Obituary: Helene Suydam – Aug. 3, 2020


In the early morning hours of August 3, 2020, Los Alamos lost a revered resident. Helen Suydam passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of 100.

Helene was born in 1919 to William Herzberg and Arilla Starkey in Philadelphia, PA. Her childhood was spent in Honolulu, San Diego, and the Panama Canal Zone as her father was transferred to different Navy assignments. When she reached high school age, Helene attended St. Margaret’s girl’s boarding school in Virginia, and from there she went to Swarthmore College in in Pennsylvania for a degree in mathematics. A bout with scarlet fever kept her from finishing a graduate degree at Brown University, but she recovered and took a job a the Naval Proving Ground at Dahlgren, VA, in 1942. With her mathematical background she worked on projects to determine artillery trajectories and test proximity fuses. She helped develop the Norden bombsight that was used for high altitude bombing in World War II and was the principal sighting instrument used on the Enola Gay.

While at Dahlgren, Helene met her future husband, Bergen (Jerry) Suydam, and the two were married in August of 1946. At the Naval Proving Grounds at the same time was Naval Reserve Officer Norris Bradbury, who recruited the young theoretical physicist and his new wife for Los Alamos. They arrived in 1947 and lived for several months a room in the Big House, a remnant from the Los Alamos Ranch School, until they could move into a house being built in Western Area. In the late ‘50s Helene and Jerry moved into the house on Bathtub Row that had been occupied by Robert Oppenheimer during the Manhattan Project. When property was offered by the government for private ownership, the Suydams bought the Oppenheimer House. At the time of her death, Helene had lived there for 63 years. 

Helene hosted many visitors and dignitaries through the years—authors, Nobel laureates, celebrities, artists, and LANL directors—and she understood the sense of awe they all felt upon stepping into her famous living room. She and her husband appreciated the remarkable history of Los Alamos, and that appreciation motivated them to donate the Oppenheimer House to the Los Alamos Historical Society through a living trust agreement that allowed them to live in the house as long as they could. This donation will long be appreciated by a grateful community and visitors from all over the world.

Helene enjoyed hiking, participation in the Investment Club and her Bridge Club, serving as a docent and supporter of the Los Alamos Historical Society and the Palace of Governors, as well as volunteering for tax assistance at the Senior Center. She was an avid traveler and had visited Europe, Mexico, and Greenland.

Helene was predeceased by her husband, Jerry; her sister, Ruth Ashton; and nephew Daingerfield Ashton Jr. She was a beloved aunt to Sarah Hooe Ashton of Charleston, SC; great aunt to Rebekah (Bobby Moss) Ashton of Seattle, WA, and Rachel Ashton (John Watson); and great great aunt to Suzanna and Ava Moss, Johanna and Amelia Meana, and Ashton Watson.