Filed Under Biography

Dorothy McKibbins: The Gatekeeper of Los Alamos

The Manhattan Project would not have been possible without the efforts of Dorothy McKibbin, the Gatekeeper of Los Alamos. From attaining marriage licenses to transferring phone calls, Dorothy McKibbin was an integral and diversely skilled cog in the large machine of building the first nuclear weapons.

Once General Leslie Groves and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer chose Los Alamos, New Mexico as the place to build the atomic bomb; hundreds of bewildered employees streamed into the nearby town of Santa Fe. Due to the confidentiality of the Manhattan Project, recruitment was difficult and details provided to the new hires were vague because of the classified nature of their work. They were told that their work would helpe war effort and be located in the scenic mesas of New Mexico, but little else. After a long train ride to the nearby town of Lamy, scientists and their families hauled their luggage through the winding streets of Santa Fe, looking for 109 East Palace Avenue—the only address they had been given. There, they were met by a simple red and blue sign reading “United States Engineer Office No. 3” and the welcoming presence of Dorothy McKibbin. 

In 1932, recently-widowed Dorothy McKibbin moved to Santa Fe from Kansas with her son, hoping for a new life. When she met Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1943, she found one. Oppenheimer recognized her comforting, calming, and competent presence and asked her to be a War Department secretary with unspecified duties. Like the other personnel, she only knew that her job concerned an essential war project. As she discovered after accepting the position, duties encompassed everything from disciplining Nobel laureates, receiving classified mail, enforcing security, helping lost families find the way to their new homes, and more. She was there for some of the most important moments of the project, even observing the Trinity Test from a car parked near Albuquerque. To Dorothy McKibbin, “Working at 109 was more than just a job. It was an exciting experience. Our office served as the entrance to one of the most significant undertakings of the war or, indeed, of the twentieth century.” 

For the entirety of the Manhattan Project she was the point of contact between the secret city and the rest of the world, earning herself the nickname of  the “Gatekeeper of Los Alamos.” After the Manhattan Project concluded, the site was renamed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and McKibbin continued to work there until her retirement in 1963. She spent her retirement organizing community programs in Los Alamos and Santa Fe until her death in 1985. Today, a room in the Los Alamos History Museum is named in her honor, and although her office at 109 East Palace currently houses a gift shop, its original iron gate which once welcomed thousands to the secret city is on display at the Los Alamos History Museum. 

Images

Los Alamos Project Main Gate Replica
Los Alamos Project Main Gate Replica Even before Los Alamos employees were allowed to reach the Los Alamos project main gate, they met Dorothy McKibbin in Santa Fe. This modern replica of the gate stands at the entrance of modern day Los Alamos. Photograph courtesy of Mary Ann Novak.
McKibbin, Oppenheimer, and Weisskopf
McKibbin, Oppenheimer, and Weisskopf Dorothy MicKibbin, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Victor Weisskopf at a dinner party during the Manhattan Project. Photograph courtesy of and used with permission by the National Security Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
109 East Palace
109 East Palace Modern image of 109 East Palace in Santa Fe where Dorothy McKibbin worked. Today it is used as a part of the shopping center. Photograph courtesy of Sophia Mamula.
109 East Palace Door
109 East Palace Door Modern closeup of 109 East Palace where Dorothy McKibbin worked. Photograph courtesy of Sophia Mamula.

Location

Metadata

Abigail Beus, Brigham Young University, “Dorothy McKibbins: The Gatekeeper of Los Alamos,” Intermountain Histories, accessed May 20, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/752.