The Impact of the Intellectual Migration on the United States and Eastern Europe




Honors 181

The Nobel Prize Winners in Science

By Eric Weiss



Jewish scientists form the largest single religious or ethnic group of Nobel Prize winners from the United States. In fact, as of 1977, Jewish scientists represented 27% of the United States Nobel Prize winners while only representing 3% of the general population (Zuckerman, 1977). This over representation is often attributed to the intellectual migration which occurred during the 1930's and resulted from fascist oppression in Eastern Europe. Particularly important was the migration from Nazi Germany when 1,150 Jewish scientists, forced to leave their homeland, emigrated to the United States (Nachmamsohn, 1979). Was this intellectual migration responsible for the increase in Jewish American Nobelists and the domination of American science in general after World War II? The myriad effects of this migration will be critically examined from the point of view of the United States as well that of post war Germany in order to ascertain the migrations impact on American science.

United States Immigrant Scientists

As the threat of Nazism spread throughout Europe, Jews were faced with a difficult decision, whether to leave their homeland or remain in the face of oppression. Many scientists made the decision to leave. In fact, between 1930 and 1941, twelve Nobel prize winning scientists came to the United States because of the threat of Nazi Germany. Seven of these twelve Nobelists were Jewish. These Jewish scientists included physicists Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, James Franck, and Eugene Wigner, and biologists Otto Loewi, Otto Meyerhof, and Otto Stern. The other five non-Jewish Nobelists were physicists Enrico Fermi, Wolfgang Pauli, and Viktor Hess, chemist Peter Debye, and biologist C.P. Henrik Dam. Of this group of immigrant Nobelists, Pauli, Stern, Dam, and Wigner would win their prizes after coming to the United States. Upon arriving in the United States, the majority of the scientists worked on the east coast, at universities such as Princeton, New York University, Cornell, Fordham, Carnegie Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania (Schlessinger, 1996). Bohr, who had been forced to flee Denmark, Pauli, and Dam spent the war years in the United States but left America and conducted their research after the war. The nine other Nobelists remained and had a strong influence on the scientific community (Zuckerman, 1977).

In addition to these Nobelists, many other great scientists fled to the United States. These included many members of the 41st chair. The 41st chair is collection of scientists who "deserve" a Nobel prize but have not won one. One such immigrant who was also a member of the 41st chair was the Austrian Erwin Chargaff. His discovery that there are specific complementary nucleic acid base pairs which bond together, namely adenine and thiamin, and guanine and cytosine, laid the foundation for the discovery of the structure of DNA. Thus the intellectual migration that occurred as a result of fascist oppression in Eastern Europe had a profound impact in generating greater intellectual activity in the United States. However, this by itself would have had little effect if the new members of the scientific community had not become actively involved in American science. Their influence can be traced in three ways: construction of the first atomic bomb, mentorship, and the initiation of new focus on the biological sciences.

Immigrant Influence on American Science

The first impact that the new scientists had was in the construction of the atomic bomb. Prior to World War II, German physics was far superior to American physics. American graduate students in physics had to spend some time studying in Germany. Future Nobel laureate Isidor Rabi studied under Otto Stern. In addition to this the head of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer, also studied in Germany under Max Born (Nachmansohn, 1979). Because of this German tradition of excellence in physics, many scientists feared that Germany would win the race to create the atomic bomb (Rhodes, 1986). Thus, a project was begun at the University of Chicago in the Metallurgical Laboratory. Here, three Nobel prize winning scientists worked to help America create the first atomic bomb. These were the Jewish physicists James Franck, and Eugene Wigner, and the non-Jewish physicist Enrico Fermi. In addition to these three, Niels Bohr made frequent visits to Chicago to assist. These scientists enabled America to win the race to develop nuclear weapons. Fermi constructed the first atomic pile which allowed for a slow and controlled release of atomic energy. Wigner helped make the transformation from this type of energy to that needed for a bomb. The Americans not only were able to develop a bomb more quickly, but also were able to begin production sooner, as these four scientists and others influenced government agencies to commission companies such as DuPont to prepare for mass production (Fermi, 1968). For example, Einstein wrote Roosevelt about the urgency of developing a bomb, and Fermi was instrumental in persuading the U.S. Army to convince DuPont to do the work (MacPherson, 1986). It took almost four years with tremendous resources and brilliant minds for the United States to develop the bomb (Nachmansohn, 1979).

Interestingly, after the bomb was created these scientists quickly advocated peace. Niels Bohr was a major advocate of peace, and talked with Churchill and Roosevelt to warn of the dangers of using an atomic bomb. Fermi advocated no use without proper warning, and Franck advocated no use without a neutral test site for all to see. Wigner also spoke of the dangers of using a nuclear weapon. Thus the impact that immigrant Nobelists had on the atomic bomb was two-fold. First, their presence in terms of intellect and prestige allowed for quick development and preparation for production of the bomb. Second, all of these scientists, after developing the bomb, became strong advocates of peace.

While the impact on production of nuclear weapons was a direct effect of the migration of European Nobelists to the United States, there were also indirect effects as well. One of these indirect effects was mentorship. The nature of science demands that much learning occurs in a mentor/ prot‚g‚ relationship. Thus to fully appreciate the impact immigrant Nobelists had on American science, we must examine how many other Nobel prizes resulted from work with an immigrant Nobelist. There is no doubt that many Nobel prize winners have worked with other Nobel prize winners. As of 1977, 48 of the 92 laureates who won in the United States had worked with a Nobel laureate as a post doctorate fellow, a junior collaborator, or a student (Zuckerman, 1977). Fermi, for example, served as the mentor for six laureates while Bohr has mentored four. The seven Jewish scientists who came over between 1930 and 1941 served as mentors for six other Nobelists. One of these six was John Bardeen who served as a mentor for two Nobelists himself. Thus, a second major impact which occurred because of the intellectual migration was multiple effects of mentorship.

A third major impact of the migration of scientists to the United States has to do with renewed vigor in research of biological sciences. In the early 1940's biologists were unwilling to make grand claims about the results of their research (Fleming, 1969). This changed in 1953 with the discovery of DNA. Watson and Crick had no qualms about announcing the structure and in the same paper proclaiming that this structure showed how DNA replicated itself. This new type of grand proclamation in the biological sciences was a direct result of the migration of many physicists due to fascist oppression. Three physicists in particular, Schr"dinger, Szilard, and Delbrck, and a biologist, Luria, were all instrumental in changing the attitude of the biologists (Fleming 1969). With the seeming end of the great era of physics, and with only atomic physics in the forefront, many physicists turned to biological questions. Particularly relevant was their attitude that most problems were solvable, and that the researchers should be looking for grand theories which could explain multiple aspects of biology. This was an attitude absent from the biologists of the times. Schr"dinger wrote a book entitled What is Life which greatly influenced James Watson. In addition to this, Watson worked extensively with Luria and was acquainted with Delbrck and Szilard. Thus the new biological attitude became one in which all problems could be solved. This is clearly evident in the discovery of the double helix and translated into increased vigor in the biological sciences (Fleming, 1969).

Effects on German Science from the Migration

While it is true that the intellectual migration strongly influenced American science in a positive way, it is also true that migration affected German science in a negative way. Before 1933, 30% of all prizes awarded (31 of 103 prizes) since the initiation of the Nobel prize went to German scientists who did their work in Germany (Zuckerman, 1977). However, between 1933 and 1976, this number dropped to only 9%, or 19 of 210 total prizes. This is partly due to the fact that so many Jewish scientists were forced to leave, as the number of Jewish laureates for the same period dropped from 9 to 2. However, a similar effect is seen in other laureates as the proportion of non-Jewish laureates declined by 20%. This decline, not entirely due to persecution of Jews, was most likely due to poor working conditions and lack of equipment due to the financial problems in post war Germany. In addition to this, Jews were not the only scientists to leave. Non-Jewish scientists such as Enrico Fermi also left. In Fermi's case, his wife was Jewish and the family was forced to flee. Thus there were many factors which led to a complete collapse of science in Germany and Eastern Europe after World War II.

The Reception of Jewish Scientists in the United States

While the United States did not attract all scientists (some went to France and Great Britain) it did prove to be an attractive destination. Meyerhof, originally fled to France but had to flee again to the United States (Nachmansohn, 1979). England was under constant bombardment by German forces, whereas the United States was safe. In addition to this, scientists who came to the United States were welcomed by the Americans. Despite the fact that the United States was just coming out of a depression, the scientists were offered positions at top universities, given good research facilities, and were accepted by the scientific community. Thus, these immigrant scientists, despite being foreigners, were treated well in the United States (Nachmansohn, 1979).


Thus it can be seen that the migration of scientists due to fascist oppression had multiple impacts on the United States and Germany. For the United States the effects were overwhelmingly positive, with immigrant Nobelists aiding in the construction of the first atomic bomb, serving as mentors for other U.S. Nobelists, and fostering a new attitude in the biological sciences. For Germany and Eastern Europe, the effects seem to be overwhelmingly negative, as a once prospering scientific community was transformed to a much less productive one. Thus, the scientific migration due to the effects of fascist regimes, helped the United States enter into a period of scientific dominance in the years after World War II.






















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Last updated 4/27/98.