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Elda Emma Anderson, from wanting to be a kindergarten teacher to become dean of physics, chemistry, and mathematics

Elda Emma AndersonAmerican physicist and health researcher. During World War II, she worked on the Manhattan Project at Princeton University and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Elda Emma Anderson was born in Green Lake, Wisconsin, on October 5, 1899, to Edwin A. Anderson and his wife, Lena, born in Germany. She was one of three children.

Although she was captivated by numbers at an early age, Anderson sought to become a kindergarten teacher. This would shift to an interest in science later, partially due to the influence of her older sister, who was an assistant chemistry instructor. Although her family had certain lofty expectations for their younger daughter, they all supported her in her academic endeavours.

Anderson earned a Bachelor of Arts (AB) degree from Ripon College in 1922, then a Master of Arts (AM) in physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1924. From 1924 to 1927, she taught at Estherville Junior College in Iowa, where she was the dean of physics, chemistry, and mathematics. In 1929, she became professor of physics at Milwaukee-Downer College (an elite women's college later absorbed into Lawrence University), then head of the physics department in 1934.

In 1941 Anderson completed her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, writing her thesis on "Low energy levels in the atomic spectra Co VII and Ni VIII". Immediately after finishing her Ph.D., Anderson requested time off from her position at Milwaukee-Downer College, to conduct war research related to the Manhattan Project at the Office of Scientific Research and Development at Princeton University.

Not long after, Anderson was recruited to continue her work specifically at Los Alamos Laboratory. At her new location, Anderson studied basic fission parameters, including analyzing the time delays associated with the absorption and emission of neutrons. Such work often entailed working upwards of sixteen hours a day. Among other accomplishments at Los Alamos, Anderson prepared the first sample of pure uranium-235 at the laboratory. While there, she lived in a dormitory, and being older than most of the other residents (she was aged fifty), she was put in charge. She often worked at night, wearing jeans and a plaid shirt – not the usual attire for a woman at the time.

Following the war, in 1947, Anderson left Los Alamos and returned to teaching at Milwaukee-Downer College, but her involvement in atomic physics led to an interest in the health effects of radiation. In 1949, she left teaching to begin a career in health physics. At the Health Physics Division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which was only five years old when she joined, she became the first chief of education and training. She spent her career helping to establish the new training program in health physics, teaching and advising graduate fellows in health physics from 1949.

In 1949, Anderson moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to become the first chief of education and training in the Health Physics Division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Anderson also worked with faculty members at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, to create a master's degree program in health physics at that institution. In addition, she was responsible for training military personnel, state and federal officers, and university professors who are currently the leaders in health physics.

Outside of necessary obligations, Anderson was also known for helping students with academic and personal problems, lending helpful guidance. In some cases, Anderson was known to have given loans to students and share a drink in troubling times.

Anderson organized the first international course in her field in Stockholm in 1955; she organized similar courses in Belgium in 1957 and Mumbai in 1958. She supported the establishment of the Health Physics Society in 1955, serving as secretary pro tem and then charter secretary, and eventually as president of the Society from 1959 to 1960. In 1960, she established the professional certification agency known as the American Board of Health Physics.

In 1956, Anderson, who never married and had no children, developed leukemia. She died nearly five years later in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, of breast cancer and leukemia, possibly as the result of her work with radioactive materials, on 17 April 1961. Anderson was buried at Green Lake Cemetery in Green Lake, Wisconsin. Dr. Anderson's obituary was well covered in the press and scientific journals. Tributes were written by colleagues and former students.

Anderson is honoured each year at the annual meeting of the Health Physics Society when the Elda E. Anderson Award is presented to a young member of the Society.