Let’s Meet Physicist Dr. Elda Emma Anderson

By Katie Mummah

Women's History MonthWomen’s History Month is a time to reflect back on the contributions of women, and to look forward to their potential. In nuclear science, there is a rich history of female physicists and engineers contributing to our field along with their male counterparts. From the radium to radioimmunoassay to reactors, women have defied the odds to become leaders in all areas of nuclear science and engineering.

While cliché, I truly feel as if I am standing of the shoulders of giants as a young woman in nuclear engineering. The sky is the limit for women in science today, because the women that came before us blazed a path for us to succeed. No longer are we the only woman in the room (well, usually at least), no longer do we have to give up a fulfilling family life to pursue a career in science, and no longer must we continually fight to have our voices heard. With a respect for the past also comes an excitement about the future. There are many incredible women leaders and rising stars across the field of nuclear science and engineering, from industry, national labs, and academia. And someday the leaders of today will be the shoulders for the next generation to stand on.

As a conclusion of Women’s History Month, I highlight Dr. Elda Emma Anderson. You can see the three previous articles honoring this month:

Dr. Elda Emma Anderson was a physicist, member of the Manhattan Project, and pioneer of health physics. She was born in Wisconsin on October 5, 1899.

Dr. Anderson earned a Bachelor of Arts (AB) from Ripon College in 1922, and went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to earn her Master of Arts in physics, 1924. After completing her masters, she taught in high schools and colleges around Iowa and Wisconsin, including a position as the dean of physics, chemistry and mathematics at Estherville Junior College in Iowa (now part of Iowa Lakes Community College).

Eventually, she joined the physics department at Milwaukee-Downer College and became the department head in 1934. Milwaukee-Downer College was a women’s college that eventually consolidated with Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1964. The land from Milwaukee-Downer is now part of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

While maintaining her job as dean of physics, Dr. Anderson completed her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1941, with the dissertation “Low energy levels in the atomic spectra Co VII and Ni VIII”. Shortly after finishing her Ph.D., she joined the Manhattan Project at Princeton University’s Office of Scientific Research and Development in New Jersey. By 1943, she was moved to Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico to study fission. Working in the cyclotron group, Dr. Anderson focused mainly on spectroscopy and neutron cross section measurements. Her work led her to produce the lab’s first sample of uranium-235.

Although she returned to Milwaukee-Downer in 1947, Dr. Anderson was very interested in the new field of health physics. She left Wisconsin in 1949 to move to Oak Ridge, Tennessee and devote the rest of her life to health physics. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, she became the first chief of education and training for the Health Physics Division.

Dr. Anderson was very active in establishing health physics as an official discipline, helping to establish the Health Physics Society in 1955 and the American Board of Health Physics in 1960. Her collaboration with faculty at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee led to the creation of the graduate health physics program. She was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and various honor societies such as Sigma Xi and Sigma Delta Epsilon. She developed international courses in health physics, including ones in Stockholm, Belgium, and Bombay.

In 1956 she was diagnosed with leukemia and eventually breast cancer.  Dr. Elda Emma Anderson died in 1961. She never married and had no children.

In honor of her memory, the Health Physics Society established the Elda E. Anderson Award in 1962, which is presented yearly to a young member of the Society to recognize “excellence in (1) research or development, (2) discovery or invention, (3) devotion to health physics, and/or (4) significant contributions to the profession of health physics.”


[1] Anderson, E. E. (1941). Low energy levels in the atomic spectra Co VII and Ni VIII (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Wisconsin-Madison.

[2] Baes, F. (n.d.). Health Physics Society Awards. Retrieved March 29, 2018, from http://hps.org/aboutthesociety/people/awardlist.html

[3] Elda Anderson. (n.d.). Retrieved March 29, 2018, from https://www.atomicheritage.org/profile/elda-anderson

[4] Elda Anderson. (n.d.). In Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved March 29, 2018, from https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-and-education-magazines/anderson-elda

[5] Sicherman, B. (1993). Notable American women: The modern period: A biographical dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

[6] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (Ed.). (1999, April 26). Elda Emma Anderson. In Https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elda-Emma-Anderson. Retrieved March 29, 2018, from Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

[7] Yount, L. (2008). A to Z of women in science and math. Retrieved March 29, 2018.

Katie MummahKatie Mummah is a nuclear engineering graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She serves as the current ANS Student Director, representing all ANS student members on the ANS Board of Directors. She is also part of the ANS Social Media Team. You can find her on Twitter as @nuclearkatie.

Feel free to leave a constructive remark or question for the author in the comment section below.


4 thoughts on “Let’s Meet Physicist Dr. Elda Emma Anderson

  1. Flavia

    Thanks a lot that there are persons like Elda Emma Anderson. I hope that examples like this can bring the new generation to join this discipline.

  2. Agustin Alonso Santos

    In 1959, as a result of the “Atom for Piece Programme” the then classified Oak Ridge School of Technology, ORSORT, was open to foreign students. As a young member of the Spanish Nuclear Energy Board I was proposed and selected as a student to follow a year long course on the then called Nuclear Hazards Evaluation, now Nuclear Safety. Dr. Anderson was our professor of Radiation Protection, then called Health Physics. Dr.. Anderson was an excellent and dedicated teacher and a very kind and helpful person. It has been a pleasure and a deep sentiment to read the article by Katie Mummanh. I have dedicated my life to nuclear safety, as a University Professor at the Madrid Polytechnic University and I have also participated in the creation and be a member of the Spanish Regulatory Organization. In these activities the knowledge that I got form Dr. Anderson, 58 years ago, have always been a reference. As an old foreign student of Dr. Anderson I want to express my deep appreciation for such valuable person..

  3. Ali Simpkins

    Thank you so much for featuring Dr. Anderson! She was an amazing scientist and educator. As a woman, I am especially proud to have received the Health Physics Society Award in honor of her memory.

  4. Edward Knuckles

    Thank you for your thoughtful and well-written article honoring pioneering women in nuclear science and engineering.

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