“Where did your wife get the term ‘witch hunt’ to describe hearings like this one?” demanded the congressman who presided over my surrogate grandfather’s Atomic Energy Commission security clearance hearing. The hearing transcript shows that Dr. Donald Flanders (whom I knew as “Moll”) replied mildly, “From the Atlantic magazine, I believe.”

The Oppenheimer movie shows how dreams of peace lured Julius Robert Oppenheimer to create the world’s deadliest weapon. Moll also had to believe in that dream when he served as the Manhattan Project’s head of computation, enough to soothe his congregationalist conscience and his politically active Quaker wife. Unlike his boss, though, Moll did not live long enough to crusade for the global abolition of the atomic bomb — and of all forms of warfare.

As a Chicago child in the 1950s, I was puzzled by politics, especially when suddenly all the adults were talking about “the hearings.” My mother cried while she watched Joe McCarthy at the HUAC (the Senate House UnAmerican Activities Committee) hearings on our very first television set. While I didn’t understand why she was so upset, I instinctively hated what the screen showed: the high desks, the dark clothes, the shouting and the gavel hammering.

After my parents divorced, my baby brother and I lived with our mother. Apart from our weekly visits to our dad and the woman who became his second wife, the Flanders were the only extended “family” we had in Chicago. My mother left Pennsylvania to attend the University of Chicago and stayed because Hyde Park was a great neighbourhood, full of her university friends, including Jane Flanders, whose parents lived there, too.

By the grace of their generosity, my baby brother and I often visited the senior Flanders in their second-floor apartment, which was directly across the street from my elementary school.

Moll was rarely home but Flanders’ wife Sarah (“Sally” to friends) usually was — a cheerful, bustling Quaker busybody, usually humming hymns and organizing crafts when she wasn’t writing pointed letters to the editor or to her congressman.

With family roots going back to the Puritans, Sally and Moll used “thee” and “thou” when addressing loved ones. As Moll explained to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) hearing, “My wife and I, when we became engaged, adopted this as a form of tutoyer [and] in that sense, we use it among the family.”

“Is thee hungry?” Sally would ask as I clumped up the stairs to their apartment. “How does thy mother feel today?”

As I learned later, Dr. Flanders enacted his faith another way. In New York City in the 1930s, he and legendary mathematician Richard Courant sought out dozens of Jewish European mathematicians whom they invited to become “visiting” professors at NYU — and then helped them settle in the U.S. until Europe settled down.

As the Manhattan Project’s head of computation, Donald (Moll) Flanders dreamed of peace. But unlike his boss, Robert Oppenheimer, Moll did not live long enough to crusade for the global abolition of the atomic bomb, writes Penney Kome.

But Dr. Flanders left NYU because classroom chores were grinding him down. He spent 17 minutes marking each of more than 100 students’ papers. Ironically, to ease Dr. Flanders’ conscientious mind, Richard Courant referred him to the Manhattan Project.

As in the movie Hidden Figures, humans calculated most of the Manhattan Project’s initial numbers — in Dr. Flanders’ case, mostly scientists’ wives, who had quick fingers on the calculating machines. Dr. Flanders soon became interested in computing machines, though, and his name appears on some early university computer projects.

In her memoir, Atoms in the Family, Laura Fermi described a contest between the “women computers” and their calculating machines on one side and the earliest IBMs with punch cards on the other — with famed mathematician Richard Feynman cheering on the women.

Like Oppenheimer, our Moll was stripped of his security clearance over his protests. He wanted to leave Argonne Labs so he could continue his research. That’s what Nick Rosenmeier told me when I caught up with him in Copenhagen in 1981.

An exchange student at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, Nick was the person who ferried me and my brother to dad for Sunday visits for several months, until my parents began speaking to each other again. Turned out he also took messages from Sally to her cousin Priscilla, who was under surveillance because her husband was Alger Hiss.

Dr. Flanders was blacklisted, Nick said. He applied for university jobs all over the United States, always with the same response: initial enthusiasm, sometimes interviews and job offers, then an embarrassed letter would arrive withdrawing the university’s offer on feeble grounds or none at all.

“He was blacklisted,” Nick was sure. “He was at a dead end at Argonne Labs and the government wasn’t going to let him work anywhere else. He was trapped.”

On June 27, 1958, Sally woke up to find Moll stiff and cold in the bed beside her. On her own bedside table were his chequebook and five envelopes, one for her and one for each of their four children. Moll had swallowed a whole bottle of barbiturates, followed by most of a bottle of Scotch. His intention was clear. But that was not in his obit. Death by suicide was unmentionable then.

Scant weeks later, Sally died in a freak car accident. She loaded her station wagon with furniture and when she suddenly stepped on the brakes, the furniture slid forward and crushed her.

Oppenheimer fared better. Although the AEC suspended his security clearance, Albert Einstein and the Federation of Atomic Scientists rallied around his cause.

“Oppenheimer retired from public life and spent the rest of his life continuing to be the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton,” according to the Atomic Archives.

“Eventually, the injustice was recognized. In 1963, he was awarded the nation's highest distinction in nuclear science, the Enrico Fermi Award.” He died of cancer on Feb. 18, 1967.

Until the end, like many other Manhattan Project graduates, Oppenheimer worked to ensure his invention would never be used. “The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable,” he said hopefully.

“It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”

Penney Kome was born and raised in Hyde Park, Chicago, home of the Chicago Daily Defender, where she placed an article in 1967 before she immigrated to Toronto in January 1968.

Kome wrote the national “Woman’s Place” column in Homemakers magazine for 12 years and the local “A Woman’s View” in the Calgary Herald for four years.

Kome is the author or editor of six books, including The Taking of 28: Canadian Women Challenge the Constitution. She has served as chair of The Writers Union of Canada (TWUC) and of Access Copyright and as president of the Bain Apartments Co-op. She lives in Calgary with her husband of 36 years.