Interview with Madge Watson
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Northwest Public Television | Watson_Madge
Man one: --Pretty good shape.
Robert Bauman: Okay.
Man one: Okay. I'm up. I'm rolling.
Man two: I’m rolling.
Bauman: Okay. All right. Well, why don't you go ahead and say your name just for the record first?
Madge Watson: Madge Watson. When I came, I was Madge Shardlow.
Bauman: And what was your last name?
Bauman: How do you spell that?
Bauman: Okay. Thank you very much. My name's Robert Bauman, and I'm conducting an oral history interview with Madge Watson. Today is July 17th of 2013, and the interview's being conducted on the campus of Washington State University, Tri-Cities. And we'll be talking today about your experiences working at the Hanford site. So I wonder if you could tell me first how you came to Hanford, what brought you here, how you heard about the place, and when that was.
Watson: I came in '48, and I was graduating. I was in my senior year at Washington State, Pullman, and I had my degree in bacteriology and public health. And they recruited on campus, and all they would say is, we can't tell you what you're going to be doing. It's very secretive. But you have just the background for it. So it kind of left you wondering what I was doing, but you had to have the FBI clearance and a medical test and all of that. But before long, I got the letter asking if I would like to work here and what to do. And so I said I'll start on the 1st of July. That was '48, and that was the year the Columbia flooded, and it really flooded, and they had put up the dike here. But I don't think I had ever been in this area before. I grew up in Spokane Valley, and we always went up in the mountains when we had time off. So I came down thinking, I'll try it for a year and see how I like it. And so I came down by train, and friends who lived in Kennewick met another girl who had the same degree I did and was coming down just for the summer, and took us to the George Washington Way hiring center there to check in. But you couldn’t—the bridge was washed out of the Yakima, so you had to go over Bombing Range Road, which was just a dirt road, and over the old bridge on the Yakima. Came in, and they said, well, housing is really scarce, because we've used all available housing for people who have been affected by the flood. But they took us out to North Richland to a barracks that had not been used in I don't know how long. It was so dirty, you couldn't believe it. They dropped us off, and they said, you go over here to get your meals—an enormous place there. But we get busy and cleaned up the room that we were assigned to, and went over to get something to eat for lunch and walked into the biggest room I had ever seen. And I didn't see another woman in there. And the girl I was with was blonde and very striking, and there were all these calls, and we thought, what are we into here? [LAUGHTER] So we went back and packed up our bags, our suitcases--we didn't have much--and hitchhiked back into town and went to where they had brought us out from and said, we really don't like it out there. [LAUGHTER] Do you have anything else? Not realizing that people were waiting months to get into town at that time. And they said, who hired you? And we said the right answer. So they found us housing just in back of where the Federal Building is, right away. And coming out of school, it was fine, because everybody was in together, and it was just a regular room with one bed and one dresser and a shower and a bathroom on each floor—it was two stories high. So we settled down and caught our bus and went out to work and found out we were in the water treatment plant for 100 F, and the man who was our supervisor--and I can't think of his name--but he had developed the systems that were used for water treatment in cities. All the new ones were using his design. And so we walked in, and he said, we've got a couple of college graduates, and let us loose on equipment we had never seen before. [LAUGHTER] Washington State didn't have that type of equipment. And so we worked on it, and it was very basic chemistry, so it wasn't anything that was difficult at all. But they started having trouble with the screens clogging up. And so they looked through the files at anybody that had any biological training. They put about six or seven of us in a separate room, gave us microscopes and books, and we learned about diatoms and all of the plankton that might follow screens, and worked on that for several months. And when that project was finished, I was asked if I would like to work in the fisheries building. Well, my mother and father and I all liked fish. I thought that sounded like a good place. So my first supervisor was Jared Davis. He was an entomologist, again, from Washington State. And caddisflies were his specialty. But what they were doing out there is wanting to know what the effect of the reactors that were running would have on the river, especially the fish. They were concerned about that. So we got out there, and it was the winter of '49, I think it was. It was so cold that when we went down to the river to take an area and get all the various things that were in the water off. If you took the rock out of the water, it froze immediately, so you had to do all your gathering under the water there. But I learned so much, because Jared was a good teacher. And it was very interesting, because the fisheries part had been there for several years. Dr. Foster, Dick Foster, was in charge of that. He'd come from the University of Washington. And to know exactly what was happening on the river from the many reactors that were taking the water in and coming out radioactive on some of the things, they had to go through all the different stages of plankton, the insects, the algae, all the various things that were in the river. And so it was really exciting. I brought a greeny that shows--I would like to show you. It wasn't very fancy at all. It was just a Quonset hut, and in between that was a counting—where you could do your counting of your samples. And then on the other side was another Quonset hut with a greenhouse behind it. And they were just getting started. Everybody was new. I would say practically all except the top people had just come out of school. They'd been in the service, and they were really anxious to get going. There was very little known about the effect of radiation on anything at that time. So it was all brand new, and if there was anything known, it was classified, and you had to get it out of the classified material on it. So we did everything. We had places where we grew the things in the lab, where we could have a controlled experiment. We sampled up and down the river. We had a boat that had a driver that could take us out on the river. We could set nets. We could get plankton nets. We could do all kinds of things like that. So every day was new and different, and everything you did led to something else that you wanted to try and find out why. What was doing what was happening? And so what I'm really trying to get across to you is how everybody came so enthused. They had studied in school. They were going to put this to use now, and it was really a very interesting, exciting place to work. I even learned to drive a weapons carrier that you had to double clutch. [LAUGHTER] I'd never thought I'd have to--
Bauman: When did you have to drive that?
Watson: We sampled in areas up and down off along the shore out deep. We tried everything, so at that time, they would never let it--when I looked at the job, I know my adviser said, Madge, if you go with--GE was running it—you won't find that you're handicapped by being a woman, that you will have your chances, and it was certainly true. I had every chance to do everything that anybody else did.
Bauman: Were there many other women working in the fishery area?
Watson: In the fisheries area, there weren't many. But as time went on, more and more came, but—no, there weren't actually. There was Jared and Ray Kupi and, of course, Dick was in charge of it. So they had the regular fish runways that you see. They had ponds outside that were there.
Bauman: So it was a fairly small group of people.
Watson: It was. It was. In fact, the lab that we had would be about 20 feet long and about eight or nine feet wide. We had a hood at one end, and we had Bunsen burners out everywhere. And I remember that one of the men that was there was—I had hair that was very long, and he was sure I was going to go up in flames. [LAUGHTER] So I would braid it or do something with it to keep it out of the way, because we were just learning and experimenting as we went.
Bauman: And so clarify, where was the location of these Quonset huts that you--?
Watson: They were not at the main building at 100 F that biology had started up. But they had been put up very early to try and figure out, because everybody was concerned about what effect it would have on the salmon there. I brought along an interesting article on Dick Foster's talking about it, and it has the layout of the place. I don't know if you want to try and get pictures of that eventually or not.
Bauman: Maybe we could after.
Watson: Yeah, afterwards.
Man one: Before you answer the next one, would you tip your glasses just a hair? If you just lift them up on your ear just a little bit like this way.
Bauman: Just sort of down a little.
Man one: So they tip down just a little bit. I don't want them to be uncomfortable for you.
Watson: No, they aren't.
Man one: I don't want you to feel like you have to move in a funny way. I'm just getting more reflection than I want.
Watson: Reflection than you want, sure.
Man one: That's great. Thank you so much. Sorry about that.
Bauman: No problem. So let's talk a bit about the area. You talked about first arriving and the situation with the housing. What were your impressions of Richland and the Tri-Cities in those early days here?
Watson: It was really fun. Living in the dorm, they had so much trouble losing people because of the dust storms, and it was pretty primitive conditions all right. But they put on classes every night, because there was no recreation here for anybody. So I took accounting. I took fly tying. I took hat-making. All kinds of different things. But you only stayed in town about two weekends out of the whole year. People didn't have cars then, which would seem so strange to my grandchildren. [LAUGHTER] But they didn't, but everybody had an FBI clearance. So where you worked, they would put up—the ones with cars would put up where they were going. And you signed up, and then you went with them. So I went in every direction there was from here going places, all with people that--
Bauman: So how did you get to the site? Did you take buses then? Is that how you got to and from the site?
Watson: Yes. You got up, and you had a bus that cane by and took you to—there's still the bus transfer station there, and it was much, much larger, of course, at that time. And you got on there, and it was really interesting, because there were so few women going out to the areas that very often the men would stand aside and let the women on first. I'm sure that doesn't happen anymore. [LAUGHTER] But it did then.
Bauman: And so you mentioned having security clearance. Obviously, security was a very important part of the Hanford site.
Watson: It was.
Bauman: I wondered if you'd talk about that a little more and any issues with that.
Watson: I'll go from the very first when, of course, the FBI went out and asked neighbors, and a neighbor called my mother and said, the FBI called about Madge, but I didn't tell them a thing. [LAUGHTER] But we had safety meetings one week. We had security meetings the other week. It was really drilled into you that you did not talk about what went on out in the plant and what you were doing. And I really realized that just this year when my daughter was asking me, Mom, you never talked about it. And I realized when I could, I hadn't. Evidently, it just was instilled so much into me not to talk about it. I've been with you all these years, and I didn't even know some of these things that you did. But she knew the people, because the people that you worked with became fast friends, and they truly were fast friends.
Bauman: Now, the people you worked with, did they come from all over the United States?
Watson: They did. They truly did. I worked this little Quonset hut that had the greenhouse, eventually. The next year, my husband-to-be, Don Watson, came, and he was a fisheries biologist, and they evidently, when they knew we were going to get married, they asked if I'd like to go work in the building next door. So I did. And it was very interesting work too, because they were just starting up, and we went out and went all over, even up to Saddle Mountain taking plant samples and doing the same thing that I'd done before there. And then you probably know of Leo Bustad who came. We had had biochemistry together in college, but he used a sheep as an experimental animal. And the place for that was just in back of where the Quonset was with the greenhouse. And so he needed bacteriological work done when he did postmortems on the animals. And so I got an autoclave and microscope and everything for working. And it was interesting, because there had been a close collaboration between Kadlec Hospital and here, out in the area. And so they did blood work every couple of weeks on everybody to--not that often. Maybe once a month. And so you got to know them. But it was good. You didn't have to have everything here. You could get the auger that you needed, the various dyes, and things like that from the hospital. So all the different groups worked together very well.
Bauman: And so Kadlec would do blood tests on everyone regularly? Is that what you're--
Watson: I assume it was Kadlec that did it. I really don't know for sure now whether they had—they came out to the area. You didn't go in there. They came out to the area, and you just did that. But I know that we worked very closely with Kadlec, and some of the people that worked there were the staff of the hospital too there, so it was very much a collaborative effort.
Bauman: Now you mentioned your husband was a fisheries biologist. Did you meet at work then?
Watson: We did meet at work. He took me fishing, and I caught a fish with a fly I tied myself, and we were married within five months. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: So I imagine that most of the people you knew in Richland were connected to Hanford, in some way, worked there.
Watson: They were. And every kind of things you got out on the bus. The first time when I got on the bus, I sat down in an aisle seat, and one of the fellows said, do you play bridge? I said, yes. He said, good. Turn around. And out comes the boards they had that would fit between the seats on the aisle there. And so you always had the seat waiting for you there to do that.
Bauman: I wonder if you could talk about maybe what were the most rewarding parts of the work you did or maybe some of the most challenging aspects of the work.
Watson: I worked with a series of people. After I had worked there and worked with Leo and then with Dr. Berry on another part, I went up to the main offices, and I worked with Dr. Porter, Dr. John Porter. He was growing algae, single cell algae, to do the biochemistry using radioactive materials on there. And it was really interesting, because I learned an aspect—I'd had the medical part, but I hadn't had it using it as experimental. And in all these, it was like being in grad school. You were paid for what you were doing, but you learned so much with everything. You learned. And I think all of us just felt challenged.
Bauman: So how long did you work at Hanford, and at what point did you stop working there and why?
Watson: When I was expecting my first child, then I stopped working. And I did not go back, but I have, over the years, used so much of what I learned. I was interested in League of Women Voters, and that was at the time the Clean Water Act was doing. And I handed out petitions, and I set up—I attended the meeting on the Columbia as a representative from the local league, and then was asked to set up one on the Snake and on the Yakima River, where we got all the users of water. And since my father and mother had a fruit and vegetable farm that was irrigated, I certainly knew the farming end of it. And what we were trying to do is get people together to understand water and the uses of the water. And one of the things that I was proudest of was the fact that it was the first time an Indian nation had accepted and taken responsibility for attending. At that time, their attorneys and their biologists were non-Native American. But today, it's very different. But we got people to talk in that way. The Yakima River, which at the time, was the dirtiest river in the state, we even had a meat processing plant that the water was taken in, and effluent went right back out into the river at the time. So a lot has been accomplished. But it takes time with everything.
Bauman: Was your interest in the Clean Water Act connected to the work you had done at Hanford then?
Watson: Yes, because I'd really gotten interested in the water, and, of course, my husband continued to work out there. He started in '49 doing the salmon counts, the red counts in which are the nests in the river. And nobody else could stand to be in a plane where they put the tip down and just circled around as you counted with a little clicker, the reds, to count them. And so he did that for over 40 years. So I had many different interests in water.
Bauman: Sure. So when you worked the site in the fisheries area, did you find any significant impact from Hanford, other—on the river or on the fish?
Watson: They thought it was going to be temperature, but it wasn't temperature. It was the chromium that they put in to—I think it was to stabilize the equipment that was in there. And that's what it was. And so we ran a bunch of tests on different levels of chromium and what would be toxic and would not be toxic.
Bauman: That was the sort of major finding you had.
Watson: That was. And the change in temperature was enough that they found that some of the bacteria that affected the fish were more—with the warmer water it was much harder on them.
Bauman: So what year was it then? You said that you were expecting your first child. What year was it?
Watson: That was '55.
Bauman: '55, okay. So I was going to ask you, I know an event that a lot of people were here at the time remember President Kennedy visited in 1963 to dedicate the N Reactor. I know you weren't working at Hanford Site anymore, but obviously it was something that the people in the community were very interested in, so I wonder if you have any memories of that.
Watson: I do. I lived on Butternut Street at the time. We had 50 preschool children on that street. So two of us mothers took our children and headed out to see it. And if you could see the number of cars—and so we thought we were being really clever tying a band on the antenna, on the car radio antenna. Well, so did everybody else. We looked and looked for our car [LAUGHTER] when it was through. But it was a fun time.
Bauman: Is there anything, any major events, other dignitaries visiting, or sort of incidents or anything that sort of stands out during your time working there that you remember?
Watson: Well, you did meet just about everybody, because there were so few when I was there that they came through looking to see what was being done. So you got to meet them. But those--what really stands out in my mind is how everybody cooperated. It really was a fun way to do it.
Bauman: Yeah. I'm going to shift a little bit and ask you a bit more about the community of Richland. You mentioned being involved in the League of Women Voters. And you also served on the city council. I wondered if you could talk about that, about what led you to get involved and what the community of Richland was like in the '50s and '60s.
Watson: Well, I said I was interested in League of Women Voters, and the first mayor was very interested in getting it. And one of the things that I did after I was not working out here any longer was I helped the school to establish a program that the principal said I've got children who've had all kinds of help in reading, and they still can't read, and they're smart as can be. And what's happening? So five of us went together and found a program, Slingerlands, and we spent an hour each day with one child, and it's using all the senses and figuring out which sense the child uses to learn to read, and a lot of repetition. And one child I had was dyslexic. But there's all different kinds of reasons for it. We just didn't know. And one of the gals there said—I had been asked if I would serve on the planning commission. And I had been doing this for about five years, and she said, Madge, I think you can make more of a difference there. So I did do that for six years, but in that time, I had always been interested in water, and so I was asked to serve on the state board on water. And I did that for a while. So everything kind of intertwines in what you do.
Bauman: So what time period was that then that you served on the planning committee and city council member?
Watson: Well, it must have been late '60s, early '70s. And then I was on the city council. I was appointed to the council, and then served a two-year term on it too. And then I decided that was enough meetings.
Bauman: That was good? [LAUGHTER] Now was your service on the state water board around the same time then?
Bauman: One of things, obviously, happening with Richland is it was a government town obviously, when you first moved here, and that changed at some point. I was wondering if you wanted to talk about that at all? Do you have any memories of that or anything that stands out about that?
Watson: Before it became--when it was a government town, you couldn't get a house until you had children. And so we were in the George Washington apartments just next to the Uptown there for five years. And then went up to a ranch house. And that was heaven. [LAUGHTER] And then when they sold the houses, we bought it, and after several years, decided we liked the area. But we built a home just in back of Jason Lee School.
Bauman: So when the federal government gave you the option to purchase, then, was when you bought the home?
Watson: Mm-hmm. Yeah. It certainly was a very generous offer.
Bauman: Were there any--in the '50s, late '40s into the '50s, you mentioned there wasn't a lot of entertainment.
Bauman: Were there any community events? At some point, Atomic Frontier Days started at some point. Any things like that?
Watson: Yes, I can remember the parades when the children were just really small that they had those. When you get that many people together, there were the mountaineers. There were all these different groups that did things together on the weekends. So there were activities, but there just weren't that many cars around. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: So I wonder if overall you could—what your thoughts were about the years that you worked at Hanford, what it was like as a place to work, your assessment of that.
Watson: I really didn't have any--I had grown up on the farm, and we worked on the farm. And all the time I was in college, I was a teaching assistant, because they didn't have any graduate students to do it, so I was doing that in chemistry. And so I don't have a lot to compare it to. But it was a very friendly place, and everybody knew somebody either through work or through where they lived. But there truly wasn't much to do. There was a movie theater, but it wasn't very big. And there weren't many places to eat.
Bauman: Is there anything I haven't asked you about that you would like to talk about or a memory that you haven't shared yet that you think would be good to share?
Watson: When I was looking through the material that I had in there, what really struck me was how long the friendships have been and how steadfast they have been. And it really--nobody had family here. So we were each other's family, and so you really got to know people in a way that I don't think you do in most places.
Bauman: Well, thank you very much for coming and sharing your memories and your experiences.
Watson: You’re welcome.
Bauman: I really appreciate it.
Years in Tri-Cities Area
Years on Hanford Site
Dr. John Porter