FERMI, ENRICO. (1901-1954). Italian-born American physicist and Nobel Prize winner. Autograph Letter Signed, “Enrico Fermi,” on imprinted Columbia University, Department of Physics letterhead. Two pages, quarto. New York, January 21, 1939. Very fine condition. To American physicist Samuel Goudsmit. Fermi writes:

“Dear Sam, Enclosed you will find copy of a letter addressed to me by Mr. Horvay. Mr. Horvay is a graduate student here and will take his Ph.D. examination at the end of this month; I have met him a couple of times on some of my former visits to New York; and he once did some numerical calculations under my supervision. In his letter he explains the reasons for his request. He came to me very upset about his situation; and I promised to him to forward his letter to you. I don’t know whether you can grant his request; in any case please answer me as soon as possible, so that if he cannot come to Michigan he might have a chance of trying something else. I believe that Uhlenbeck knows Mr. Horvay better than I do and might be able to give you some further information about him. Best greetings and excuse me for this letter. Yours, Enrico Fermi.”

After receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on induced radioactivity in 1938, Enrico Fermi and his Jewish wife emigrated from Italy to New York in order to escape the Anti-Semitic Laws of Mussolini’s Fascist government. Fermi’s emigration proved fortuitous, in January 1939, the month of his arrival in the U.S., he began his research into nuclear fission at Columbia University’s Pupin Laboratories. After three years of study, he successfully created the first nuclear reactor; a massive “atomic pile” of uranium and graphite bricks located under the football stadium at the University of Chicago. This groundbreaking work, eventually assimilated into the Manhattan Project, was important not only because it allowed for the assessment of the atomic bomb, but also because it served as a pilot plant for the reactors which would be used to “breed” the plutonium necessary for the bombs dropped at White Sands NM and Nagasaki.

Also at work on the Manhattan Project during WW II was the recipient of this letter, Samuel Goudsmit. A professor at the University of Michigan at the outbreak of World War II, Goudsmit worked as the chief scientist of the Manhattan Project group charged with assessing Germany’s ability to build an atomic bomb. Additionally, Goudsmit had earlier worked with George Uhlenbeck, with whom he had introduced the influential theory of electron spin in 1925, on improving the Allies’ radar capabilities at MIT’s Radiations Laboratory. With these three influential scientists working on military applications throughout World War II, it is quite possible that Gabriel Horvay’s request relates in some way to similar work. During his graduate and work at Columbia, Horvay had published work on the slow down of neutrons, an area which was integral to Fermi’s research into nuclear fission and his subsequent work on the Manhattan Project.

A fascinating document from Enrico Fermi, a scientist whose work proved instrumental to the creation of the atomic bombs that ended WWII, written to another scientist equally devoted to the Allied cause.

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