Fonds FRSH - Papers of Otto Frisch

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Reference code



Papers of Otto Frisch


  • 1899-1981 (Creation)

Level of description


Extent and medium

70 boxes

Context area

Name of creator


Biographical history

Otto Robert Frisch was born 1 October 1904 in Vienna to Justinian and Auguste (née Meitner) Frisch. Justinian was a printer with a talent for painting, Auguste was a pianist whose sister Lise Meitner was a respected physicist. The family was large and close-knit and of Jewish heritage and the events of the Thirties and the Second World War meant many family members were forced to rebuild lives and careers on foreign soil. Frisch's father was briefly interned in Dachau before being released to work in Sweden.

Otto displayed an early talent for mathematics that evolved into an interest in physics, encouraged in part by his aunt. At the University of Vienna he studied the effects of electrons on salts under Karl Przibram, and obtained a DPhil in 1926. He then took a job in industry, working for an inventor whose firm supplied X-ray dosimeters, and after a year of this he was given a job in Berlin in the optics division of the Physikalisch Technische Reischsanstalt, where he worked from 1927 to 1930.

Frisch then moved on to Hamburg, where he worked with Otto Stern, well-known for his Stern-Gerlach experiment. Here he assisted Stern’s work on molecular beams and the diffraction of atoms by crystal surfaces. His Jewish heritage, however, meant that he was no longer able to work once the racial laws were passed in Germany in 1933. Stern found him a job for a year at Patrick Blackett’s laboratory at Birkbeck College, London, where he worked on artificial radioactivity, and while there he was invited by Niels Bohr to go to work at the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen.

At the Institute Frisch worked on neutron physics, and while visiting his aunt in Stockholm over Christmas 1938 they studied Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman’s results of an experiment on neutron collision. Together they wrote a paper providing an explanation of the collision, with a corroborative experiment and suggested a name for the process: nuclear fission. In 1939, seeing that it was a matter of time before Denmark fell to the Germans, he accepted an invitation to become a lecturer at the University of Birmingham. While there he researched and wrote the important ‘Frisch-Peierls memorandum’, 'On the construction of a "super-bomb" based on a nuclear chain reaction in uranium', having realized that it would be possible to create a powerful explosion using a portable amount of uranium-235. At this, he was invited to work on the Maud Committee, and moved to Liverpool to work with James Chadwick on the ‘Tube Alloys’ programme. In 1943, after being naturalized as a British citizen, he 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 eyewitness of the Trinity Test of an atomic bomb in July 1945.

After the war, Frisch spent a year and a half as head of the nuclear physics division of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell before was offered the Jacksonian Chair of Natural Philosophy at Cambridge. In 1948 he became a Fellow of Trinity College. He married Ursula (Ulla) Blau in 1951, and they had two children. He became head of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1954. An abiding interest in instrumentation resulted in his invention of and investment in SWEEPNIK, a semi-automatic measuring machine designed for bubble chamber photographs. In 1969, he established Laser Scan Limited, the first company to take premises in Cambridge Science Park.

Frisch, who was known as Otto or Robert at different times in his life, played several musical instruments, 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 giving lectures there. He was an accomplished caricaturist as well. He spoke German, Danish, and English fluently, lecturing in German and Danish to the end of his life, but preferring to write in English. An ardent believer in the value of explaining science to the general public, he not only wrote books and articles on the subject, but appeared on many radio and television broadcasts over the years. He died in 1979 shortly after completing his autobiography, What little I remember.

Archival history

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

Gift of Mrs. U. Frisch, via Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre, 1982. A supplemental gift of papers and correspondence from Mrs Frisch arrived in 1990 and has been catalogued here as A.226-251, B. 208-224, C.140-167, D.60-62, E.64-82, F.148-157, and G.32-35.

Content and structure area

Scope and content

The papers consist of correspondence, research notes, writings, documents, publications, photographs, glass slides, films, and audiotapes documenting all stages of Otto Robert Frisch's life, and include Frisch's collection of the papers of his aunt, the physicist Lise Meitner. The 70 boxes of material are organised into seven series: Biographical and personal papers; Scientific research; Lectures and publications; Radio, television, films; Visits and conferences; Correspondence; and Non-print material.

Series A, Biographical and personal papers, is particularly full, incorporating material relating not only to Frisch's own career and interests including music (A.86-90) and sketching (A.84, 233-249), but also to Frisch’s extended family. 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. Lise Meitner's papers appear primarily in this series (A.134-211), and consist of correspondence, most of which is with Frisch and her younger brother Walter, as well as drafts of lectures, photographs, and miscellaneous papers. Several of her letters appear elsewhere in the collection (C.55, D.55, and F.15) and she is the subject of letters and articles throughout. Series F contains photocopies of letters written to her from Otto Hahn in December 1938 (F.52) and Series G includes photographs of her as well as an undated audiotape of a conversation between Frisch and Meitner (G.31).

Series 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 the wartime work on the atomic bomb project is under-represented due to the security restrictions placed on the work. B.209-220 are 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 Niels Bohr at Princeton, two drafts of Bohr's paper on the disintegration of heavy nuclei and correspondence between Frisch and Nature. The series also contains Frisch’s original eyewitness account of the Trinity Test (B.135), and a letter from Louis, identified as Louis Slotin by Sir Rudolf Peierls, written a month before Slotin's fatal accident (B.136A). Also present is an item added later by the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre which provided the original cataloguing of the collection, a photocopy of the official report on Frisch's work at Los Alamos drawn up in August 1946 (A.58A). 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.

Series C, Lectures and publications, and D, Radio, television, films 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. There are drafts, correspondence, and printed material related to Frisch's lectures and publications, and drafts of scripts, correspondence, contracts and receipts related to Frisch's work in radio, television, and film.

Series E, Visits and conferences, varies in content from brief notices or programmes to substantial folders including correspondence on scientific matters, arrangements for lectures, publications, and travel, as well as visits to friends. It should be noted that many of the important meetings of the Thirties were held at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at Copenhagen where he worked. E.64-76 contains material relating to the commemoration meeting for Bohr held at Copenhagen in 1963. The material in Section G, Non-print materials, provides a supplementary photographic record of meetings and conferences.

The correspondence in Series F dates mainly postdates 1947 and Frisch's establishment in Cambridge. Very little survives for 1943-1947 due to security restrictions at Los Alamos. Incoming scientific correspondence for the earlier period 1930-1943 is less well documented and was usually kept by Frisch with relevant research notes. Incoming personal letters for those years appear mainly in the 'Family correspondence and papers' in Series 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, at B.39-42, B.73-81.

Series G, Non-print material, consists of photographs, film, glass plate slides, photographic slides, and audiotapes. The photographs include those by his aunt and noted photographer Lotte Meitner-Graf (G.10, 12, 18). The film includes those taken at Copenhagen and the Bohr’s holiday home Tisvilde in 1937 (G.21), and at post-war conferences (G.22). The glass plate slides were created to accompany lectures (G.23-28). There is also an audio recording of an undated conversation between Lise Meitner and Frisch (G.31).

Frisch was fluent in German, Danish, and English, and read other languages, and so the collection is multi-lingual as well. He continued to use Danish and German for lectures, speeches or correspondence to the end of his life; English became his language of choice for writing. Another feature of the collection is evidence of Frisch’s gift for sketching, particularly of caricatures of colleagues; there are some specific samples of his drawings, but others are scattered throughout the collection, on letters, conference programmes, and menus. 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 cite references in the book. The memoir by R.E. Peierls for the Royal Society of London, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society (27, 1981) has been drawn upon and referred to in the catalogue as well.

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Language of material

  • Danish
  • English
  • French
  • German

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    Finding aids

    This record was prepared using a more detailed finding aid produced by Jeannine Alton and Julia Latham-Jackson of the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre, reference number CSAC 87.5.82. The Supplementary catalogue produced by Peter Harper and Timothy E. Powell, NCUACS 31/7/91 was also used.

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    Related units of description

    The Papers of Lise Meitner, the main deposit of material relating to Lise Meitner's life and work, may be found at the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge.

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        Archivist's note

        The current record was edited by Diana Smith in 2021.

        Accession area