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Oral-History:Joan Leamy James

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About Joan Leamy James

Joan Leamy James came out of the Katharine Gibbs School secretarial program to work as a secretary for Dr. Britton Chance, starting in March 1944, as a secretary typing up biweekly reports and other such duties in Group 63, Division 6, until the end of the war; and then till 1946 as more of an administrative assistant, still working for Chance, at the Office of Publications. It was a nice, informal atmosphere, where people worked hard without needing strict rules, didn’t slack. Rad Lab had a nice social life for the young and single; scientists didn’t look down on secretaries. Britton Chance was a dynamic individual, brilliant, a nice person, and a good administrator.


About the Interview

JOAN LEAMY JAMES: An Interview Conducted by William Aspray, IEEE History Center, 10 June 1991

Interview # 072 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Joan Leamy James, an oral history conducted in 1991 by William Aspray, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

Interview: Joan Leamy James Interviewer: William Aspray Date: 10 June 1991 Location: Boston, Massachusetts


Joining the Rad Lab

Aspray:

This is an interview on the 11th of June 1991 with Joan Leamy James. It's part of the MIT Radiation Laboratory Oral History Project. The interviewer is William Aspray. Could you begin by telling me about your background before you came to the Radiation Laboratory?

James:

Yes. I graduated from Brookline High School, and after Brookline High School I went to Katharine Gibbs School in Boston and was there for two years in the liberal arts/secretarial program. They now give an associate degree at Katharine Gibbs, but at that time it was considered a two-year business school. The Radiation Lab was my first job out of Katharine Gibbs. In fact, Katharine Gibbs placement department sent me over to Radiation Lab. After I was interviewed at Radiation Lab and accepted the position, a friend of mine called and said that he had a friend in the wool business and would I go and be interviewed for a secretarial job. I was not aware of the rules and regulations about once you've accepted a job, you don't even go for an interview on another job. But this was a friend of mine's father, so I went for the interview. When they asked me to join their firm, I said, "I've accepted a job at Radiation Laboratory." So I went back to the Katharine Gibbs placement department, and the placement director said, "If you take that job at the wool firm, we'll never recommend you for placement again. That's not the way we operate. But it's up to you. Since this was my best friend's father who arranged the interview and indicated displeasure if I did not take the position, I deliberated all one night and one morning and finally made the choice of Radiation Laboratory. Because I had a good record at Katharine Gibbs, I felt it was not worth doing anything to jeopardize it. As it turned out, I made the right choice because not many years after that, all the wool firms in Boston closed. And from Radiation Lab I went on to other things that were connected with Radiation Lab.

Work and Responsibilities

Aspray:

Tell me about where you placed within the Laboratory.

James:

I was in Group 63. Group 63 was a part of Division 6, and Dr. Britton Chance was the group leader of Group 63. When he interviewed me for the job. I forget whether the salary was twenty-one dollars a week or twenty-three, but I do know that I did ask him for two dollars more than whatever it was he offered. He went into the personnel department and came back, and he said, "Fine. You have your twenty-three dollars a week." [Chuckling] So that was how I got started there. That was in March of 1944. That was rather late in the war period.

Aspray:

Right. So the Lab was already quite large by that time.

James:

Yes, indeed. In fact recently I threw away my badge, thinking, well, I'll never need that anymore. But I know it was maybe like in the four thousands. Most of my association with Radiation Lab even came after the war was over. I stayed on with Dr. Chance in the Office of Publications, and that went on for a good year and three months or six months after that.

Aspray:

What were your responsibilities?

James:

I was a secretary. When I first joined the Lab and went into Group 63, I was with the mechanical engineering group. Later I was moved to another group of engineers and physicists in Group 63. Primarily my job was typing bi-weekly reports that the staff members had to write. This is how I got quite expert at reading handwriting. [Chuckling] Because there were probably 26 of them, many with scrawling handwriting. And engineering terminology was quite new to me.

Aspray:

It was a trial?

James:

Yes, indeed. And then also there were dictaphones. In those days the recording machines were called dictaphones. They came on these cylinders. I did many of those. I was actually at Radiation Lab for two years. From March of '44 until February of '46.

Aspray:

So you were there until just about the end?

James:

Very much so, yes. In fact, we moved from Building 24 to Building 20 because Building 24 was being phased out. So yes, we practically closed the doors. Because Dr. Chance was editor of a group of Radiation Lab textbooks, he was one of the last ones to leave the premises.

Written Reports

Aspray:

It's interesting when I've talked to some of the technical staff, they don't remember having to write regular reports. But because you typed them, [Chuckling] you remember.

James:

Indeed I do. Well, I must say to you now, I don't know if they did in other groups, but in Group 63 they were required to write a report every two weeks. Each one was a good page and a half. In fact that was one of their primary assignments. If they did not have their report in, there was some question about why it wasn't there. They don't remember that? Are you talking about Group 63?

Aspray:

I haven't interviewed anyone else from Group 63. So that could be the reason. When these reports came in, what would happen to them?

James:

Dr. Chance reviewed them, and I don't know what happened to them afterwards. The primary objective of the reports was to see what staff members were doing and to make sure that they were accomplishing what had been assigned to them. They were both individual and project progress reports.

Aspray:

As far as you know, these were retained somewhere in the office? We'd like to see if there's a record left from this.

James:

Dr. Chance would be the one to ask.

Aspray:

Okay. I've seen him here.

James:

Yes. In fact, tomorrow he's on for the imaging? But I suspect that the reports are no longer available. In fact, I think they probably got torn up long ago.

Aspray:

Though one never knows. You put something in a warehouse someplace, and it can sit there for a long time.

James:

Yes it's worth pursuing because, maybe all his files were just moved someplace.

Aspray:

Were you responsible for any other kinds of filings or reports or anything else that came through? Purchasing or any of those things?

James:

No. That was all done separately. In fact, in our Group 63, as I recall, there were two or three purchasing agents, and they worked with the main purchasing department in the Laboratory. So there was a lot of decentralization within the groups. Everybody pretty much had their own specialization. When I moved out of Group 63 with Dr. Chance to the Office of Publications, I had more tasks of an administrative assistant. However, I must say to you that my whole experience at Radiation Laboratory was not the executive-type secretarial work that I had been trained for, and I knew that Radiation Lab was just an interim to really getting into the real world.

Informal Organization

Aspray:

What else can you tell me about the way the place really ran in terms of the procedures and the paperwork, how daily business got transacted?

James:

The first thing is that while it was not a particularly structured organization, it's amazing how hard people worked. Yet there was never the pressure or somebody watching over you that there was in the job I went into after that. In fact, one of my memories of Radiation Lab is that at noontime, we used to make lunch — actually set up a table. The girls took turns phoning the local delicatessen, having food sent over. We were assigned to mixing up the tuna fish or whatever. So every noontime, we practically had a picnic. [Chuckling] The staff came in, and they made their own sandwiches, but all the ingredients were there. That was a very nice social hour, but yet you'd be surprised that nobody took advantage of that. The people came in, they went about making their sandwiches, chatted while they were eating, but then went right back to their desks without anybody telling them to. They were motivated. There was a lot of work to be done. But I can't help but feel that nowadays that somebody might have to come in and say: "All right, fellows we've had lunch long enough." But that was not the case in Group 63.

The other thing is that people's desks were a mess. And when I went to my next job at a chemical company and was secretary for the treasurer, one of the rules in that company is that every desk had to be cleaned that night. Nothing on top. No stacks of papers. The only thing you could have on your desk was an inkwell. [Chuckling] When you needed new pencils you turned in the old pencil stubs. [Laughter] I'm trying to point out to you that no one seemed to take advantage of the fact that people just went on about their business, and no one seemed to worry if Dr. Chance walked into the room. If two people were talking, it was normal and certainly about their work. I was just amazed at how well the place ran. It shows that you don't have to necessarily have rules and regulations. If the people are sufficiently motivated, they will make their own rules and regulations.

Office of Publications

Aspray:

Tell me about the operation of the Office of Publications. What was your mission, and what kinds of things did you produce there?

James:

Dr. Chance was editor of certain textbooks that had to do with the work that he had done in collaboration with the members of his group. Much of the typing and all that was done elsewhere. Except in the case of what Dr. Chance was contributing to the textbooks, I did that. But as far as the typing for the rest of his group, that was done elsewhere. There was a typing pool, as I recall. But Dr. Chance could explain to you better just exactly how those books got together.

Aspray:

The books were produced by whom?

James:

McGraw-Hill was the publisher. The Radiation Lab Technical Series included 30 volumes. There were other editors in addition to Dr. Chance and there was an Editor-in-Chief.

Social Life

Aspray:

What can you tell me about the social life of the Laboratory?

James:

Well, the social life was great for an 18-year-old. [Chuckling] Yes, we had a good time. There were lots of parties, and it was a fun place to work. There was a contingent of unmarried men at Radiation Lab because they were all newly out of school. So it was a great place for a young 18-year-old to be working, I can assure you. I had a very busy social life during the war when many of my friends did not because they were not in the same position as I was in.

Aspray:

As I understand it, because of security classifications and because people worked such long hours, there was this natural tendency for people to stay within the Laboratory for their social lives. Especially people who came in from another part of the country and hadn't established contacts with other people. Did you see that?

James:

Because so many of them came from all over the country, they didn't know anybody else except the people they met in the Laboratory. Yes, that's very true. That's right. I think this is probably why so many of those friendships have lasted over the years because they were dependent upon one another, not only as far as their work was concerned, but for their social activity.

Treatment of Secretaries

Aspray:

How were the secretaries treated in the Rad Lab by the technical staff?

James:

Very well.

Aspray:

There wasn't any looking down upon people or big egos or those sorts of problems?

James:

No, not at all. Not at all. As a matter of fact, at the chemical company that I went to afterwards, there was much more of that feeling of the executives looking down on secretaries, you see. But I did not get that at all at Radiation Laboratory. It was just one group all working together.

Aspray:

That's a great environment.

James:

Yes. That's a good point you've made. I never thought of that. After I left the chemical company, I then joined a company that was started up by three staff members from Radiation Laboratory. So I went right back into pretty much the same environment that I had at Radiation Lab. I have never felt that other than for the six months that I was at the chemical company.

Aspray:

Interesting.

James:

The other thing is that the people were so young. When I moved on to the chemical company, they were much older. But my feeling is that even after the Radiation Lab staff members got into their forties and fifties, they probably still treated the nonprofessionals the same as they did at Radiation Lab.

Britton Chance

Aspray:

What can you tell me about Britton Chance? What kind of person was he?

James:

He was a very dynamic individual, and a very brilliant person. A very nice person, and a very fine person to work for. In those days a lot of people smoked, and I did smoke. When I was in the Office of Publications group, another girl was in the office that Dr. Chance and I occupied for a few months. She was the technical illustrator. We both smoked one cigarette one after another. That poor man would have to sit in the office with us, and he never once complained. And I would say to him, "Does the smoke bother you?" And he said, "Not a bit." But very often when he came back into the office, he would open the window. I don't think there are many people who would put up with the amount of smoke that we generated. This was when smoking was acceptable, but it still was a very unhealthy environment that we created for him. I think it just speaks well for him that he never complained about that. His mind was also on other things — his work and what have you — and he was sometimes oblivious to things that were going on that were not of importance.

Aspray:

At the Radiation Laboratory, it seems like a lot of people who had had only scientific research positions or academic positions were thrown into positions where they had administrative responsibilities for the first time. Apparently many of them were very good at it. Not everybody, but many of them were very good. How was Britton Chance as an administrator?

James:

I think that he was perfectly all right. He had been at the University of Pennsylvania, and he had been doing research and administration for a number of years. From what I could see, just out of school, 18 years old, I feel that he was a very good administrator.

Aspray:

Are there some stories you want to tell me about life at the Rad Lab? Things that you remember that are somehow representative of what it was like there?

James:

No, I really do not have anything specific. As I say, the thing that stands in my mind is the smoking and how Dr. Chance never did complain about that. But otherwise, it’s just sort of one nice picture, an image of a very nice time both work-wise and socially. But I do not have any specific little anecdotes that would describe my experience there. The only thing is that I remember my mother saying to me, "Now, you know the next job you go to is not going to be like this." [Laughter]

Aspray:

She was right.

James:

She was. With regard to the room where we had lunch, my desk at one time was right near the cabinets where we stored the food. Very often people would come in and make a sandwich in the middle of the afternoon, and it was perfectly all right. And I did also. So I started to put on a few pounds, and my mother used to say to me, "Of course, that second lunch you have at three o'clock in the afternoon." [Chuckling] And she would add; "Now you know you're not going to have any of that at the next job you go to." So we had a very good time. And in fact, I just came from a luncheon that Dr. Chance had asked me and another fellow to organize. We had 47 people at our luncheon. We had 33 staff members, and the rest were guests. And that's a pretty good percentage because I understand that Ted Saad has about 150 or 165 staff members signed up for the reception tonight.

Aspray:

Right.

James:

So we had a good percentage for lunch today. We did expand beyond Group 63. Other groups in Division 6 were included. We had a few people from Group 62 and Group 61. But the majority were from Group 63. We had a nice luncheon, and everybody feels it's almost like a college reunion and not a work reunion.

Aspray:

Well thank you very much.