The Woman Who Beat Enrico Fermi at Tennis

Floy Agnes Lee, who died on March 6 at age 95, led a rich life that included learning to fly airplanes, earning a PhD, working at multiple national laboratories, and regularly beating Enrico Fermi at tennis.

You’re probably familiar with Fermi, the 1938 Nobel Prize winner in physics, who is even more famous for orchestrating the first nuclear chain reaction and for his role in developing the first nuclear bomb. Lee is less well-known beyond the scientific communities in which she worked, but while both were working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Lee was Fermi’s regular tennis partner—though initially, she had no idea who he was.

Hidden Identity

I learned about Lee when my local paper, The Santa Fe New Mexican, published her obituary on March 14. Her story is worth sharing any time, but especially during Women’s History Month, because the essential work she and so many other women did for the Manhattan Project is less familiar than that of the famous men.

Lee’s father was a New Mexico Santa Clara Pueblo Indian, which almost prevented her from getting a job on the secret military project, according to an interview she gave in 2017 for the Atomic Heritage Foundation. Her work as a hematology technician on “The Hill,” as the Los Alamos facility was called during World War II, began in early 1945 and involved studying the impact of radiation on blood cells. Fermi was among the scientists whose blood she was assigned to draw.

The two workers in the secret city found they shared an interest in tennis (according to a friend of his, Fermi “played tennis with considerable ferocity”), so they played regularly, and Lee always beat the “short man.” At the time, she just knew the scientist by his official number. Only at the end of the war did Lee learn Fermi’s real identity. After that, Lee said in the 2017 interview, “when we went out to play tennis later, I didn’t beat him. I tried not to. We became very, very good friends.”

On and Off the Court

After reading the obit, I couldn’t stop thinking about Lee and the low-key physicist. It was a small anecdote, but it spoke loudly.

Fermi, whom colleagues at the University of Rome called “the Pope”—for his seemingly infallible ability to predict the results of experiments—struck Lee as just a “common worker.” Of course, secrecy was paramount on The Hill during the war, so few—other than the uniformed military, led by General Leslie Groves—would have made a public show of their position. Lee just knew Fermi as one of the scientists who, she thought, were working on chemical weapons.

Even so, it strikes me as remarkable that someone of Fermi’s importance (after all, he’d already won a Nobel Prize and was a division leader at Los Alamos) could blend in among the other workers. In our Google-everything world, it’s hard to imagine Fermi being essentially anonymous in the larger community. I suspect it had something to do with the way he presented himself to others, including those who held less-senior positions.

Whether it was deference to Fermi’s status—once she was aware of his real identity—that prompted Lee to let him win on the tennis court, she didn’t say. But her competitive pull-back probably didn’t matter to him. Fermi obviously didn’t have a problem being beaten by a woman—after all, he kept playing tennis with Lee when she consistently won, despite being a competitive player himself.

Floy Agnes Lee. Lee’s daughter, Patricia Reifel, said this photo was taken at Los Alamos National Laboratory-East in the mid-1960s.

And Fermi had no problem with professionally successful women either. In fact, he encouraged Lee to pursue a PhD. After fourteen years—during which she helped support her husband through graduate school, had a child, and then lost her first husband to cancer—Lee earned her PhD from the University of Chicago. She subsequently worked at various research centers and labs, including Argonne National Laboratory, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Her work included studying the effects of radiation on living cells and chromosomes, she published several papers, and she was an advocate for science education.

I have no personal connection to Lee, but I find the story of her tennis partner becoming a professional mentor quite wonderful. It reminds me that we never know where our personal and professional champions will show up.

As for Fermi, knowing that he played tennis, and that he didn’t have a problem playing against a woman who was a better athlete, amplifies my mental image of the man; beyond being a famous physicist, he was a mensch.

So here’s to the men past and present who value and encourage women’s achievements—on and off the court.

Gail Reitenbach, PhD (gail@righthandcom.com) is a writer, editor, and communications consultant whose firm, Right Hand Communications LLC, also produces independent reports on events of key importance for the energy and utility industry (righthandreports.com). She is the former editor of POWER, among other publications.

 

Header photo by Derzsi Elekes Andor – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41820502