1941 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (while maintaining her job as Dean of Physics!), Anderson took a leave of absence from Milwaukee-Downer to work at Princeton in the war research science division (Mummah, 2018). In 1943, she went to Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory where she joined the Manhattan Project, which was the code name for the research and development of nuclear weapons during World War II (History.com, 2020). While there, Anderson became the first person to create a pure sample of Uranium-235; this fissile isotope was required for the atom bombs that ended WWII. While many women worked on the Manhattan Project as librarians, secretaries or nurses, very few worked as engineers or physicists — except Anderson, whose contributions are still prevalent today, for without the discovery of Uranium-235, the atom bomb would have not been created. While working on the project, Anderson resided in a dormitory, and since she was older than most of the residents — she was 50 at the time –, she was put in charge of the dorm (Atomic Heritage Foundation, 2018). Even while working up to 20-hour days, Anderson acted as a mentor and guide to the younger residents. 

After the war, Anderson returned to Milwaukee-Downer College, but she then left in 1949 to work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. At Oak Ridge, she helped establish the Health Physics Division and devoted the rest of her life to health physics, specifically the connection between radiological effects and human health. A woman of many “firsts,” Anderson became the first Chief of Education and Training for the Health Physics Division (Atomic Heritage Foundation, 2018). The annual award for health physics, the Elda E. Anderson Award for Health Physics, was established in 1962 and is still given in her name. It is given by the. It is given by the Health Physics Society to a young member of the society to recognize “excellence in (1) research or development, (2) discovery or invention, (3) devotion to health physics and/or (4) significant contributions to the profession of health physics” (Mummah, 2018).  

Her contributions did not end here, though. After returning from the Manhattan Project, Anderson spoke out about the dangers of nuclear arms and continued to educate people about the negative effects of radiation on human health. She died in 1961 of breast cancer and leukemia, most likely because of her work on the Project. She is buried in Greenville, Wis.  

Elda Emma Anderson’s legacy, though unknown to many, continues to live on today. She deserves recognition for spearheading women’s involvement in science and using her love of science, research and teaching to better the world around her. To recognize the legacy of Anderson, the Lawrence University Society of Physics Students and Lawrence University Women in Physics are organizing the first annual Elda Anderson Day on Oct. 5, 2022 — Anderson’s birthday. While Anderson sought no fame, she should be rightfully honored for her contributions to our community and the rest of the world. 

I want to thank Professor Megan Pickett for sharing her wide array of knowledge about Elda Emma Anderson and allowing me to share her story. Professor Pickett seeks to amplify the voices of the women of Milwaukee-Downer College because they laid the foundations of Lawrence University and helped shape it into what it is today. Professor Pickett allowed me to recognize and learn about the women that pioneered the success of our university and community, and I hope you do too.

Photo provided by Megan Pickett.