Joan Hinton: Internationalist, Scientist for the People, Socialist


MANILA – “It’s the struggles of the people, not weapons, which in the end determine the outcome of history.”

In 1948, a disillusioned American physicist gave up her promising career, left her country and lived with the people of China. She was Joan Hinton, an internationalist, revolutionary scientist and socialist who serves as an inspiration to many Filipino activists.

In a tribute by Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), Gabriela, Advocates of Science and Technology for the People (Agham), Ibon Foundation and International League of People’s Struggle (ILPS), Hinton was once again remembered as instrumental to strengthening the struggle against imperialism and achieve socialism.

Hinton studied Physics at Bennington College; there she studied cloud chambers and finished her course in 1942. Hinton pursued post-graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin and earned her doctorate in Physics in 1944. It was in the same year, February when Hinton was recruited and became one of the few women physicists that worked on the Manhattan Project.

Joan Hinton (Photo by Catherine Rampell / NBC News)

The Manhattan Project is a secret US military research project created during World War II to develop the first nuclear bomb and the first human-engineered nuclear detonator. The US government gathered an elite team of scientists and nuclear physicists to work on the project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Little did Hinton know that the atomic bomb will be used by the US government to attack Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hinton witnessed the first testing of the nuclear bomb called the Trinity test in 1945 at White Sands near Alamogordo, New Mexico. “It was like being at the bottom of an ocean of light, with a cloud that was dark and red at the bottom and daylight at the top,” Hinton was quoted describing the test.

US attacked Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few weeks after the test of the nuclear weapon. Hinton was shocked and angered and eventually left the project. She did not want to take part in the destruction her government would later cause on the two cities. She campaigned in Washington to internationalize the issue of nuclear power and warn against the dangers of nuclear weapons.

“Are we scientists going to spend our lives in slavery for madmen who want to destroy the world? Can we not vision the world of tomorrow? Will it be a world of destruction and misery, agonizing death by radiation or will it be a world where mountains are moved by atomic bombs to change the course of rivers and make rich green land out of deserts? Where is our imagination?” Hinton said about her decision to leave the Manhattan Project.

It was then that Hinton headed to China together with Erwin Sid Engst, an American agriculturist who later became her husband.

From US to China

William ‘Bill’ Hinton, Joan’s brother, described her as “an attractive blonde prep-school girl, interested in horses and sports” when she went to China in 1948 and worked in an iron factory making carts.

In China, Hinton and Engst contributed toward the improvement of agricultural machinery and dairy production in communities by using their skills. Hinton and Engst helped develop China into a “socialized industrialized powerhouse.” They are witness to the liberation of China under the leadership of Mao Zedong and worked for the empowerment of foreign communities in Beijing and joined the Cultural Revolution.

The American couple never made themselves special and refused special status as “foreign experts.” They married in Yanan, a mountainous Chinese village in 1949 when People’s Republic of China was also founded. They had three children — Bill, Fred and Karen.

In 1949, Hinton worked in the countryside in a small community near Inner Mongolia and Xian farm in northwest China. She improved animal husbandry on her collective’s dairy farm by exploring the use of liquid nitrogen on cattle semen and embryos. She also later improved on a continuously flowing automatic milk pasteurizer.

Joan Hinton (Photo courtesy of

Hinton also worked on agricultural machinery and designed better milking parlors, using computers to monitor cows and did research as well on cattle reproduction. These machines solved the problems of a state-owned farm on the outskirts of Beijing.

She also helped developed production of corn, raising cattle and other agricultural products from the 1950s to the 1970s and used local resources to develop simple tools as well as more complicated machinery.

Hinton commended the virtue of mobilizing people to achieve a goal. “With the power of ‘the hands of the people’ everyone can achieve full potential under such socialized circumstances where no one exploits another,” Dr. Giovanni Tapang of the activist scientist group Agham said in the tribute.

Jaz Lumang, executive director of Ibon Foundation, said Hinton cherished her days of working together with farmers and workers to build a communal society where “everyone would do the most they could. Everyone developed to their full capacity. Everyone was busy. Everybody had a job. People weren’t exploiting each other.”

Lumang added that as a people’s scientist, she longed for any place that “could put even more effort into construction, into building better homes for her people, into eliminating floods, into stabilizing crops, into bringing in machinery and transforming their land from one of despair and poverty into one of prosperity, enlightenment, a nation of scientists working for the enrichment of mankind.”

Hinton, who was also known as Han Chun in Chinese, also became politically active. She joined discussions relevant to the growth of China and later worked with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Mechanization Sciences in 1979.

Even after Mao’s death and even when China changed tremendously under revisionist Deng Xiao Ping, Hinton and her family still chose to stay in the country. In 2003 when her husband Engst died, Hinton continued to live in China and fought against the privatization of the state-owned Academy of Agricultural Mechanization Services, a mechanized dairy farm north of Beijing where she lived since the ’80s.

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