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Artist Martyl Langsdorf, creator of Doomsday Clock, dies

Martyl Langsdorf, an artist who was married to a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, created the widely known Doomsday Clock for the first cover of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

That June 1947 magazine put the clock, meant to depict how close the world is to nuclear holocaust, approaching 11:53 p.m., with midnight being the zero hour.

"She understood the deep anxiety of the scientists in 1947, and the urgency of preventing the spread or use of nuclear weapons," said Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin since 2005. "With the clock design, she gave the world a symbol that is even more potent today."

Langsdorf, 96, died March 26 at a rehabilitation facility near her home in Schaumburg, Ill., after a lung infection.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was started in 1945 by a group of Manhattan Project scientists who formed an advocacy group to warn the public of the dangers of nuclear weapons and power.

"It was a cause felt deeply by both my mother and father [Alexander Langsdorf Jr.]," said her daughter, Alexandra Shoemaker. "It was something they dedicated a good deal of their lives to, both personally and professionally."

During a career that spanned eight decades, Martyl Langsdorf worked in various artistic media, including painting, printmaking, drawing, murals and stained-glass design.

Her works have been displayed in museums throughout the country, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Brooklyn Museum, Illinois State Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

She also had nearly 100 solo exhibitions in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as other cities.

"From the time she was a little girl, she was a creative soul," said her brother, Martin Schweig Jr., a photographer in St. Louis. "She'd push the borders, always looking for ways to create something new and innovative."

Born Martyl Suzanne Schweig in St. Louis, Langsdorf grew up in a family that embraced the arts. Her mother, an artist and teacher, founded the Sainte Genevieve Summer School of Art outside St. Louis. Her father was an acclaimed portrait photographer in St. Louis.

"When we were children, my parents would invite some of the most gifted artists from around the country over for dinner," Schweig said. "Looking back, it was quite amazing. But to us it was just normal."

Langsdorf studied painting with Charles Hawthorne in Provincetown, Mass., when she was 11, and later with Boardman Robinson in Colorado Springs, Colo. She also played the violin and piano and contemplated a career in music, an idea that passed when she sold one of her first paintings to George Gershwin as a teenager when he was passing through St. Louis, according to her family.

"What a stir that caused!" Schweig recalled.

Langsdorf received a degree from Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in the history of art and archaeology. In 1941, she married Alexander Langsdorf, also of St. Louis.

His work using caked plutonium at Washington University got the attention of Robert Oppenheimer, and in 1943, the couple moved to Chicago at the invitation of Enrico Fermi to join the Manhattan Project.

The design of the Doomsday Clock, four dots and two lines, used a recognized object -- a clock -- and evoked the traditional imagery of the apocalypse (the cry at midnight) and the countdown to zero hour, or a military attack.

When the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949, the scientists who guided the Bulletin moved the hands four minutes closer to midnight.

Initially known more as a landscape painter, Langsdorf began to experiment with art and science concepts after designing the Doomsday Clock.

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