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Obituary of Elinor Hempelmann: Granddaughter of Joseph Pulitzer, wife of atomic bomb scientist

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 5, 2012 - Elinor Pulitzer Hempelmann lived a long, quiet life that belied the prominence of her surnames. 

She was the granddaughter of St. Louis Post-Dispatch founder Joseph Pulitzer and widow of Louis Hempelmann, M.D., a member of the health division of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.

Mrs. Hempelmann died Saturday in Pojoaque, N. Mex.  She was 90.

“She died at home, as she wished,” said her niece, Dorothy C. Haase of St. Louis.

The war effort

Elinor Pulitzer was born in St. Louis on March 31, 1922, the youngest of Joseph Pulitzer II and Elinor Wickham Pulitzer’s three children. She graduated from Mary Institute and later attended a secretarial school in Boston.

On June 5, 1943, she married “Louie” Hempelmann, a fellow St. Louisan who had graduated from Washington University School of Medicine in 1938.

By the time they were married, her husband had been recruited by Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist often referred to as the “father” of the atomic bomb, as a radiation biology specialist for the Manhattan Project. Hempelmann led the health division at the nuclear weapons lab in Los Alamos, N.M., directing studies on the effects of radiation exposure.

In Los Alamos, everyone was pressed into the war effort, including Mrs. Hempelmann.  She wore I.D. badge number Y-47 while working as a secretary to scientists on the top-secret project.

Following the war, the young couple moved to New York, where Hempelmann joined the medical faculty at the University of Rochester.

The Hempelmanns would divide their time between Rochester and an irrigated farm in Pojoaque, near Santa Fe, and just a stone’s throw from Los Alamos, where they did work that changed the course of World War II.

They not only maintained a connection to the land they came to know during the war, they forever remained connected to people of New Mexico, including Robert Oppenheimer and his family.  They were the godparents to the Oppenheimer children.

Alex and Martha Trujillo, from whom they purchased their land in Pojoaque, became the caretakers of Mrs. Hempelmann’s farm and her companions in recent years.

A contented life

It had always been Elinor and Louie; they had no children.  When he died in 1993, her family expressed concern.

They need not have worried.

Since Uncle Louie died, she said more than once, ‘I’m never lonely, never bored’,” Haase said.  “She was content with her life.”

Animals were often in her company; Popo was a favorite canine friend. She always had a treat for the neighborhood dogs, and kept feeders well stocked for wild birds.

“Elinor was a very loyal person to her friends and family,” said her brother, Michael E. Pulitzer, Joseph Pulitzer II’s youngest child and one of the last three family members to share ownership of the Post-Dispatch. 

The Post ceased to be a Pulitzer paper in 2005, when it, along with other Pulitzer media holdings, was sold to Lee Enterprises of Davenport, Iowa.

The Pulitzer name is unlikely to fade away. Her grandfather also founded the Pulitzer Prize and ensured an enduring legacy through a bequest to establish the journalism school at Columbia University in New York, and to fund the prize.

In addition to her parents and her husband, Mrs. Hempelman was preceded in death by a brother, Joseph Pulitzer III, and her sister, Kate Davis Quesada.

She is survived by her niece, Dorothy, and her brother, Michael (Ceil), of Santa Barbara, Calif., and by her sister-in-law, Emily Rauh Pulitzer, of St. Louis. 

Haase recalled her aunt as a “very private, but very generous person.”

Numerous charities in Santa Fe and nearby Espaola have benefited from her gifts.

The family would appreciate memorials in her honor to Strong Memorial Hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center, 601 Elmwood Avenue, Rochester, N.Y. 14642.

At her request, there will be no funeral service.

Mrs. Hempelmann’s ashes will be buried next to those of her husband at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.