Joan Hinton '42: Traversing the 20th Century

By Forest Purnell '13


For whatever reason, the late Joan Hinton ’42 is one alumna you won’t find mentioned in Bennington College’s public literature or website. Described in numerous books about women physicists, histories of the Manhattan Project, accounts of foreigners in Maoist China, most literature frames Hinton at best as a quirky character and at worst a sensational ideologue. In 2010, the New York Times ran the headline “Joan Hinton, Physicist Who Chose China Over Atom Bomb, Is Dead at 88.” In 2002 NPR quoted her: “I’ve taken part in two of the greatest things of the 20th century — the development of the atom bomb and the Chinese Revolution. Who could ask for anything more than that?”


What most accounts of Hinton have failed to express is what that last quote evokes—the perspective of experience. Hinton’s life represents a unique intellectual and emotional struggle through the crises of late modernity. The failures, surprises and decisions she encountered in her lifetime may illuminate certain paths for us today in these times at the “end of history” when ideology is at its strongest, wars rage in persistent shadows and the market has far outstripped its rights. 

When Hinton graduated from Bennington College in 1942 she was already involved in work that would change the course of the twentieth century. Hinton could not have known that the Field Work Term research she had been conducting at Cornell University, and later University of Wisconsin, would lead her to a secret government program known as the Manhattan Project. 

An exuberant youth only two years out of her undergraduate study, she brought a naïve curiosity to Los Alamos. To her nuclear physics was an almost-mystical pursuit, a way to understand the universe on a deeper level. Did she suspect it could yield the most destructive weapon ever known to mankind, a weapon to take civilization itself to the brink of destruction, and symbolize the farce of modern existence? Working on one of two teams led by Enrico Fermi, Hinton and like-minded colleagues built two reactors for test assemblies of enriched uranium and plutonium. One, the “low-powered” reactor, would become the prototype for harnessing nuclear fission energy and the other, the “high-powered,” would develop into the Bomb.

She described witnessing the first nuclear detonation in human history, the Trinity Test, on July 16, 1946: “It was like being at the bottom of an ocean of light. We were bathed in it from all directions. The light withdrew into the bomb as if the bomb sucked it up. Then it turned purple and blue and went up and up and up... Then suddenly the sound reached us. It was very sharp and rumbled and all the mountains were rumbling with it. We suddenly started talking out loud and felt exposed to the whole world.”

Three weeks later, the US dropped “Little Boy” on Hiroshima and “Fat Man” on the city of Nagasaki. Hundreds of thousands died in the two blasts. “I knew I would have to sell my soul or quit,” Hinton told the Washington Post in 1978. 

There was a brief period for a year after the bombing of the Japanese cities when Hinton engaged in peace activism. Along with other colleagues she helped re-orient the Federation of American Scientists, founded in 1945 at Los Alamos, toward a new moral agenda. She advocated the banning of nuclear weapons and concurrent internationalization of nuclear energy. During this time Hinton sent the mayors of every major city in the United States a small glass case filled with glassified desert sand and a note asking whether they wanted their cities to suffer the same fate. For Hinton, however, these kinds of actions must have eventually seemed futile. Another direction was needed.

Since her first days at Los Alamos, Hinton had been involved in a trans-Pacific letter exchange with her boyfriend, Erwin Engst. Originally a farmer from upstate New York, Engst had gone to China in early 1946 to start a dairy program with backing from the United Nations. Engst arrived at the height of the Chinese Civil War. He stayed with the Soviet-supported Communist Party as they attempted to wrest control from the US-supported Nationalists following the defeat of the Japanese. Like many young Americans at the time (including Joan’s brother William Hinton, who himself had been conducting sociological research in China since 1937) Engst was inspired by first-hand accounts of the activities of the Chinese Communists, the promise of a peasant revolution and an egalitarian society both fully modern and yet with no exploiting class or the steep inequities of capitalism. These prospects as well as experiences on the ground had been the content of the letters Engst sent Hinton—Hinton explained her work, her awe of it, and the off-hour hikes and discussions with her Los Alamos colleagues.

Not quite a year into her moral crisis after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hinton began to make discrete plans to leave the United States. With the help of  fellow scientist Enrico Fermi, himself a defector from Mussolini’s Italy, Hinton applied for a passport. With help from Engst she contacted Soong Qingling, the widow of President Sun Yat-sen, who met her when she arrived by steamship to Shanghai in 1948. From there Soong Qingling helped Hinton enter a communist underground railroad which would allow her to eventually reach the stronghold city of Yan ‘An, where Engst was. Hinton recounted some of her experiences along the way, including staying in a house full of male actors who disguised themselves as women in order to reduce suspicions by the nationalists. By the time Hinton reached her destination a year later, the communists had gained control of Beijing and soon after, the rest of the mainland. 

In Yan’An, Engst and Hinton were married in a ceremony in the caves that the communists used as strategic shelter. Though neither Hinton nor Engst had intended to stay in China indefinitely, by this time the US media was reporting Hinton as “the atom spy that got away.” Despite the fact that China was severely under-industrialized at the time, and had no capacity for a nuclear program, the suspicion was serious enough to cause Hinton and Engst stay in China for the rest of their lives. By 1957, a decade before the Cultural Revolution, they had three children and were working in a small agricultural commune. 

During her last year at Bennington, Joan Hinton built a cloud chamber, a device for viewing radioactive particles. Until this academic term it was on display in the Dickinson Science Building, along with a sheet of paper containing a brief biography. In a likely unintentional but nonetheless symbolic gesture, the device has since been moved into permanent storage. In its place now is a trash bin. The purpose of this account has been to assert that Hinton deserves a place in the history of this college. The next issue of the Bennington Free Press will feature a rare and exclusive interview with Karen Engst, Joan Hinton and Erwin Engst’s daughter who grew up in Beijing along with her two brothers.