Science Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Scientists who escaped from dictatorships in Hungary, Germany, Italy, and other European countries during the 1930’s played a major role in the successful development of the American atomic bomb and other projects during World War II.

European immigrants who came to America during the nineteenth century were mostly farmers, construction workers, domestic servants, or day laborers. Only very few scientists with professional training came over, usually to take advantage of broader opportunities than were available in their homelands. For example, the Scottish inventor Bell, Alexander GrahamAlexander Graham Bell came from London, England, to an innovative school in Boston, where he worked with deaf children to teach them the rudiments of speech. His research on using vibrating reeds to duplicate the sounds of words made by the human voice led to his invention of the telephone in 1876. Tesla, NikolaNikola Tesla, an electrical engineer from Serbia, was inspired to come to America after reading about Edison, Thomas AlvaThomas Alva Edison’s ingenious inventions of electrical apparatuses. Tesla’s specialty became the development of alternating current (AC). He designed the first hydroelectric power plant built at Niagara Falls, New York, in 1897, making the United States the world leader in electricity production and use. Bell and Tesla should be viewed as rare exceptions among the multitudeof blue-collar workers who immigrated to the United States.ScientistsScientists[cat]SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY;Science[cat]RESEARCH;Science[cat]EDUCATION;Science

Persecution of European Scholars During the 1930’s

Adolf Hitler, Adolf[p]Hitler, Adolf;and scientists[scientists]Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 as a fascist dictator. It is noteworthy that in the chaos following World War I, a substantial number of other European countries had already become dictatorships before Germany. They included Hungary under Admiral Horthy, NicholasNicholas Horthy, Italy under Mussolini, BenitoBenito Mussolini, Spain under General Primo de Rivera, MiguelMiguel Primo de Rivera and later under Generalissimo Franco, FranciscoFrancisco Franco, Poland under Marshall Piłsudski, JózefJózef Piłsudski, Russia under Stalin, JosephJoseph Stalin, and Portugal under Salazar, António de OliveraAntónio de Olivera Salazar. In order to gain control over their people, these dictators appealed to nationalistic pride and made scapegoats out of foreigners and Jews.

In Hungary, Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];in Hungary[Hungary]Hungarian immigrantsthe Horthy regime made anti-Semitism a legal doctrine, dismissing Jews from employment in public schools and universities. In Italy, Mussolini demanded that all university faculty members sign a Loyalty oaths;Italianloyalty oath that was designed to stifle criticism of the government. During the mid-1930’s, Stalin and Hitler both instituted reigns of terror to enforce obedience. Jews and other people whose names had gotten on a list of undesirables could be arrested and deported to labor camps without warning.

It should be pointed out that many Jews had separated themselves from the religious tradition of their parents or grandparents and in some cases had been baptized as Roman Catholics or Protestants. Nevertheless, these governments classified all people of Jewish heritage into the same category.

University scholars who had lost their livelihood in Europe anxiously looked to the United States for employment. American universities would have liked to add distinguished Europeans to their faculty, but the Great Depression limited the availability of funds for new positions. An organization of American university presidents, the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced ScholarsEmergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Scholars, provided notable help to refugees. It was able to find employment for some three hundred scholars out of more than six thousand applicants. The Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey, opened in 1933 with a large private endowment. The institute was able to bring over the world-renowned physicist Einstein, AlbertAlbert Einstein from Berlin during its first year of operation. The National Refugee ServiceNational Refugee Service was the largest American organization that provided financial aid to Europeans in many occupations.

One interesting immigration anecdote relates to the Italian physicist Fermi, EnricoEnrico Fermi, who had been selected to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938. Mussolini, BenitoMussolini boasted publicly about the excellence of scientific research under his Fascism;ItalianFascist rule. However, Fermi’s wife was of Jewish heritage, which meant that the Fermis’ children were not permitted to attend public school, so they quietly planned to emigrate to America. When the Fermi family went to Sweden to accept the Nobel award, they did not return to Italy but used the prize money to pay for their boat trip to America and to get settled in their new home.

Discovery of Nuclear Fission

In January of 1939, a dramatic discovery was announced by two scientists in Germany: the fission of the uranium nucleus into two pieces, accompanied by a large release of energy. The amount of nuclear energy emitted per atom is a million times greater than the chemical energy that is released by traditional explosives. That meant that if uranium could be purified sufficiently, it might be possible to build a weapon of terrifying power. Two Hungarian immigrants;scientistsHungarian physicists who had immigrated to America earlier, Szilard, LeoLeo Szilard and Wigner, EugeneEugene Wigner, realized the danger to the world if Hitler, Adolf[p]Hitler, Adolf;and scientists[scientists]Hitler’s scientists were able to develop an atomic bomb. They wrote a letter addressed to President Roosevelt, Franklin D.[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;and atomic bomb[atomic bomb]Franklin D. Roosevelt to warn him and to urge him to establish a scientific team to investigate the feasibility of such a weapon. They took the letter to Einstein, AlbertEinstein for his signature, thinking that onlyEinstein’s prestige would carry enough weight to get the message through to the president.

The story of the subsequent development of the atomic bomb during World War II has been told by numerous authors. As in any research project, there was uncertainty at many points about the eventual outcome. The large reactor that was built for plutonium production at Hanford, Washington, almost failed because of an unanticipated problem with a previously unknown neutron absorber. At Oak Ridge, Tennessee, three different technologies for uranium isotope separation were attempted with no guarantee that any of them could be made to work. The test explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in June of 1945 could have been a dud if the unusual detonation mechanism of an implosion had fizzled. A spirit of cooperation developed among the scientists, the Army, and the private contractors, without which the project could not have been completed within four years.

Contributions by European Scientists

European scientists were few in number in comparison to the many Americans who worked on the atomic bomb and other war research projects. However, the Europeans made major contributions, often in leadership roles. The magnitude of the immigrants’ contributions can be appreciated by listing the accomplishments of some of the most prominent individuals.

Russian-born physicist George Gamow in 1961.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Enrico Fermi, EnricoFermi, a refugee from Italy, was the world’s foremost expert on nuclear reactions by neutron bombardment. He was the chief designer of the first nuclear reactor using natural uranium fuel. The successful operation of the reactor in 1942 was an essential step toward the crash program to develop an atomic bomb.

Leo Szilard Hungarian immigrants;scientistswas a physicist who left Hungary during the 1920’s to escape from the open anti-Semitism of the government. After a period in Berlin, he immigrated to the United States in 1937 and was one of the first scientists to envision the possibility of an atomic bomb. He wrote the letter that alerted President Roosevelt, Franklin D.[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;and atomic bomb[atomic bomb]Roosevelt to the potential danger of a nuclear Germany. He worked closely with Fermi on the construction of the first nuclear reactor and other projects.

Edward Teller.

(Lawrence Radiation Laboratory/AIP Niels Bohr Library)

Eugene Wigner, EugeneWigner also was a physicist and a refugee from Hungary. His major contribution to the atomic bomb project was to design the large nuclear reactor at Hanford, Washington, which produced plutonium. He was a cowinner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963.

Hans Bethe, HansBethe was a theoretical physicist who fled Germany in 1933, went to England, and then joined the faculty at Cornell University in 1935. He developed a theoretical model for energy production in stars for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967. At the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Oppenheimer, J. RobertJ. Robert Oppenheimer chose him to head the Theoretical Physics Division. During the 1950’s, he served on the President’s Science Advisory Committee.

Felix Swiss immigrants;Felix Bloch[Bloch]Bloch, FelixBloch was a Swiss physicist who came to Cornell University in 1934. During World War II, he contributed to the development of radar. In 1952, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on nuclear magnetic resonance, which is the basis for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), now widely used by the medical profession.

James Franck, JamesFranck was a German physicist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1925. In 1935, he resigned his university position at Göttingen in protest over the dismissal of Jewish faculty and came to the University of Chicago. He headed the chemistry division that prepared the materials for Fermi’s reactor. In 1945, he was a leading voice among scientists who recommended a demonstration of an atomic explosion as a warning to Japan before military use.

George Russian immigrants;scientistsGamow, GeorgeGamow was a physicist refugee who fled from Russia during the 1920’s. He established his reputation in physics by providing an explanation of the mechanism of radioactive decay. After coming to the United States in 1933, he developed a theory of energy production in stars by nuclear fusion, which later became important in the design of the hydrogen bomb.

Edward Hungarian immigrants;scientistsTeller, EdwardTeller, a Hungarian physicist, was able to immigrate to the United States in 1935. While working at Los Alamos, he conceived the idea of a superbomb using hydrogen fusion (the so-called H-bomb) that would be detonated by an atomic bomb. In 1952, the Atomic Energy Commission set up a new laboratory at Livermore, California, specifically to pursue H-bomb research, with Teller as its head. Another Hungarian immigrant, John Neumann, John vonvon Neumann, was a talented mathematician. At the age of thirty, he came to America at the invitation of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He designed the first electronic computer, at Los Alamos to replace the slow mechanical calculators. As a respected technical adviser, he contributed his expertise to the H-bomb and long-range missile programs.

Theodore Karman, Theodore vonvon Karman was a Hungarian who became an outstanding aeronautical engineer. After immigrating to America, he improved the performance of high-speed military aircraft and designed rocket engines for spaceflight. For ten years, he served as director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Samuel Goudsmit, SamuelGoudsmit was a Dutch physicist who was chosen to head the Alsos mission, which followed Allied forces in Europe in 1944 to determine just how far Germany had come toward building an atomic bomb.

Emilio Segrè, EmilioSegrè was a colleague of Fermi at Rome but found the rise of Fascism;ItalianFascism in Italy intolerable. He joined the cyclotron group at the University of California, Berkeley, which produced the first tiny samples of plutonium in 1942, and later worked at Los Alamos. He shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1959 for the discovery of the antiproton.Scientists

Further Reading
  • Compton, Arthur H. Atomic Quest: A Personal Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956. The best account of the American atomic bomb development written for a nontechnical audience. The author knew all the leading scientists personally and describes their contributions.
  • Fermi, Laura. Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954. Describes the difficult conditions in Italy under Mussolini’s Fascism and the Fermi family’s escape to America, with perceptive personality sketches of the author’s husband’s scientific colleagues.
  • _______. Illustrious Immigrants: The Intellectual Migration from Europe, 1930-1941. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. Overview of the large wave of notable scientists and other professionals who came to America to escape fascism. Discusses how they contributed to their new homeland.
  • Groves, Leslie R. Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project. New York: Da Capo Press, 1962. General Groves was the chief military officer for all aspects of the American bomb project from 1942 to 1946. He had responsibility for the construction of the three atomic laboratories at Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos, while maintaining secrecy for the whole project.
  • Hargittai, István. The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Biographies of five extraordinary Hungarians: Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, Edward Teller, and Theodore von Karman. All were born in Budapest, immigrated to America, and had leading scientific roles during and after World War II. Contains much personal information not found elsewhere.
  • Sayen, Jamie. Einstein in America: The Scientist’s Conscience in the Age of Hitler and Hiroshima. New York: Crown, 1985. This biography describes Einstein’s many nonscientific, social involvements from 1933 to 1955, including his assistance to refugees, his letter to President Roosevelt, and his opposition to military H-bomb test explosions.


Bell, Alexander Graham

“Brain drain”

Einstein, Albert

European immigrants

German immigrants

Higher education

Hungarian immigrants

Jewish immigrants

Tesla, Nikola

Categories: History