Joan Hinton

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Joan Hinton
Joan Hinton with her brother Bill at her farm in Beijing
Joan Chase Hinton

(1921-10-20)October 20, 1921
DiedJune 8, 2010(2010-06-08) (aged 88)
Beijing, China
Other namesChinese: 寒春
Occupationnuclear physicist
SpouseErwin Engst (m. 1949, died 2003)
RelativesWilliam H. Hinton (brother)
Jean Hinton Rosner

Joan Hinton (Chinese name: 寒春, Pinyin: Hán Chūn; 20 October 1921 – 8 June 2010) [1] was a nuclear physicist and one of the few women scientists who worked for the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. She lived in the People's Republic of China after 1949, where she and her husband Erwin (Sid) Engst participated in China's efforts at developing a socialist economy, working extensively in agriculture. She lived on a dairy farm north of Beijing before her death on June 8, 2010.

Early life[edit]

On 20 October 1921, Hinton was born as Joan Chase Hinton in Chicago, Illinois.[1] Her father, Sebastian Hinton, was a lawyer (who also was the inventor of the jungle gym[2]); her mother, Carmelita Hinton, was an educator and the founder of The Putney School, an independent progressive school in Vermont.

Family background[edit]

Joan Hinton's great-grandfather was the mathematician George Boole, and her grandfather was the mathematician Charles Howard Hinton. Ethel Lilian Voynich, a great-aunt, was the author of The Gadfly, a novel later read by millions of Soviet and Chinese readers. Her sister, Jean Hinton Rosner (1917–2002), was a civil rights and peace activist.


Hinton graduated from the Putney School, where her skiing skills qualified her for a berth on the 1940 U.S. Ski Team at the Winter Olympic Games, had they been held that year. She studied physics at Bennington College and graduated in 1942 with a bachelor's degree in natural science from Bennington College.[1] In 1944, Hinton earned a doctorate in physics from University of Wisconsin.[1][3]


Nuclear scientist[edit]

Hinton was in Los Alamos for the Manhattan Project. Under the supervision of Enrico Fermi, she calibrated neutron detectors to be used in the Alamogordo test.[4]

She observed the Trinity test and wrote about it:

It was like being at the bottom of an ocean of light. We were bathed in it from all directions. The light withdrew into the bomb as if the bomb sucked it up. Then it turned purple and blue and went up and up and up. We were still talking in whispers when the cloud reached the level where it was struck by the rising sunlight so it cleared out the natural clouds. We saw a cloud that was dark and red at the bottom and daylight at the top. Then suddenly the sound reached us. It was very sharp and rumbled and all the mountains were rumbling with it. We suddenly started talking out loud and felt exposed to the whole world.

Joan Hinton was shocked when the US government, three weeks later, dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She left the Manhattan Project and lobbied the government in Washington to internationalize nuclear power.

Moving to China[edit]

Her brother William H. Hinton (1919–2004) had travelled to China for the first time in 1937 and returned after the war. His book Fanshen: Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, published in 1966 after many years of obstacles, described his observations of land reform in the communist-occupied area of Northwest China.

In March 1948, Joan Hinton travelled to Shanghai, worked for Soong Ching-ling, the widow of President Sun Yat-sen, and tried to establish contacts with the Chinese communists. She witnessed the communists gaining control of Beijing in 1949 and moved to Yan'an, where she married Erwin Engst, who had been working in China since 1946. After 5 months living in caves in 1949 they moved to Inner Mongolia to work on a state farm, living meagerly in a stockaded village named Chunchuan without electricity or radios. At one point the village was attacked by bandits. No one knew in the USA of their whereabouts except family and a circle of scientists. In October 1952 Joan went public in Beijing, attending the Asian and Pacific Peace Conference where she denounced the atomic bombing of Hiroshoma. This launched a paranoid response in the USA that she was willing to assist China developing nuclear weapons. Questions were asked about her of her brother William during the Army–McCarthy hearings. In May 1955 the couple and their three young children moved to a farm near Xi'an during the period of the Great Leap Forward. In April 1966 the family moved to Beijing to work as translators and editors at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.[5]

After 1956, Hinton finally obtained permanent residency to live in China and she chose to retain her US citizenship.[6]

On August 29 (or in June, according to another source), 1966, Joan Hinton, Erwin Engst and two other Americans living in China—Bertha Sneck (Shǐ Kè 史克, who had previously been married to Joan's brother William) and Ann Tomkins (Tāngpǔjīnsēn 汤普金森)—signed a big-character poster put up at the Foreign Experts Bureau in Beijing with the following text:[citation needed]

Which monsters and freaks are pulling the strings so foreigners get this kind of treatment? Foreigners working in China, no matter what class background they have, no matter what their attitude is toward the revolution, they all get the "five nots and two haves": the five nots—first: no physical labour, second: no thought reform, third: no chances of contacts with workers and peasants, fourth: no participation in class struggle, fifth: no participation in production struggle; the two haves—first: they have an exceptionally high living standard, second: they have all kinds of specialization. What kind of concept is that? This is Khrushchevism, this is revisionist thinking, this is class exploitation! [...] We demand: [...] Seventh: the same living standard and the same level of Chinese staff; eighth: no specialization any more. Long live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution!

A copy of the poster was shown to Mao Zedong, who issued a directive that "revolutionary foreign experts and their children should be treated the same as the Chinese."[7]

In 1972, Joan Hinton and Erwin Engst started working in agriculture again at the Beijing Red Star Commune.

In June 1987, William Hinton went to the town of Dazhai in Shanxi province to observe the changes brought about by the reform policies, and in August 1987, Joan Hinton stayed at Dazhai as well.

In a 1996 interview with CNN, after nearly 50 years in China, she stated "[we] never intended to stay in China so long, but were too caught up to leave."[8] Hinton described the changes she and her husband had witnessed in China since the beginning of the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. They stated they "have watched their socialist dream fall apart" as much of China embraced capitalism. A 2004 MSNBC interviews noted her critical assessment of economic change as "betrayals of the socialist cause."[9] She noted what she describes as a rise of exploitation in Chinese society.

Hinton lived alone following the death of her husband in 2003. Her three children moved to the United States, with Hinton noting that "They probably would have stayed if China were still socialist." Hinton retained her American citizenship, which she considered "convenient for travel."[9] Her son, Yang Heping (Fred Engst) moved back to Beijing in 2007 as a professor at the University of International Business and Economics.[10]

In her 2005 essay "The Second Superpower",[11] Hinton stated, "There are two opposing superpowers in the world today: the U.S. on one side, and world public opinion on the other. The first thrives on war. The second demands peace and social justice."

She remained active in the small community of expats in Beijing, protesting against the war in Iraq.


In 1949, Hinton married Erwin Engst (1919–2003), a dairy-cattle expert, in Yan'an, Shaanxi Province, China.[1] Hinton had two sons, Bill and Fred Engst and a daughter, Karen Engst.[1] In 1923 Hinton's father checked himself into a clinic for treatment, but while there he committed suicide.[12]

On June 8, 2010, Hinton died in Beijing, China. She was 88.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Grimes, William. June 11, 2010. Grimes, William (12 June 2010). "Joan Hinton, Physicist Who Chose China Over Atom Bomb, Is Dead at 88". The New York Times. Retrieved Dec 18, 2016.
  2. ^ Hinton's original patents for the "climbing structure" are U.S. Patent 1,471,465 filed July 22, 1920; U.S. Patent 1,488,244 filed October 1, 1920; U.S. Patent 1,488,245 filed October 1, 1920; and U.S. Patent 1,488,246 filed October 24, 1921.
  3. ^ Ruth H. Howes; Caroline L. Herzenberg (2003). Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project. Temple University Press. p. 51. ISBN 9781592131921.
  4. ^ E. Segrè, Enrico Fermi, Physicist. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1970. Page 145
  5. ^ Gerry Kennedy, The Booles and the Hintons, Atrium Press, July 2016
  6. ^ Dec 18, 2015. "Laowai Chinese: The elite few foreigners who have managed to obtain permanent residency in China". Retrieved Dec 18, 2016.
  7. ^ Mao Zedong (8 September 1966). "对四位美国专家的一张大字报的批语 (Remarks on the Big Character Poster Written by the Four America Specialists)". 建国以来毛泽东文稿第十二册 (Manuscripts of Mao Zedong since the Founding of the People's Republic) (PDF) (in Chinese). Central Party Literature Press (中央文献出版社). p. 126. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
  8. ^ Andrea Koppel: Leftist Americans in China grieve shift to capitalism (CNN, October 1st, 1996)—with photo of Sid Engst and Hinton
  9. ^ a b Catherine Rampell: The atom spy that got away American defector to Maoist China not happy with 56 years of progress (NBC, August 13th, 2004)
  10. ^ "Yang, Heping's page in the faculty pages" . Retrieved: 14 October 2014.
  11. ^ Joan Hinton: The Second Superpower (Beijing International Peace Vigil)
  12. ^ Lloyd, Susan McIntosh (2002). "Carmelita Chase Hinton and the Putney School". In Sadovnik, Alan R.; Semel, Susan F. (eds.). Founding Mothers and Others: Women Educational Leaders During the Progressive Era. Palgrave. pp. 111–123. ISBN 0-312-29502-2.

External links[edit]

in English[edit]

in Chinese[edit]


  • Juliet de Lima-Sison (ed.), Dao-yuan Chou: Silage Choppers & Snake Spirits. The Lives & Struggles of Two Americans in Modern China. Ibon Books, Quezon 2009, ISBN 971-0483-37-4.
  • Samuel A. Goudsmit Papers, 1921–1979, Box 41 Folder 13, on Joan Hinton, 1949–1978 (American Institute of Physics, Center for History of Physics; College Park, MD 20740).[2]
  • Ellis M. Zacharias: The Atom Spy Who Got Away (Real, 7/1953)