In the evening, in the 28′ motor home that feels to her like a snug sailboat on the Aegean Sea, Dixy Lee Ray fixes an evening meal of orange juice and omelette in the galley, sips a Scotch and water to unwind from the office and feeds the tiny, headstrong poodle and shaggy Scottish deerhound she calls her “children.” Then, at her captain’s desk, she usually reads from foot-thick sheaves of letters and reports she receives as the powerful Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission—reports concerning the gigantic business of world nuclear power, the myriad uses of radioactive materials in science, medicine and industry—and the top-secret atomic weapons which could destroy civilization.
One of the few women in the world who has ever laid eyes on an armed intercontinental ballistic missile, Dixy says, “The first atomic warhead I ever saw was…like a piece of beautiful sculpture, a work of the highest level of technological skill. It’s the point of the spear.”
By law, the 60-year-old Dr. Ray, as she is known at the AEC, is in charge of the research, development and fabrication of the nuclear warheads for the Department of Defense. In her words, “I have to sign-off on warheads from womb to tomb, from concept to the fully manufactured product, and the AEC must fully guarantee that what it delivers to the military will work when required to work and not work when it’s not required. We have to make a 100 percent guarantee on that; not 99 but 100 percent.”
Dr. Ray prefers to talk about the “peaceful” side of the AEC—nuclear power reactors, radioactive isotopes to destroy cancer cells—when the discussion turns to weapons, she neither winces nor minces many words.
“I’m fully aware that there is nothing more dangerous to life, at the moment, than the destructiveness I have knowledge of,” she says. “But my burden and responsibility doesn’t lose me a night’s sleep. It’s a myth of modern society that women are clinging vines.”
The AEC chairman (a title she prefers to chairwoman) speaks with the mellowness and fine diction of a great character actress, which she once wanted to be. Describing herself as “the runt” of a litter of five daughters born to a commercial printer and his wife in Tacoma, Wash., she says she took the shape of her barrel-bodied and ox-muscled father. She stands 5’4″ and weighs more than 150 pounds. She too is extremely strong; her girlhood chores included shoveling coal and splitting firewood.
Dixy joined the Girl Scouts when she was 10, and scouting in the wilderness became one of her true joys. She recalls climbing to the summit of Mt. Rainier with a group of older Girl Scouts when she was 12, then the youngest girl to have scaled the peak.
She attended Mills College for women in Oakland, Calif. on a scholarship, earning her way as a janitor, waitress, switchboard operator and chauffeur to the college president. In her freshman year, a speech teacher changed Dixy’s voice from a loud, nasal bark into one of theatrical dignity and control. Her college minor was in theatrical arts, but her major was decided in her freshman zoology class. There she saw and listened to Professor Alexander Pringle Jameson, a parasitologist from Aberdeen, Scotland.
“I owe to him more than any other single person a love of knowledge, a belief in a ‘rational’ approach to understanding—and a certain pragmatism,” she says.
With a master’s degree and California teaching credentials, Dixy taught for four years in the Oakland public schools to pay off her debts. Then in 1942, she went to Stanford University for her doctorate in zoology and wrote a thesis on the nervous system of lantern fish. Returning home, Dr. Ray taught at the University of Washington while conducting research on such marine organisms as limnoria, which destroy wood piers and pilings.
Meanwhile, Dixy’s theatrical side kept popping out. She appeared frequently on educational television in the Pacific Northwest as an explainer and popularizer of science. In 1963 she became director of the Pacific Science Center, a five-building complex originally constructed as the Seattle World’s Fair science pavilion, and the next year began a weekly television program called Doorways to Science.
Dressed in a slightly-above-the-knee skirt, polo shirt and blazer, long socks and comfortable boots, Dr. Ray was a familiar figure gunning around Seattle in her Jaguar XK-E, with a big-bulbed Indian ricksha horn on it and a jaunty gray poodle named Jacques perched beside her on the seat.
Her views on most matters are scarcely less individual. She says that since her college days she has not believed in spiritual causes and effects, and her beliefs are informed almost strictly by logic. Dr. Ray knows that some may find her observations heartless and cruel, but she responds to such people, “Nature isn’t fair.”
In one interview she asked rhetorically, “The world’s most important problem, its greatest potential for destruction?” And projecting the population of the earth at 25 billion by 2069 (it is now close to four billion), she answered, “Runaway population increase. The only answer for this nation is cessation of its efforts to support the rest of the world. Let nature take its course. Worst of all is rushing in to save starving populations whose unfortunate lot it has been to suffer such irreparable brain damage from severe malnutrition that its children can never be normal.”
Passing through Washington, D.C. in April 1972, Dr. Ray was paged at the airport and a voice on the telephone said, “The White House is calling.” She thought it was a prank, but the caller proved to be Barbara Franklin, who was charged with hiring women for the Nixon administration. She asked Dr. Ray for permission to put her name into consideration for an opening as one of five AEC commissioners. Dr. Ray asked if the job was full-time, and if she would have to live in Washington, D.C. in a malarial climate she detests. Both answers were yes, and she remembers saying, “I’m just a little girl from Seattle. No thanks.”
But Ed Carlson, president of United Airlines and her mentor in the business world, advised her to take the job “for the challenge of it.” And the $40,000 commissioner’s salary was compellingly larger than the $22,500 she was making in Seattle.
When she agreed to live in Washington, Dr. Ray decided that “there was no way I wanted to feed landlords for five years,” the length of her appointment. So she bought a motor home for $21,000, had it custom-fitted and delivered to AEC headquarters. Meanwhile, in a rented motor home, she set off from Seattle on a two-week, cross-country tour of AEC towns and installations. From Los Alamos, N.M. and the Nevada Proving Ground, through Idaho Falls and Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, to Oak Ridge, Tenn., Dixy and her dogs—she had acquired the Scottish deerhound by then—made lasting impressions on AEC bureaucrats, who are seldom so off-beat. Six months after she arrived in Washington as a commissioner, James Schlesinger, then AEC chairman, was made director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He recommended that she succeed him.
“The chairman can be outvoted by the commission,” she notes, “and I have been. Then I must carry out the commission’s majority decision. But the chairman’s job is to direct the agency, and I do. There are fights, of course, and I’m not afraid of fights.”
Chairman Ray launched a crucial fight when she became the prime mover in a plan to separate reactor development from the reactor safety research program. She believed that the public interest might be jeopardized because the AEC people responsible for developing reactors had a vested interest in passing on their safety features and licensing them. An unhappy opponent of the plan took the case to Rep. Chet Holifield, a dominant member of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, which oversees the AEC. In a surprise display of gut politics, Chairman Ray lined up committee support for the split-off, and Holifield, who rarely is on the losing end of a vote, allowed the matter to be ironed out in her favor in a closed session. The showdown earned Dixy respect on the Hill.
Feisty Adm. Hyman Rickover, who is in charge of the navy’s nuclear reactor program, says he has few quarrels with Dixy, mainly because she is “sympathetic to the navy’s nuclear program…and she is charming, intelligent and knows how to conduct business.” That she is one of the rare women involved in the arms business doesn’t bother Admiral Rickover at all. “I’ve had many women in my arms,” cracks the old salt.
Dr. Ray’s harshest critics are from the ranks of the ecology movement. She is accused of selling out her supposed dedication to life, as a biologist, to speak for an agency in charge of the means to destroy all life. She is also criticized for being too easily swayed by the strong-minded businessmen of the nuclear energy industry.
A grave problem for the AEC now is the threat that fissionable nuclear material will be stolen from government or industrial sources by terrorists or foreign agents and incorporated secretly into an atomic bomb as blackmail. The fear is that several million dollars will be demanded not to blow up some heavily populated place. (At this moment, British authorities are taking special precautions against such a move by the IRA.) In one recent week three such threats in this country were investigated by the AEC but proved to be hoaxes.
“So far, none of the scares has had a shred of truth to them,” says Dr. Ray. “But we check out every threat!”
The AEC chairman lives in her motor home in a trailer park a few minutes from the AEC headquarters in German-town, Md. She works almost every weekend, but until recently, when a Washington station took the series off the air, she would try to get home in. the evening in time to watch her favorite program, Star Trek.
Legislation is pending in Congress to reorganize the AEC. The licensing and safety regulation function is likely to be split off into a separate agency. The rest of the AEC, including reactor and weapons development, would become the main part of a new Energy Research and Development Administration. Dr. Ray says that she is a bit homesick for the 65 acres on Puget Sound she owns with her four sisters, where she can hike and snorkel and sail and fish. But men in the nuclear industry and in Congress say she is determined to become the single strong administrator of ERDA. The president of the Atomic Industrial Forum, the powerful nuclear industry association that seldom finds any fault with Dixy, said recently: “She’s going after it quietly, and so far she’s making all the right moves.”