Elizabeth Rona

Thanks to Stanka Jovanovic, who sent a photo from the Marie Curie Museum in Paris.  Jovanovic’s father-in-law Dragoljub Jovanovic (Yovanovitch) is sitting to Rona’s right. They were two of many living Marie Curie collaborators attending the 1967 celebration of her 100th birthday at the Curie Institute in Paris.  The next photo is of the medal they received at the time.

Yovanovitch 1967


Elizabeth Rona at the Radium Institute in Vienna in 1925:


Much thanks to Carl S. Helrich, Professor Emeritus of Physics at Goshen College for this post about nuclear physicist Elizabeth Rona.

My grandmothers were 19th century Swedes. So I cannot point to them. And my Swedish mother was from the same mold. But I am a Manhattan District Urchin (Oak Ridge, 1944 – college). I was 3 when we moved to Oak Ridge.

I cannot claim Elizabeth Rona as a grandmother. She never married. But I at least encountered her at the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies, where I took my high school physics course (PSSC) and sort of was around her when I volunteered a summer there while at Case.

Elizabeth was a grand old lady of nuclear physics. She simply loved the science and would not quit. She was born in Budapest in 1890, received her PhD from the University of Budapest in 1912 and by 1921 was at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute Berlin-Dahlem.  In 1923 she worked at the Radium Institute in Vienna (see picture above) and by 1928 worked with the Joliot-Curies.  In 1941, she fled to the USA and began teaching at Trinity College, a Catholic women’s college.  She did OSRD (Manhattan District) work on P0-210 initiator (for the neutron shower at detonation) and in 1947 began working at ORINS Oak Ridge.  In 1965 she moved to work at the Institute of Marine Sciences University of Miami, then returned to Oak Ridge where she worked until her death in 1981.

She was an inspiration, and had a good sense of humor, which was not always evident.  She was a great scientist, and yet had humility.  At ORINS they used to have a comical graduation where the degree DRIP (Dabbler in Radioisotope Procedure) was awarded to participants in their summer courses. I remember Elizabeth appearing in a lab coat and an ORINS cape at graduation.

Of course I know of the women at the plants in Oak Ridge. Tennessee high school graduates (women) were one of the only sources of workers left the District. The men were all drafted. Those high school women were NOT science illiterate.

I have used the grandmother line to emphasize the importance of really understanding to my students. I must get another one.


I was curious about Carl’s comment about his Swedish family at the beginning of this post.  When I asked him to tell me a bit about his family, he shared these stories:

My paternal grandmother was Hannah Forsberg Hallbeck. She was the niece of Carl Svante Hallbeck a Swedish artist, whom he adopted for reasons lost in history. She was from The northern tip of Sweden near Lappland. She was very attractive and stopped my grandfather Otto Helrich in his tracks when he went to talk with Hallbeck (in this country). I cannot tell you very much about her education except to say in that time in Sweden no more than 8th grade was available publicly. But Hallbeck had university training and loved her. He also traveled widely as an artist bringing his wife and Hannah along. She may have received more education.

Hannah was dearly loved by all her children. And Otto was devastated when she died. She must have been a wonderful wife and mother. My father only once said, “She could be peppery.” She was the one who convinced my father to become an engineer.

I never saw Hannah. My father was 14 years older than my mother. So my roots reach back. But grandparents die. My wife has told me that Hannah is a person she would have liked to know.

My Grandmother Hilda Karlsson was one of 5 girls and one boy in the family of a widow. My Great Grandmother Karlsson worked hard for various families as a domestic. I cannot speak to Hilda’s education, although my mother told me that Hilda’s brother Axel had only two years of schooling and then had to go to work. So Hilda may have had little more.

Hilda was working as a cook for a family when she met my Grandfather Nicolaus Ohman. She was probably 13 or maybe 14. Nicolaus, a year younger than Hilda, had an 8th grade education, but was a tool and die maker. So he had other training. Hilda kept Nicolaus in food out the backdoor because he could not manage his money.

My mother Anna Brita was born out of wedlock to this young pair. They could not care for her, so at about four she went to her Grandmother Karlsson’s to live. She said that because her Grandmother had leave early to work for various families my mother often woke to an empty apartment, a rusk (a form of Swedish toast I never liked) and a cold cup of coffee.

The Ohmans immigrated to the USA in 1920. Axel, who was then sailing for the American Merchant Marine, supplied the passage money. My mother told me many times of stepping into the big hall at Ellis Island. She was 9 years old. She also told me that decisions on whether someone could stay or had to return were made at that point.

I have heard some humorous stories, and some not at all humorous, about growing up as an immigrant in Dedham outside Boston.

My grandmother Hilda Ohman was superstitious. This seems not uncommon. She really would walk long distances to avoid a sidewalk crossed by a black cat. She was a wonderful old lady who charmed everybody at our wedding. She also got up early in the mornings to provide my grandfather’s breakfast and make his lunch before he left for work. My grandfather smoked too much and spent the weekends sleeping off the great quantity of beer he had Friday evenings. He touched nothing during the week because of his work. He also made good aquavit for the boss during prohibition, which meant he held his job. My mother had to go out and buy some of the ingredients and was terribly embarrassed. But many people were doing the same.

Perhaps because my grandfather had always been somewhat loose, my grandmother Hilda insisted that my mother Anna Brita go to a girl’s high school in Boston rather than Dedham high. That meant my mother’s education really stopped at about the 8th grade. The high school in Boston intended to train the girls for homemaking.

My mother met my father Carl at a dance. He had a car and volunteered a ride to a number who needed it. Anna Brita was the last stop. So my father asked if she was Swedish. My mother thought, Oh no, all the dumb questions are going to follow. But my father had been brought up speaking only Swedish to his mother Hannah.

As I said, I am a District Urchin. We followed my father down to Oak Ridge after he had been there alone for a year. He was project manager for John A. Johnson Construction. My father stopped the Swedish because of the suspicions using a language that sounded like German brought on. Otherwise we would have spoken Swedish at home

I came to understand that in a Swedish family the man is the center. This does not work well in practice. But my mother stifled much and my father seemed blind to a lot. They stuck it out. But I was not sure they would when I was 14. My mother could have been a lot more.

We were pretty Swedish in the middle of Oak Ridge. My mother saw to that. We had the flags on the Christams tree and little tompte running around. We ate Lutfisk on Christmas eve and celebrated the evening not the day. My mother had me pronouncing Swedish at a young age, which later helped a lot when I had to learn German. Maintaining the culture and keeping the stories has always been left to the Swedish woman. My mother fulfilled that very well.

My mother was, however, pretty much in her mother’s mold. She learned to cook from her mother and experimented with everything. She made Swedish coffee bread almost every Saturday for Sunday morning. She kept a house that I referred to as Swedish clean, and neat as a pin. She had stories about her grandmother Ohman making plaettar (small Swedish crepes) for all the cousins. She made them for me, but I know she would have loved to have a house full of cousins to cook for.

My mother was also borderline superstitious. she used to knock on wood and tell us to hush if we ever said something like “I’ve never had an accident.” She was convinced that pride cometh before a fall was a natural law.

After the original shock of loosing my father Anna Brita blossomed into a person she had not been before. Her family had been very outgoing and social. And she became that.

That’s a lengthy story of my Swedish grandmothers and my mother. I realized that because of the twists and turns that I could only justify the memory by telling the tale. The education was not high. The Swedish woman was a homemaker, although some of that is nuanced.

I have attached a picture Hallbeck painted of Hannah when she was about ten. He used her often as a model. She appears in the center of a Hallbeck painting that hangs in our living room of the park in Stockholm in winter.

I hope you can thread your way through this. Use what you think appropriate, if any.

Incidentally, I am not the kind of Swede Nicolaus or even my father was.


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2 Responses to Elizabeth Rona

  1. Carol, I have a photo of Rona from 1967 celebration of 100 y of Marie Curie’s birth. Would you like to have it?

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