Frances Dunne, explosives technician

The only woman in the Manhattan Project’s Explosives Assembly group inspired the name of a current Lab explosives testing facility.

By Virginia Grant | February 16, 2021

Frances Dunne
In the spring of 1945, Frances Dunne’s leg broke when it was hit by a snapped cable. No worse for the wear, Dunne is pictured here at the Twomile Mesa explosives site with her colleague Howard Phanstiel. CREDIT: Los Alamos National Laboratory

In the early days of World War II, Frances Dunne began studying to become an airplane mechanic. In 1944, she was working at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when she met physicist George Kistiakowsky.

Kistiakowsky had left a job as head of the National Defense Research Committee’s Explosives Division and by 1944 was hard at work on development of the atomic bomb at Project Y—the Los Alamos branch of the Manhattan Project. He recruited Dunne for explosives work at Los Alamos not only because of her knowledge of mechanics but because of her small hands, which he thought would be able to reach inside bombs to set the triggers.

In 2018, Los Alamos National Laboratory opened the Frances Dunne Test Firing Facility for explosives testing, diagnostics, and data analysis.

Dunne thus became the only female member of the Manhattan Project’s Explosives Assembly group, and she was the only woman to work on the assembly crew of the Gadget, the nuclear device that was detonated in the Trinity test on July 16, 1945. Following World War II, Dunne went to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In 2018, Los Alamos National Laboratory opened the Frances Dunne Test Firing Facility for explosives testing, diagnostics, and data analysis. Built on the ground of a former outdoor firing site, the Frances Dunne facility has an indoor, weather-proof firing area that allows for year-round testing and data gathering.