William L. Laurence

William Leonard Laurence (March 7, 1888 – March 19, 1977) was a Russian Empire-born Jewish American science journalist best known for his work at The New York Times.[1] He won two Pulitzer Prizes and, as the official historian of the Manhattan Project, was the only journalist to witness the Trinity test and the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. He is credited with coining the iconic term "Atomic Age" which became popular in the 1950s. He is also one of the first commentators to have compared the atomic bomb to a monster, helping to create a cultural trope that may have influenced such films as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Godzilla:[2] "It kept struggling in an elemental fury, like a creature in act of breaking the bonds that held it down" and "a monstrous prehistoric creature".[3]

William Leonard Laurence
William Laurence - cropped.jpg
Laurence on the island of Tinian before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Leib Wolf Siew

(1888-03-07)March 7, 1888
Salantai, Lithuania, Russian Empire
DiedMarch 19, 1977(1977-03-19) (aged 89)
Mallorca, Spain
CitizenshipUnited States (naturalized 1913)
EducationBoston University
EmployerThe New York Times
Known forReporting on the Atomic Age


Laurence was born Leib Wolf Siew in Salantai, a small city in the Russian Empire that is now in Lithuania. He emigrated to the United States in 1905, after participating in the Russian Revolution of 1905, and he soon changed his name, taking "William" after William Shakespeare, "Leonard" after Leonardo da Vinci, and "Lawrence" after a street he lived on in Roxbury, Massachusetts (but spelled with a "u" in reference to Friedrich Schiller's Laura). He attended Harvard University (1908–1911; 1914–1915), the University of Besançon (1919) and Harvard Law School (1921) before receiving his LL.B. from the Boston University School of Law in 1925.[4] He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1913. During World War I, he served with the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

In 1926, he began his career as a journalist, working for the New York World. In 1930, he began working at The New York Times, specializing where possible in reporting on scientific issues. He married Florence Davidow in 1931.

In 1934, Laurence co-founded the National Association of Science Writers, and in 1936 he covered the Harvard Tercenary Conference of Arts and Sciences, work for which he and four other science reporters shared the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Reporting.[5]

"Atomic Bill"Edit

A front page copy of The New York Times city edition dated August 7, 1945 featuring the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.

On May 5, 1940, Laurence published a front-page exclusive in the New York Times on successful attempts in isolating uranium-235 which were reported in Physical Review, and outlined many (somewhat hyperbolic) claims about the possible future of nuclear power.[6] He had assembled it in part out of his own fear that Nazi Germany was attempting to develop atomic energy, and had hoped the article would galvanize a U.S. effort.

Though his article had no effect on the U.S. bomb program, it was passed to the Soviet mineralogist Vladimir Vernadsky by his son, George Vernadsky, a professor of history at Yale University, and motivated Vernadsky to urge Soviet authorities to embark on their own atomic program, and established one of the first commissions to formulate "a plan of measures which it would be necessary to realize in connection with the possibility of using intraatomic energy". A Soviet atomic bomb project got started c. 1942; a full-scale Soviet atomic energy program began after the war.[7]

On September 7, 1940, The Saturday Evening Post ran an article by Laurence on atomic fission, "The Atom Gives Up". In 1943, government officials asked librarians nationwide to withdraw the issue.[8]

In April 1945, Laurence was summoned to the secret Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico by Major General Leslie Groves to serve as the official historian[9] of the Manhattan Project. In this capacity he was also the author of many of the first official press releases about nuclear weapons, including some delivered by the Department of War and President Harry S. Truman. He was the only journalist present at the Trinity test in July 1945, and beforehand prepared statements to be delivered in case the test ended in a disaster which killed those involved. As part of his work related to the Project, he also interviewed the airmen who flew on the mission to drop the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Laurence himself flew aboard the B-29 The Great Artiste, which served as a blast instrumentation aircraft, for the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. He visited the test Able site at Bikini Atoll aboard the press ship Appalachian, for the bomb test on July 1, 1946.[10]

US military encouraged the journalist William L. Laurence of The New York Times to write articles dismissing the reports of radiation sickness as part of Japanese efforts to undermine American morale. Laurence, who was also being paid by the US War Department, wrote the articles the US military wanted even though he was aware of the effects of radiation after observing the first atomic bomb test on 16 July 1945, and its effect on local residents and livestock.[6][11][12]

For his 1945 coverage of the atomic bomb, beginning with the eyewitness account from Nagasaki, he won a second Pulitzer Prize for Reporting in 1946.[5] At the office of the Times he was thereafter referred to as "Atomic Bill", to differentiate him from William H. Lawrence, a political reporter at the newspaper.

In his autobiography, Richard Feynman mentioned William Laurence standing next to him during the Trinity test. Feynman stated, "I had been the one who was supposed to have taken him around. Then it was found that it was too technical for him, and so later H.D. Smyth came and I showed him around."[11] Nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein has called Laurence "part huckster, part journalist, all wild card ... improbable in every way, a real-life character with more strangeness than would seem tolerable in pure fiction."[12]

In 1946, he published an account of the Trinity test as Dawn Over Zero, which went through at least two revisions. He continued to work at the Times through the 1940s and into the 1950s, and published a book on defense against nuclear war in 1950. In 1951, his book The Hell Bomb warned about the use of a cobalt bomb – a form of hydrogen bomb (still an untested device at the time he wrote it) engineered to produce a maximum amount of nuclear fallout.

In 1956, he was present at the testing of a hydrogen bomb at the Pacific Proving Grounds. That same year, he was appointed science editor of the Times, succeeding Waldemar Kaempffert. He served in this capacity until he retired in 1964.

He received honorary doctorates from Boston University (Sc.D., 1946), the Stevens Institute of Technology (Sc.D., 1951), Grinnell College (D.H.L., 1951) and Yeshiva University (D.H.L., 1957).[4]


Laurence died in 1977 in Majorca, Spain, of complications from a blood clot in his brain.[1]

Call for revocation of 1946 Pulitzer PrizeEdit

In 2004, journalists Amy Goodman and David Goodman called for the Pulitzer Board to strip Laurence and his paper, The New York Times, of his 1946 Pulitzer Prize.[13] The journalists argued that at the time Laurence "was also on the payroll of War Department"[14] and that, after the atomic bombings, he "had a front-page story in the Times"[15] disputing the notion that radiation sickness was killing people."[9] They concluded that "his faithful parroting of the government line was crucial in launching a half-century of silence about the deadly lingering effects of the bomb".[16][17]

In their 1995 book Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell assert, "Here was the nation's leading science reporter, severely compromised, not only unable but disinclined to reveal all he knew about the potential hazards of the most important scientific discovery of his time."[18]

Books by LaurenceEdit

  • Dawn Over Zero: The story of the atomic bomb. New York: Knopf, 1946.
  • We are not Helpless: How we can defend ourselves against atomic weapons. New York, 1950.
  • The Hell Bomb. New York: Knopf, 1951.
  • Men and Atoms: The discovery, the uses, and the future of atomic energy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "William Laurence, Ex-Science Writer For The Times, Dies". New York Times. March 19, 1977. Retrieved May 26, 2008. William L. Laurence, a science reporter who was the only journalist to witness the historic nuclear blast at Alamogordo, N.M., in 1945 and later the only newspaperman permitted to fly on the atomic bomb mission over Nagasaki, Japan, died here today of complications from a blood clot in the brain. He was 89 years old.
  2. ^ Hendershot, Cyndy (July 1998). "Darwin and the Atom : Evolution/Devolution Fantasies in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them !, and The Incredible Shrinking Man". Science Fiction Studies. Greencastle (Indiana): SF-TH Inc: 320.
  3. ^ Laurence, William L. (1947). Dawn Over Zero: The Story of the Atomic Bomb. Pickle Partners Publishing. p. 238.text at Google Books
  4. ^ a b http://search.marquiswhoswho.com/profile/200010892384
  5. ^ a b "Reporting". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2013-11-02.
  6. ^ "Vast Power Source In Atomic Energy Opened by Science; Report on New Source of Power". New York Times. May 5, 1940. Retrieved February 17, 2009. A natural substance found abundantly in many parts of the earth, now separated for the first time in pure form, has been found in pioneer experiments at the Physics Department of Columbia University to be capable of yielding such energy that one pound of it is equal ...
  7. ^ On this incident, see David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939–1956 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994): 59–60.
  8. ^ Sweeney, Michael S. (2001). Secrets of Victory: The Office of Censorship and the American Press and Radio in World War II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. pp. 196–198. ISBN 0-8078-2598-0.
  9. ^ a b Evans, Harold (2003). War stories: reporting in the time of conflict. Hawkhurst: Bunker Hill. ISBN 978-1-59373-005-5. During the development of the atomic bomb, project director Gen. Leslie Groves secretly hired William L. Laurence, a highly respected science reporter with The New York Times, to act as the project's official historian. Laurence eagerly accepted the job – his scientific curiosity and patriotic zeal perhaps blinding him to the notion that he was at the same time compromising his journalistic independence. After the bombing, the brilliant but bullying Groves continually suppressed or distorted the effects of radiation. He dismissed reports of Japanese deaths as 'hoax or propaganda.'
  10. ^ According to this source, "[Laurence] had the unique distinction of riding in the bomber that carried out the Nagasaki mission." See Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record, the Office of the Historian Joint Task Force One (New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co., 1946): 172.
  11. ^ Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman (W.W. Norton and company, New York, 1997. p. 135)
  12. ^ Wolverton, Mark (August 9, 2017). "'Atomic Bill' and the Birth of the Bomb". Undark Magazine.
  13. ^ Amy Goodman and David Goodman. "The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media that Love Them". Hyperion, 2004, pp. 296–298.
  14. ^ Groves, Leslie R. (1983). Now it can be told: the story of the Manhattan Project ([New ed.] ed.). New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-80189-1. It seemed desirable for security reasons, as well as easier for the employer, to have Laurence continue on the payroll of the New York Times, but with his expenses covered by the MED
  15. ^ Laurence, William L. (September 12, 1945). "U.S. Atom Bomb Site Belies Tokyo Tales: Tests on New Mexico Range Confirm That Blast, and Not Radiation, Took Toll" (PDF). The New York Times. Retrieved March 18, 2011.
  16. ^ William L. Laurence. Dawn Over Zero: The story of the atomic bomb. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946, p. 224. Quote: "mine has been the honor, unique in the history of journalism, of preparing the War Department's official press release for worldwide distribution".
  17. ^ Amy Goodman and David Goodman, "The Hiroshima Cover-Up: How the War Department's Times man Won a Pulitzer"
  18. ^ Mitchell, Robert Jay Lifton & Greg (1995). Hiroshima in America: fifty years of denial. New York: Putnam. ISBN 978-0-399-14072-3., quoted by Goodman, Amy and Goodman, David, "Hiroshima Cover-up: How the War Department's Times man Won a Pulitzer", [1].

Further readingEdit

  • Keever, Beverly Deepe. News Zero: the New York Times and the Bomb. Common Courage Press, 2004. ISBN 1-56751-282-8
  • Weart, Spencer. Nuclear Fear: A History of Images. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

External linksEdit