Late last month, Martyl Langsdorf -- the famed painter, designer and native St. Louisan -- died at a hospital in the Chicago area. She was 96 years old and, according to family, fell ill with a lung infection.
Her best-known creation was likely the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic representation of how close the world is to a nuclear war. The minute hand of the clock is moved closer to midnight as the international political climate worsens. Since Langdorf created the image in 1947, the minute hand has been moved twenty times. It is currently five minutes to midnight.
"It's a phenomenon in itself," Langsdorf told an interviewer in 2007. "The clock has a life of its own now. It's amazing."
Langdorf was born in St. Louis in 1917. Her father, Martin Schweig Sr., was a well-known local portrait photographer. She took drawing lessons at the Saint Louis Art Museum and attended Washington University. She was a success at a very early age, winning a solo exhibition in New York City in her early twenties. Some of her sketchwork included portraits of rural Missouri's poor, as she explained in this oral history from 2007:
I drew a picture of him holding his youngest son, which I have still. I said, "What is his name?" And he said, "Rocky Joe." I said, "Well why would you name him that?" He said, "Because the soil is so rocky."...She insisted I stay for an opossum lunch, but I begged off. That's what they were going to have -- opossum stew. But that was quite an experience. I was able to draw people like that, quite rapidly.
Langsdorf's life came in some way to revolve around the development of nuclear weapons after she married her husband, Alexander Langsdorf Jr., a fellow St. Louisan and a nuclear scientist. He helped produce plutonium for the Manhattan Project at Washington University and with other scientists would later try to dissuade President Harry Truman from dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. He helped found the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and his wife was asked to design the cover image. While Dr. Langsdorf was entrusted with state secrets for his work, Martyl was deemed a threat by governmental intelligence agencies for her "leftist" thinking:
They followed us around wherever we went. And the only reason we know it is because our friends would tell us. It's very intimidating to have the FBI come and visit you...That went on from the Manhattan Project up through the McCarthy era. The ineptness of the FBI and the CIA is legion to this day...They spent all this money and time following me around. Can you imagine? You know that's just absurd.
The image of the Doomsday Clock was featured prominently in the comic-book series The Watchmen, which is about the heightening of tensions during the Cold War. Today, the Bulletin takes into account not only nuclear armament but climate change and biosecurity concerns.
Check out some of Langsdorf's other work at her website here.
Follow Jessica Lussenhop on Twitter at @Lussenpop. E-mail the author at [email protected].