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Minne H. Steinberg. | Provided photo

Manhattan Project scientist Minnie H. Steinberg dies at 97

SHARE Manhattan Project scientist Minnie H. Steinberg dies at 97
SHARE Manhattan Project scientist Minnie H. Steinberg dies at 97

Minnie Steinberg was a member of the dwindling group of scientists who helped birth the atom bomb.

Her work ethic impressed Professor William Bloom, one of her teachers at the University of Chicago. He studied radiation’s effect on cells for the Manhattan Project — the code name for the effort.

Bloom recommended her for the university team conducting the top-secret research, said her son Maynerd.

“She told me she met [physicist Enrico] Fermi,” leader of a group that conducted the first controlled nuclear reaction in an old squash court under a university athletic field, her son said. “She probably had a better understanding of the effects of it than other people” because of her study of radiation exposure on lab animals.

Minnie Heller Steinberg was a junior biologist who worked on the Manhattan Project, which birthed the atomic bomb. | Family photo

Minnie Heller Steinberg was a junior biologist who worked on the Manhattan Project, which birthed the atomic bomb. | Family photo

Higher-ups stressed secrecy, her son said, warning the junior biologist, “This is so important you cannot talk about anything.”

So she went on high alert when a chatty janitor stopped by. “When she was working in the lab, somebody would come around and would be cleaning up, supposedly,” her son recalled, “and he asked her, ‘What are you doing?’ And she said, ‘What are you doing?’ ’’ The janitor replied, “I’m cleaning.”

A terse Mrs. Steinberg would only say: “I’m working.”

Mrs. Steinberg, who’d been in declining health, died on June 13 at St. Francis Hospital of Evanston, according to her son. The Lincolnwood resident was 97.

To her last day, Mrs. Steinberg didn’t divulge to her family all the details of her atomic work, “just general information she felt comfortable talking about,” said her son.

She’s listed as a junior member of the health division on the Manhattan Project, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that collects oral histories from veterans of the nuclear age.

The passport photo of young Minnie Heller (right) with her mother Clara and brother Joseph shows the family before they traveled from Europe to Chicago to reunite with the children’s father, Abraham, after a separation of about six years. | Family photo

The passport photo of young Minnie Heller (right) with her mother Clara and brother Joseph shows the family before they traveled from Europe to Chicago to reunite with the children’s father, Abraham, after a separation of about six years. | Family photo

Born Minnie Heller, she grew up in Stanislawow, Poland. Her father Abraham followed his brothers to the U.S. and wound up in Chicago, working at a hardware store. After he obtained citizenship, his wife Clara, daughter Minnie and son Joseph — who’d been apart from Abraham from about 1923 to 1929 — were able to immigrate and were reunited in Chicago, where the family lived near 55th and Drexel.

Minnie entered second grade at Kozminski grade school without knowing English. She’d learned German in Poland, so a German-American classmate helped her, said her grandson Mitchell, who interviewed her for a biography. “The teacher would say the sentence in English, then the boy would translate it into German” for Minnie, her grandson said.

She graduated from Hyde Park High School and earned an associate’s degree from Wilson Junior College. She started working in the lab at Mount Sinai Hospital, but “she was bored just looking through the microscope,” said her son. She enrolled at the University of Chicago to continue her anatomy studies.

During her vetting for the Manhattan Project, federal agents learned she’d once signed a Communist Party petition. They interviewed her neighbors and questioned her about party membership. But “She thought it was like a social group,” said her son.

As a result of that experience, she told her children, “ ‘Always read what you sign.’ ’’

Minnie and Dr. Menahem Steinberg on their wedding day in 1951. | Supplied photo

Minnie and Dr. Menahem Steinberg on their wedding day in 1951. | Supplied photo

After the war, she met Polish immigrant Dr. Menahem Steinberg at a bridge game, her son said. They married in 1951 and were together until his death in 2005.

Minnie Steinberg and her three sons in 1961. | Family photo

Minnie Steinberg and her three sons in 1961. | Family photo

He set up his practice in their apartment building at Homan and North Avenue. Though she earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, “there was only one Dr. Steinberg in the house,” said her son. Mrs. Steinberg served as her husband’s receptionist, X-ray technician and lab worker, her grandson said. She assisted in minor surgeries.

They worked companionably in the kitchen, too. At Thanksgiving, their son said, “My father and her would take that turkey and stuff it. It was like an operation. They’d sew up the turkey” with stitches “neat and uniform.”

Minnie and Dr. Menahem Steinberg. | Provided photo

Minnie and Dr. Menahem Steinberg. | Provided photo

She took in both her mother and her mother-in-law when they were aging. “There was just an unbelievable sense of the family,” her son said.

The Steinbergs also had an abiding sense of gratitude to their new homeland. “There was no doubt in either one of their minds that had they stayed in Europe and not come in 1929, 1933, they would have been dead” from war or the Holocaust, Maynerd Steinberg said.

Mrs. Steinberg drove till she was 91. She kept her hair colored auburn brown because “she wanted to look good,” her son said. And she never missed an episode of “Downton Abbey.”

She is also survived by her sons Michael and Abraham, 13 grandchildren and 38 great-grandchildren. Services have been held.

Minnie Steinberg and her extended family. | Provided photo

Minnie Steinberg and her extended family. | Provided photo

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