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Chapter 6: Responding to Social Needs

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Y NOT SWANS 

In the spring of 1964, three years after a pond was created near the Engineering Physics and Mathematics Division buildings, physicist Frances (Tony) Pleasonton of the Physics Division organized a campaign to buy a pair of mute swans for the pond. She was assured that the Laboratory would take care of the swans if her fund-raising effort proved successful. Within two weeks, 200 people contributed an average of 65 cents each to buy and ship the swans from Holland to Oak Ridge. 

The idea for the names of the swans came from the engineer who drew up plans for the pond's island. When asked why he was designing an island, he would answer, "Why not? Tony says the swans will need it." The same response was also a frequent reaction to Pleasonton's requests for donations. 

As a result, when the swans finally arrived, they were named "Y" and "Not." They became permanently identified with Pleasonton, the "Swan Lady." In fact, some people thought Y and Not were named after her (Tony spelled backward). 

The swans' first winter at Oak Ridge was cold. A groundsperson, called in for special duty on a Saturday, unsuccessfully tried to pick up the swans as the temperature sank below zero. The swans survived, however, and even walked happily on the ice.

A view of the Laboratory's swan pond near the Physics Division buildings before construction of the Holifield Heavy Ion Research Facility tower.
A view of the Laboratory's swan pond near the Physics Division buildings before construction of the Holifield Heavy Ion Research Facility tower.

Pleasonton was pleased by the number of young swans (cygnets) produced at the pond. "We have been extremely fortunate to have had cygnets," Pleasonton wrote in 1976, "since it is claimed that mute swans seldom breed successfully in captivity." 

By 1976, Y and Not were almost 13 years old and had bred for at least nine years, producing 18 to 20 cygnets. Because it was thought that the pond could support only two adult swans, some cygnets were given to the Knoxville Zoo, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and the Huntsville Garden Club. Proceeds from the sale were deposited in a credit union savings account for "Laboratory swans." 

"Altogether, this venture has turned out to be a most successful and satisfying example of good employee-management relations and cooperation," Pleasonton wrote. 

Retiring at the end of 1976, Pleasonton announced that Vivian Jacobs of the Information Division would be the new "mentor of swans." "Before I could say anything," Jacobs once wrote, "Tony noted that she had already cleared this transfer of responsibility with Herman Postma, then Laboratory director. . .I was committed to being the new mentor of the swans, which quickly changed to several other titles. I called myself Swan Mama, and I was once referred to on an index card as SOB, which I assumed meant Supervisor of Birds." 

In 1980, a month after being treated for a deep gash on his left side, Not came out of the pond on his own, a rarity for him, and died while being transported to the UT Veterinary Hospital. The autopsy, corroborated by the Centers for Disease Control and by the National Fish and Wildlife Health Laboratory, indicated that he died from a rare amoebic disease caused by a parasite that attacked the cells of the brain. A veterinarian said the death was not preventable, but suggested stocking the pond with mallards, which feed on the snails that are the intermediate host for this parasite. So mallards joined the swans in the pond. 

Three months after Not died, Y became tangled in the nylon line leading to a turtle trap on Swan Lake. She was removed from the water and taken to UT, where nothing terribly wrong was found other than a few scrapes and bruises. Unfortunately, the inhalation of water, the trauma, and perhaps the loss of Not were too much for her, and Y died the next day. 

In 1990, the remaining swans hatched by Y and Not were 10 years old. Each spring, they would build nests and lay eggs that didn't hatch. Today, only three white mute swans remain. Nevertheless, the Swan Pond, its white mutes, and their more than 50 cygnets have become symbolic of Oak Ridge's tranquility and the natural beauty that surrounds the Laboratory. 

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