Feature

Joan Hinton, 1921–2010

The U.S. physicist who did farm work for Mao

As a young woman during World War II, Joan Hinton worked on the Manhattan Project, the crash program to design and build an atomic bomb. But after the bomb was used twice on the Japanese, she was heartsick, and in 1948 she left the U.S. for China, to join the revolutionary brigades of Mao Tse-tung.

Hinton, who died at 88 last week in Beijing, was born in Chicago and grew up in Vermont farm country, said The Wall Street Journal. Her mother, Carmelita Chase Hinton, founded the progressive Putney School, “where students learned to milk cows and were encouraged to study what they liked.” Her father, Sebastian Hinton, invented the jungle gym. Joan Hinton had an aptitude for physics and skiing, a combination that inspired the nickname she was given when she tried out for the Olympic ski team in 1940: “Atomic Joan.” She made the team, but the games were canceled when the war started.

After earning a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin in 1944, she became the youngest scientist recruited into the Manhattan Project, said The New York Times. But her initial excitement over the bomb turned to outraged opposition after the weapons she helped design obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She became “an outspoken peace activist,” and gave up physics. In 1948, she left the U.S. for what she thought would be a two-year visit to China. She was to remain there the rest of her life, a devoted follower of Mao. With her husband, Erwin Engst, an American dairy-cattle expert, she designed and built continuous-flow milk pasteurizers and other farm machinery. Her enthusiasm for the Chinese revolution never waned. “Of course I was 100 percent behind everything that happened in the Cultural Revolution,” she said in 2008. “It was a terrific experience.”

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