Papers and correspondence of Otto Robert Frisch, 1904-1979

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Original material: The papers are extensive. There is a great deal of biographical material relating to his own career and interests (including music and sketching) and also family papers. Frisch's father was a successful printer in Vienna, briefly imprisoned at Dachau, who spent the war years in Stockholm and finally moved to Cambridge to be near his son. His mother was one of the large Meitner family several of whom suffered under Nazi persecution and, briefly, British internment. Other relatives included Lise Meitner and the photographer Lotte Meitner-Graf. The documents thus have historical interest as an example of the diaspora of the 1930s. In the case of Lise Meitner there is an additional specific scientific content usefully complementing the main Lise Meitner papers deposited in Churchill College Archives Centre, Cambridge.

The diaries and journals, laboratory notebooks, research folders and related notes and correspondence provide a full record for Frisch's early work at Hamburg and Copenhagen. Inevitably, the wartime work on the atomic bomb project is only scantily documented. For the later period at Cambridge, the paucity of material relating to the Cavendish Laboratory reflects Frisch's lack of interest in administrative and committee work and his preference for relatively small-scale experimental projects, and the various constructions and gadgets which he continued to design for his Laser Scan Company to the end of his life. In addition to the usual material on lectures, visits and conferences, there is substantial documentation of his contributions to radio, television and film, which indicates his special skills as a polyglot expositor of scientific concepts for a lay audience.

Supplementary material: New biographical material includes Frisch's famous caricature sketches of scientific colleagues, including those at Los Alamos, 1943-1945. Scientific research is represented by crucial documents relating to nuclear fission in the first half of 1939: correspondence between Frisch in Copenhagen and his aunt Lise Meitner in Sweden, correspondence between Frisch and N. Bohr at Princeton, two drafts of Bohr's papers on the disintegration of heavy nuclei ( Nature, Lond., 143) and correspondence between Frisch and Nature. There are also a few more drafts for Frisch's lectures, publications and broadcasts, and material relating to the commemoration meeting for Bohr held at Copenhagen in 1963.

Administrative / Biographical History

Frisch was born in Vienna and educated at the University of Vienna where he studied Physics (Ph.D. 1926). He moved to Berlin in 1927, to Hamburg University in 1930 where he joined O. Stern as an Assistant and, after being forced to leave Germany because of Nazi racial laws, to Birkbeck College, London to work with P.M.S. Blackett, 1933-1934, and to Copenhagen to work with N. Bohr, 1934-1939. In 1938 he collaborated with his aunt Lise Meitner in the famous analysis of O. Hahn's and F. Strassman's experimental results on neutron collision, to which he contributed not only the corroborative experiment but also the name of the process - nuclear fission. In 1940, while based at Birmingham University, he wrote the important memorandum with R.E. Peierls On the construction of a 'super-bomb' based on a nuclear chain reaction in uranium which was instrumental in alerting the British government to the need to undertake nuclear research. He worked at Liverpool University from 1940 with J. Chadwick on the British atomic bomb research project 'Tube Alloys' and in 1943 moved with other British scientists to Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan project where he was head of the Critical Assembly Group and an eye-witness of the Trinity Test of an atomic bomb in July 1945. In 1946 he became head of the Nuclear Physics Division of the new Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. In 1947 he was offered the Jacksonian Professorship of Natural Philosophy at Cambridge University where he was mainly concerned with teaching and the development of automatic devices to evaluate information produced in bubble chambers, which are used to study particle collisions. He was elected FRS in 1948.


By section as follows: Biographical and personal, Scientific research, Lectures and publications, Radio, television, and films, Visits and conferences, Correspondence, Non-print material. Index of correspondents.

Conditions Governing Access

By appointment only.

Other Finding Aids

Printed catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Otto Robert Frisch (1904-1979) by J. Alton and J. Latham-Jackson, CSAC catalogue no. 87/5/82, 155 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Printed supplementary catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Otto Robert Frisch (1904-1979) by P. Harper and T.E. Powell, NCUACS catalogue no. 31/7/91, 24 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Custodial History

Original material: Received for cataloguing in 1981-1982 by the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre from Mrs Ulla Frisch, widow. Deposited in Trinity College in 1982.

Supplementary material: Received for cataloguing in 1991 by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists from Mrs Frisch via Trinity College. Deposited in Trinity College in 1991.

Corporate Names