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Lilli Hornig, 96; worked for academic opportunities for women

Dr. Hornig, with a background in chemistry, worked on the Manhattan Project.

By Globe Staff 

As Lilli Schwenk Hornig was accumulating the academic credentials that led to her becoming one of the few women to work on the Manhattan Project, she encountered a routine entrance exam question in 1942 as she began chemistry graduate studies at Harvard University: Where did she want to be in 20 years?

“What I’d like to be doing is chairing a chemistry department in a major university,” she answered, “but realistically, I’ll probably be teaching in a women’s college.”

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In a 2003 essay for the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, Dr. Hornig wondered: “How could I have been so wise so early? Part of the credit surely goes to my reluctant mentors in the Harvard chemistry department, who made it clear from the outset that the three or four women students they admitted were a poor substitute for the men who had gone to war.”

Refusing to settle with continuing “indefinitely as someone’s research assistant,” or to let other women face that future, Dr. Hornig became a leading advocate for addressing sexism and gender inequity in academia, particularly in the sciences. In the early 1970s, she was the founding director of Higher Education Resource Services (HERS), a nonprofit that works to create a diverse community of women leaders.

Dr. Hornig, who also served on the Committee for the Equality of Women at Harvard, died of heart failure Friday in the Bethany Home skilled care center in Providence. She was 96 and for many years had lived in Cambridge, Providence, and Little Compton, R.I.

During her years of advocacy work, she directed the Committee on the Education and Employment of Women in Science and Engineering for the National Academy of Sciences. She also served on the national Task Force on Women, Minorities and the Handicapped in Science and Technology. “There is no reason why research associateships, which lead to financial help and professional advancement, should not be distributed regardless of sex or race,” she said in 1988 during her task force work.

In books and scholarly articles, Dr. Hornig examined gender inequality in its various forms at universities, including for women who, like her, were part of high-achieving academic couples. Her husband, Donald F. Hornig, who died in 2013, had served as president of Brown University.

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When hiring academic couples, university administrators “should guard against suggesting that that finding a position for a woman in a couple is less important than placing a man, or that a less prestigious institution in the area is the right place for her,” she wrote in a chapter for the 1997 book “Academic Couples: Problems and Promises.”

While Dr. Hornig was working with the Committee for the Equality of Women at Harvard, she edited “Equal Rites, Unequal Outcomes: Women in American Research Universities.” Among the issues she examined in that 2003 book was how the GI Bill, which opened universities and colleges to many returning veterans after World War II, “had unintended, unforeseen, and disastrous consequences for women.”

To begin with, at that time “very few women were entitled to [GI Bill] benefits, not even, for example, the intrepid pilots who ferried bombers across the North Atlantic,” she wrote. And because men were encouraged to attend the best institutions that would admit them, “the eventual outcome was, of course, to displace even very able women into less prestigious, lower-quality colleges,” Dr. Hornig noted.

Such schools, she added, “tended to be particularly deficient in facilities and faculty for science and engineering fields. Their female graduates had little chance of competing successfully for places in graduate and professional schools that already looked askance at women.”

An only child, Lilli Schwenk was born in Aussig, which is now Usti Nad Labem in the Czech Republic.

Her father, Erwin, worked in the pharmaceutical division of a chemical company. Her mother, the former Rascha Shapiro, had trained as a pediatrician. The family moved to Berlin in the late-1920s, and to the United States in 1933, after Hitler’s rise to power led to threats against Erwin.

When Dr. Hornig was a child, her father occasionally brought her to his lab. “I just loved all the glassware, and he gave me some micro-sized glassware for my dollhouse,” she recalled in a 2011 interview with the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s Voices of the Manhattan Project.

She graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and received a master’s and a doctorate from Harvard. Its science graduate facilities weren’t hospitable to women on many levels, including simple necessities. There wasn’t a ladies room in her research building, she recalled, and she needed a key for the room in another building.

She did, however, meet Donald Hornig on her first day of graduate school. They married in 1943 and lived in Woods Hole, where she later would be a life trustee of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Then they headed to Los Alamos, N.M., to work on the Manhattan Project developing the first atomic bomb. Dr. Hornig initially worked on the purification of plutonium, but was transferred to the high explosives lab when officials worried that plutonium would cause “reproductive damage,” she recalled in the foundation’s interview. Dr. Hornig tried “delicately” to suggest that men “might be more susceptible than I was; that didn’t go over well.”

After the war, she completed her doctorate and was a chemistry instructor at Brown University. Before turning to advocacy for women in academia, she chaired the chemistry department at Trinity College in Washington, D.C., a small women’s college.

“As it turned out, my career prediction wasn’t off by much,” she wrote in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society essay. In 1942, she predicted she would chair a chemistry department at a women’s college in 20 years. She began chairing the department at Trinity in 1965.

The family plans to hold a private service for Dr. Hornig, who leaves two daughters, Joanna Hornig Fox of Washington, D.C., and Ellen of Shrewsbury; a son, Chris of Washington, D.C.; nine grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

Dr. Hornig was an ardent gardener and birdwatcher, and an avid hiker, including when she and her husband lived in New Mexico for the Manhattan Project.

On the morning of July 16, 1945, the day of the first atomic bomb test, Donald Hornig was at the project’s headquarters manning the so-called “chicken switch,” which he could use to abort the test if necessary. Lilli Hornig and three colleagues camped in mountains more than 100 miles from the test site to watch the blast. The test was supposed to occur before sunrise, and they forgot that in the mountains, they could see the sun’s first rays before those in lower elevations.

Assuming that the test was scrapped, they headed to their car at 4:30 a.m. “And literally as I reached for the key, this mushroom went up in front of us,” Dr. Hornig told the Providence Journal in 2015. The cloud was “brilliant yellow, orange, red, violet,” she recalled.

“It was an incredible sight,” Dr. Hornig said, “and we knew we were among the first humans to ever see anything like that.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.