New York Times journalist William Laurence. Courtesy image
By SHARON SNYDER
Los Alamos Historical Society
Journalist William Laurence already had a keen interest in science when he attended the Harvard Tercentenary Conference of Arts and Sciences in 1936. Four years later he attended a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to hear a young scientist named Robert Oppenheimer. At that time, Laurence could never have imagined where his interests in science would take him.
Laurence was born in Lithuania but eventually made his way to the United States where he left his birth name behind and became William Leonard Laurence, a naturalized U.S. citizen. He studied at Harvard until joining the U.S. Army Signal Corps in World War I.
After returning from the war, Laurence earned a law degree at Boston University School of Law but chose to pursue a job as a newspaper reporter. In 1930, he began writing on scientific topics for The New York Times. Seven years later he won the first of two Pulitzer Prizes for reporting. He was advancing through an amazing career, but it was about to speed up.
Laurence was familiar with the work of Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr and the discoveries being made in atomic research. On May 5, 1940, he wrote a front-page exclusive in The New York Times on successful attempts in isolating uranium-235, which had been reported in the Physical Review. He wrote of a possible future for nuclear power but was concerned that Nazi Germany was also developing atomic energy. The headline read “Vast Power Source in Atomic Energy Opened by Science.” Four months later another Laurence headline read “The Atom Gives Up,” and the article foresaw the potential for harnessing atomic energy.
Not surprisingly, Laurence attracted the attention of Manhattan Project officials, and when Gen. Leslie Groves foresaw the need for a good reporter in the spring of 1945, he thought of William Laurence. He went to the managing editor of The New York Times and asked to borrow his science reporter. Mysteriously, Laurence disappeared from the newsroom. It was a good arrangement. Groves got his knowledgeable reporter, and the Times got the scoop of the century.
On July 16, 1945, William Laurence witnessed the Trinity Test. According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s record of the event, Laurence was 20 miles from Ground Zero and “drafted his own obituary—just in case.” He took copious notes in those early morning hours, and among them “he described Edward Teller applying sunscreen to prepare for the blast.” Three weeks later, on Tinian Island, Laurence witnessed the departure and return of the Enola Gay. He arranged for the co-pilot, Robert Lewis, to keep a log of the flight for Laurence’s use.
Then, three days later, at the last minute, Laurence was allowed to board The Great Artiste, the instrument plane that accompanied Bockscar on the Nagasaki Mission. William Laurence won his second Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for his coverage of the Manhattan Project.
In 1965, Laurence reviewed Day of Trinity by Lansing Lamont for The Times Book Review. His words were powerful and are still significant today:
“In the predawn darkness of Monday, July 16, 1945, a small group of men, including this writer, stood in the primeval desert near Alamogordo, N.M., and watched the birth of a new age. On that morning, when the first atomic bomb sent up a mountain of cosmic fire…the world we lived in came to an end, though few of us realize it even now. The new world that was born is still in the making, and no one yet knows what kind of world it will finally be.”
William Laurence continued to research and write of the potential of atomic energy until his death in 1977 at age 89.
These articles are written by the Los Alamos Historical Society Staff. Many of these articles were originally published by the