Catalogue description Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of OTTO ROBERT FRISCH OBE, FRS (1904-1979); Including material relating to LISE MEITNER, For. Mem. RS (1878-1968)

This record is held by Cambridge University: Trinity College Library

Details of CSAC 87.5.82
Reference: CSAC 87.5.82
Title: Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of OTTO ROBERT FRISCH OBE, FRS (1904-1979); Including material relating to LISE MEITNER, For. Mem. RS (1878-1968)



A.1 -A.7 Biographical and autobiographical


A.8 -A.32 Diaries and notebooks


With an introductory note


A.33 -A.106 Career and memorabilia


A.107-A.225 Family correspondence and papers


With an introductory note


A.107-A.124 The Frisch family


A.125-A.218 The Meitner family


A.219-A.225 The Blau family




Introduction to Section B


B.1, B.2 Vienna


B.3-B.7 Berlin


B.8-B.42 Hamburg


B.43 Birkbeck College, London


With an introductory note


B.44-B.94 Copenhagen


B.95-B.104 Birmingham


With an introductory note


B.105-B.131 Liverpool


With an introductory note


B.132-B.136A Los Alamos


B.137-B.142 Harwell


B.143-B.207 Cambridge


With an introductory note




Introduction to Section C


C.1 -C.54 Lectures and articles


Drafts and related correspondence


C.55 -C.75 Books and unpublished work


Drafts and related correspondence


C.76 Book reviews


C.77 -C.89 Obituaries and biographical writings


C.90 -C.101 Requests for lectures and papers


C.102-C.133 Correspondence with publishers and editors


C.134-C.139 Published material




Introduction to Section D


D.1 -D.43 British Broadcasting Corporation (radio)


Drafts, scripts, correspondence


D.44-D.50 Television companies (U.K.)


D.51-D.54 Radio and television (Europe)


D.55-D.59 Films




Introduction to Section E




Introduction to Section F




The surviving manuscripts and papers provide a good picture of Frisch's career and work at all stages. Section A, Biographical and Personal, is particularly full, incorporating material relating to his own career and interests including music (A.86 - A.90) and sketching (A.84), and also those of his family and relations. These have historical interest as an example of the diaspora of the Thirties, and in the case of Lise Meitner a more specific scientific interest complementing other material deposited elsewhere.


Section B, Scientific Research, includes notebooks, laboratory notes and calculations, publication drafts and correspondence. It presents a full record for the periods of work at Hamburg and Copenhagen, but for obvious reasons the wartime work on the atomic bomb project is only scantily documented in a private collection; there is, however, his original eye-witness account of the Trinity Test (B. 135). For the later period, 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 such as his scanning device, and the various constructions and gadgets which he continued to devise for his Laser Scan company to the end of his life. It can be seen that he never lost interest in some types of research problems, nor acquired it in others.


Sections C and D illustrate Frisch's expository skills in the written and the spoken word; he was greatly in demand as a lecturer, and the broadcasting services made regular calls on his multi-lingual gifts.


Section E, Visits and Conferences, is relatively short; this is in part because many of the important meetings of the Thirties were held at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at Copenhagen where he was already working, and in part because of his greater family commitments in later life. The material in Section G often provides a supplementary photographic record of meetings and conferences.


The correspondence in Section F dates mainly postdates 1947 and Frisch's establishment in Cambridge. Very little survives for 1943 - 47 because of security restrictions at Los Alamos. Incoming scientific correspondence for the earlier periods 1930 - 43 is scanty and usually kept by Frisch with the relevant research notes where it remains. Incoming personal letters for those years are mainly in the 'Family correspondence and papers' in Section A. During the Thirties, Frisch kept copies of his outgoing letters in chronological folders where correspondence of all kinds and in several languages is juxtaposed. In a letter to Margaret Hope of 14 September 1936, Frisch explains 'I like to keep a duplicate of all my letters, it is like a diary for me'. This material remains in its original order, but presented in smaller units for ease of handling, at B.39 - B.42, B.73 - B.81.


Compiled by Jeannine Alton and Julia Latham-Jackson


The work of the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre, and the production of this catalogue, are made possible by the support of the following societies and institutions:


The Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland


The Biochemical Society


The British Pharmacological Society


The Charles Babbage Foundation for the History of Information Processing


The Institute of Physics


The Institution of Electrical Engineers


The Nuffield Foundation


The Physiological Society


The Royal Society of London


We are grateful for help and information from many sources and in particular to:


Mrs. Ulla Frisch, for making the material available for cataloguing, for permission to quote, for information on the family tree and for comments on the draft catalogue;


Dr. J. White for permission to include and quote form item A.58A;


The Librarian and library staff of Trinity College, Cambridge;


Sir Rudolf Peierls, Professor P.F. Ganz, for information and help in identifying material and correspondents;


Professor M.M. Gowing, for comments on the draft catalogue;


Mrs. M.M. Edwards, for careful and accurate typing.

Date: 1899-1981
Held by: Cambridge University: Trinity College Library, not available at The National Archives
Language: English

Frisch, Otto Robert, 1904-1979, scientist and nuclear physicist

Physical description: 70 boxes
Access conditions:








  • Physics
Administrative / biographical background:

Otto Robert Frisch (he was known by both names, singly or in conjunction) is assured of a place in the history of twentieth-century physics. Naturally endowed with an intuitive grasp of the practicalities of physical problems and the deftness which enabled him to devise useful experiments and the relevant instrumentation to carry them out, he learnt his craft under such towering masters as - successively - Otto Stern, Patrick Blackett and Neils Bohr. In 1938 he collaborated with his aunt Lise Meitner in the famous analysis of Hahn's and Strassmann's experimental results on neutron collision, to which he also contributed not only the corroborative experiment but the name for the process - nuclear fission. In 1940, with Rudolf Peierls, he wrote the important memorandum 'On the construction of a "super-bomb" based on a nuclear chain reaction in uranium', which launched the Maud Committee; he worked at Liverpool with Chadwick on the 'Tube Alloys' project and in 1943 moved with other British scientists to Los Alamos 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. (See CSAC 87.5.82/A.58A for the official report on Frisch's work at Los Alamos drawn up in August 1946.)


This sequence of events gives emphasis to Frisch's active contribution to twentieth-century history; yet in other respects he could be seen as one of its victims. A glance at the number and location of his places of work in Section B tells its own tale. Hitler's accession to power in 1933 obliged him to leave Hamburg and his work with Stern; the annexation of Austria in 1938 deprived him of nationality, and, a year later, separated him from his work in Denmark with Bohr, from family and friends, and from continental Europe. It was only in 1947 on his appointment to the Jacksonian Chair at Cambridge that he reached a point of rest. Here he contracted in 1951 a happy marriage, raised a family, and remained for the rest of his life.


Mention of Frisch's family and his aunt Lise Meitner introduces a further dimension into his career and the interest of his papers. He belonged to a large, gifted and close-knit family, many of whose members were scattered by the events of the Thirties and the Second World War or who were forced to rebuild lives and careers on foreign soil. Frisch's own father was briefly in Dachau and had subsequently to find work and support his wife in Sweden. It is clear that


Frisch did his best to contribute to the support of his parents and other relations, often in tiny sums from his own modest earnings; his sunny nature and unassuming kindness must surely have been a major factor in the willingness of his parents, and later his aunt, to emigrate yet again on retirement in order to spend their last years with him in Cambridge.


With this cosmopolitan European background it is not surprising that Frisch had - or acquired from necessity - considerable linguistic fluency, which is in evidence throughout his papers. He rapidly learnt Danish and English when occasion required and continued to use Danish and German for lectures, speeches or correspondence to the end of his life; English became however his language of choice for writing. Another gift was sketching, particularly of semi-cartoon likeness of colleagues; there are some specific items of samples of his drawings, but others are scattered passim on letters, conference programmes, menus and the like.


Music was much more for Frisch than a 'gift' or hobby. He played several instruments, but chiefly the piano, on which he was proficient to recital standard. In later life he gave increasing time to music, regularly attending the Dartington School, and sometimes lecturing.


Shortly before his death in 1979 Frisch published his autobiography What little I remember (Cambridge University Press), giving an informal account of his life mainly up to 1947. This has been drawn upon as a basis for dating material, and catalogue entries are linked to it where appropriate. There have also been several accounts of his work, obituary tributes and memoirs, among them the Memoir by R.E. Peierls for the Royal Society of London (Biographical Memoris of Fellows of the Royal Society, 27, 1981) which has been drawn upon and referred to in the catalogue.

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