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Why Were So Many Women Left on the Edges of History?

03/17/2014 02:53 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2014

One of the pioneers of psychology, Ruth Tolman, helped develop early treatment for PTSD after World War II, and led the effort to make psychology a science. So why is she remembered best as Richard Tolman's wife and Robert Oppenheimer's best friend?

"The paper trail is thin," historian Patricia Klaus worried as we began researching our book. (An Atomic Love Story: The Extraordinary Women in Robert Oppenheimer's Life.) She was referring to Ruth Tolman, born in 1893; Kitty Puening, in 1910; and Jean Tatlock in 1914, now remembered mainly for their connection to the scientist who led the wartime effort to build the atomic bomb. Our job was to rescue the three women from what seemed like historical oblivion. What we didn't realize was that following the paper trail would take us on a treasure hunt, more exciting than anything we could have imagined. We expected these women to be fascinating and to expose a facet of the scientist that others had missed; we didn't realize how much more they had to teach us about that generation of women born around the turn of the 20th century, especially those attempting to move into a man's world.

Of the three, it was Ruth Tolman who managed that crossover. She received a PhD in psychology from UC Berkeley. She was also the wife of the eminent Caltech physicist Richard Tolman who, with the country heading for war, had been beckoned to Washington to serve as vice chairman of the National Defense Research Committee, as well as scientific advisor of the Manhattan Project in the making of world's first weapon of mass destruction.

In 1940, Robert Oppenheimer was named (with Richard Tolman's enthusiastic support) scientific director at Los Alamos. Richard was 59 that summer, Robert was 36. At 47, Ruth was about halfway in age between her husband and Robert. The men, 23 years apart in age, were two of the most brilliant scientists in America, destined to fill critical roles in the winning of the war. As wife and best friend of these two central figures in the Manhattan Project, Ruth found herself in the swirling center of the war's most secret effort, even as she excelled in her own field, among the psychologists who flocked to wartime Washington.

Before World War II, Ruth became a practicing clinical psychologist working in the criminal justice system in Los Angeles. Psychology was a discipline that fascinated both her husband and her best friend, and helps explain the bond forged among the three. She was probably the only woman in the world who had an intimate knowledge of what was going on in Los Alamos, where Robert was in charge of building the bomb, and in Washington and England, where Richard was coordinating the Allied effort to beat the Germans to the bomb, which involved him in all manner of secret intrigues, including spiriting famous Jewish scientists out of Europe only a few steps ahead of the Gestapo.

At the same time, Ruth was working her way through the government agencies that employed psychologists. The Tolmans had rented a house in Washington, with extra bedrooms and a separate guest apartment, a place for Richard to touch down between flights to secret places. It became a refuge for a revolving cast of friends and colleagues including anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Robert Oppenheimer stayed at the Tolmans' when he was called to the capital.

Ruth's last assignment in Washington was at the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, where she devised tests to assess the psychological stability of field agents. Later, working with the Veterans Administration in Los Angeles, she would help establish some of the first treatments for soldiers returning with what was then called battle fatigue, now PTSD -- post traumatic stress disorder.

After the war, Ruth became active in the American Psychological Association, serving as president of the California branch; she contributed important papers to the field and, using her connections, convinced Oppenheimer -- then Director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, a bastion of the "hard" sciences such as math and physics -- to include the "soft" science of psychology. Ruth was on the board that met in Princeton twice a year to advise Oppenheimer on the new frontiers in psychology.

Jean Tatlock and Kitty Puening Oppenheimer had equally interesting, if more limited, lives. Jean became a medical doctor and a psychiatrist, but was undone by severe depressions. She took her own life when she was just 29, ending her promising work with troubled children. Kitty Puening Oppenheimer spent the last part of her life, fortified by alcohol, raging against her husband's detractors, and her failure to succeed on her own.

Jean died in 1944, Ruth in 1957 and Kitty in 1967 -- recent history, really. At first, the paper trail simply led us back to Oppenheimer. Then we started to discover tantalizing clues: A footnote in a book mentioned that Jean Tatlock had been best friends in high school with the poet May Sarton, and that led directly to a cache of 150 letters from Jean to May in the New York Public library. Kitty came to America with her German parents when she was three, and had been married three times before she wed Robert; we were able to track down cousins in Germany who were able to discount Kitty's claims of an aristocratic heritage. We found two of Ruth's nieces in Berkeley, and most delightful of all, 99-year-old Jerome Bruner, a leader in the field of cognitive psychology, who became a close and devoted friend to Ruth, knew her husband and Best Friend as well, and who gave us first-hand accounts of the Tolman house in Washington during the war. And of Ruth's value in the history of the field. The paper trail became a wide avenue, offering a fresh new look at a woman who deserves to be remembered not just for the men she knew, but for her place in the history of psychology in America.