Atomic Heritage Foundation

In partnership with the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Joan Hinton

Joan Hinton (1921-2010) was an American physicist who later defected to China.

Hinton was born into a precocious family. Her father, Sebastian Hinton, was the inventor of the jungle gym, while her mother, Carmelita Chase Hinton, founded the progressive Putney School in Vermont. Joan Hinton was a world class skier who was set to compete at the cancelled 1940 Olympic Games.

Instead, she studied physics, and eventually she received a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Shortly before completing her Ph.D., she was recruited to work under Enrico Fermi at Los Alamos as a part of the Manhattan Project. At Los Alamos, her work assisted the development of nuclear reactors. Additionally, she joined Edward Teller and Otto Frisch as the violinist in a Los Alamos string quartet.

In July of 1945, Hinton and a colleague disobeyed Army precautions to observe the Trinity test from a small hill roughly 25 miles from the blast site. Hinton described the blast as “a sea of light.”

After the war, Hinton became disenchanted with nuclear weaponry and its applications. Alarmed by the trajectory of the Cold War, she left the United States in 1948 for China. An ardent Maoist, she worked as an educator and translator and spent many years working on dairy farms. Although she was implicated by Senator Joseph McCarthy as a potential Communist spy during the 1950s, she ostensibly retired from professional physics after her emigration.

Hinton died in Beijing on June 8, 2010 at the age of 88.

Joan Hinton's Timeline

  • 1921 Oct 20th Born in Chicago, IL.
  • 1942 Received a B.S. in Natural Science from Bennington College.
  • 1944 Received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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