Descendant Of ‘Almost Royalty’ Pays Visit To Los Alamos To Find The Past

Barbara Bohr connects with thoughts of her great grandfather Niels Bohr as she stands on Sawyer’s Hill where he once skied during the Manhattan Project. Photo by Liz Martineau

Retired LANL Scientist Steve Greene, standing, speaks of Niels Bohr’s ‘profound effect on quantum mechanics’ and refers to him as ‘a big name in the history of 20th century science.’ Photo by Liz Martineau

Los Alamos Historical Society

In mid August, the Historical Society was contacted by a young woman who wanted to visit Los Alamos to see where her ancestors had been during the Manhattan Project. She would be flying from Denmark and wanted to learn what might still be here from that era.

While there aren’t many buildings in existence on the community side of the fence, there is still an aura of that time, those years in the mid-1940s when scientists came together from many parts of the world to focus on a singular goal.

Flash forward to this past Thursday. The woman stood inside the Hans Bethe House, looking at the panels that show the names of Nobel Prize winners connected with Los Alamos. It must have been a moment of pride for her because Barbara Bohr has two family members shown on those panels—her great grandfather Niels Bohr and her grandfather Aage Bohr.

To cover as much ground as possible in a two-day visit, the Historical Society arranged for Barbara and her boyfriend, Mikkel Thykier, to take a driving tour with Georgia Strickfaden of Atomic City Tours. They saw the buildings of Bathtub Row, structures that were used during the Manhattan Project, and it seems certain that the Bohrs were in Fuller Lodge at times and most likely the Oppenheimer House. Other stops included the current home of the Little Theatre, which was a mess hall during the war years, and the Christian Science Church that was once a Women’s Army Corps dormitory. However, those structures hold only mere resemblances to wartime Los Alamos.

A stop at Sawyer’s Hill offered perhaps the closest connection for Barbara to her great grandfather, as it is certain that Niels Bohr skied there at least once during his time at Los Alamos.

He is pictured in Just Crazy to Ski, A Fifty-Year History of Skiing at Los Alamos. The caption reads: “This photograph of Nicholas Baker, the code name for Niels Bohr, was a conspiracy by three different people who happened to have a camera on Sawyer’s Hill that day. They wish to remain anonymous because photographs of this great scientist were strictly forbidden at that time.” Barbara took the time to walk the length of the main slope, quiet and lost in thought.

One of the high points of the tour was a stop along the road to the Pajarito Mountain ski area where visitors can look down on the Los Alamos National Laboratory and see the modern expanse of buildings, but that scene is nothing like the laboratory of the Manhattan Project days. The laboratory where Niels Bohr and his son Aage spent their days consisted of hurriedly built wooden buildings crowded around Ashley Pond. Through an old photograph of the main Tech Area from that earlier time, Barbara and Mikkel could come closer to seeing the place her ancestors had known.

On their second day in Los Alamos, Barbara and Mikkel were given the Historical Society’s walking tour of the Historic District.

Afterward, they met with four representatives from the society in the Hans Bethe House—Liz Martineau, Director; Gordon McDonough, retired science educator from the Bradbury Science Museum; Steve Greene, retired LANL scientist; and myself—to share thoughts and ask questions.
It was immediately obvious that our visitors were well read concerning our history, but they needed to be here to establish a personal connection. Family stories were shared and scientific questions were discussed.

Barbara reflected on the time that Niels Bohr and son Aage spent here during the war, and she “imagined them wondering what was happening at home, how their family was faring,” but she added that at least “they had each other.”

She also told of traveling years later with her grandfather Aage to the United States and standing outside the White House, listening to his stories of being there with his father after the war when Niels “had gone to meet with President Truman to discuss possibilities resonating from the Manhattan Project.”

She even mentioned a story that her father had passed down from his grandfather. Niels had told him of the dinners he had enjoyed at the home of Edith Warner and the mutual respect they had for one another.  We asked how life was for Niels Bohr when he returned home to Denmark after the war and learned that he had been given a palatial home by the government. He was treated like royalty and even the Queen visited. Barbara explained that “he became somewhat of a mythological figure!”

He had helped Jewish scientists escape Europe by way of Denmark and Sweden, and “he understood his role, his duty to help other scientists escape and find placement,” she said.

We parted on Thursday with a promise from her and Mikkel to return, and for our part, a huge thank you for their coming all this way to experience the place where the Bohrs, father and son, had made a difference, not only in the advancement of physics but in a changed world.

Niels Bohr skiing on Sawyer’s Hill, 1944. Photo courtesy of Los Alamos Historical Society Archives