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Supplementary catalogue of the archive of Rudolf (Ernst) Peierls (1907-1995)


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The present collection comprises not only continuing material for Peierls's activities since 1974, but early correspondence and papers relating to his family and career. It has therefore been treated as a separate entity, with cross-references to the 1977 catalogue.

A crucial event roughly halfway through the gap between the two collections was the publication in 1986 of Peierls's memoirs, Bird of Passage. The book not only includes many references to Peierls's family, career and friends but triggered off or gave fresh impetus to correspondence from relatives and friends with family news or reminiscences, thus enriching the documentation. These are included at MS. 11619/1/A.20 and MS. 11619/44/E.78, and references to the book itself are also given in the body of the catalogue.

The material is presented as shown in the List of Contents. Additional explanatory notes are appended where appropriate to the separate sections, sub-sections and individual entries in the catalogue. The following paragraphs are intended only to draw attention to items of particular interest.

Section A, Biographical and personal, provides new material on Peierls's own career and opinions, and on his many honours and awards, but is of special interest for its family papers and correspondence, notably from Peierls's father and step-mother who remained in Berlin until 1939.

There is also some material relating to his wife Genia, including his letters to her during their long-distance courtship, written in English, German and Russian. Her influence on him, and on everyone she met, can be perceived throughout the collection, albeit indirectly. Messages for her are included in much of the correspondence during her lifetime, and many touching recollections followed her death in 1986. With the coming of war in 1939 Rudolf and Genia Peierls were anxious for their children, Gaby and Ronnie, who were evacuated to Toronto in 1940; the ensuing correspondence with their hostesses affords further glimpses of Genia's personality as well as news of the children. The lighter side of their life is shown in the verses and sketches for some of their famous parties and celebrations. Their circular letters to family and friends (MS. 11619/2/A.26-27) are invaluable in keeping track of the nomadic life they both enjoyed. A note about Genia's last illness and death is appended to MS. 11619/54/J.66.

Section B, Research and teaching, refers to work after 1974. Because of Peierls's constant travel and lack of a permanent base, much of his thinking and research was conducted by correspondence, and thus is often better documented than earlier work on ephemeral blackboards or rough paper.

Section C, Weapons control and security, expands some of the material in the previous collection, and reflects Peierls's continuing concern with the problems of international control of atomic and nuclear weapons. Foremost among the organizations he supported was the Pugwash Movement; he maintained not merely a connection but active work on its projects right up to the last weeks of his life, but, sadly, died just too soon to learn of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1995 jointly to J. Rotblat and the Pugwash organization.

Section D, History of twentieth-century science and scientists, includes some original material relating to the 'Frisch-Peierls memorandum' of 1940 on the feasibility of an atomic weapon. There are also many recollections, tributes etc for leading figures in twentieth-century science, almost all drawn from Peierls's own knowledge and contacts, and including many notable German and Russian scientists. His recollections continued to be extensively called upon by writers and researchers, and published in his own frequent reviews of books and memoirs.

Section E, Publications and editorial, includes full documentation of Peierls's long service on the Editorial Board of Contemporary Physics and also of the publication of his own later books including Bird of Passage, Surprises in Theoretical Physics and its sequel More Surprises in Theoretical Physics.

Section F, Radio, television, films, is a relatively short section: most of the material relates to atomic bomb history.

Section G, Committees, societies, consultancies, is also a relatively short section, as Peierls spent so much of his retirement abroad. There is, however, material on his consultancies with the Atomic Energy Research Establishment Harwell, and the Science and Engineering Council Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory.

Section H, Seattle, and Section K, Visits, Lectures, Conferences, may be considered together as records of the constant travel which Peierls and Genia had planned and carried out for their retirement, and which continued even when, after her death in 1986, Peierls had become a solitary 'Bird of passage'.

Section J, Correspondence, and Section L, References and recommendations, relate, with few exceptions, to the post-1974 period.

Not all of the retirement correspondence is easy to read. Peierls recalls (Bird of Passage, p. 44) that his parents gave him a typewriter for his birthday in 1929 and he subsequently typed most of his own correspondence. He also recalls realising, when his translation of de Broglie's book on wave mechanism was published in 1929, that he was a negligent proof-reader (Bird of Passage, p. 41). Many of his carbon copies are in addition on somewhat poor quality paper, and fading. Later he used a succession of word-processors and sophisticated printers. By then, sadly, his eyesight had begun to fail, and this, together with his proof-reading weakness, allowed many errors to slip through which require a measure of intuition to decipher.


Peierls died on 19 September 1995 when this catalogue was already prepared. Additional material thus became available at a very late date and has been dealt with in several ways.

Some items could be incorporated in the draft catalogue with no more than minor amendments of dating and indexing. This has been done wherever possible. In some cases an additional item-number was required, thus breaking the original sequence; these occur at MS. 11619/7/A.90A; MS. 11619/21/B.27A; MS. 11619/35/D.83A; MS. 11619/36/D.104A; MS. 11619/47/G.11A; MS. 11619/65/K.51A; MS. 11619/69/K.101A.

More substantial new material appears as an addendum, with explanatory note, to Sections C (MS. 11619/29/C.45-51), D (MS. 11619/39/D.135-139) and J. (MS. 11619/60/J.129-143).

We are grateful to Sir Rudolf, and his daughter, Mrs Jo Hookway, for making material available and for help in identifying some of the documents and photographs.

We thank Dr Olive Sayce for providing a translation of the item by E. Schrödinger at MS. 11619/36/D.99.


  • 1898-1996


8.25 linear metres (75 boxes)

Conditions Governing Access

Material of a sensitive or personal nature is closed. This comprises MS. 11619/41/E.22-26 and all material in Section L 'References and recommendations', MSS. 11619/72-75/L.1-85.

Preferred Citation

Oxford, Bodleian Libraries [followed by shelfmark, e.g. MS. 11619/1/A.1]
Please see our help page for further guidance on citing archives and manuscripts.

Full range of shelfmarks:

MSS. 11619/1-75 (formerly NCUACS 57.6.95/A.1-L.85)

Collection ID (for staff)

CMD ID 11619


Supplementary catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Rudolf (Ernst) Peierls (1907-1995), physicist

Biographical / Historical

Rudolf Ernst Peierls was born 5 June 1907 in Berlin. He was educated at a Gymnasium (High School) in a Berlin suburb. On leaving school he spent six months as a trainee technician at the telephone factory Mix & Genest.

Peierls entered Berlin University in October 1925 as a student of physics. In 1926 he transferred to the Department of Theoretical Physics at the University of Munich, led by Professor Arnold Sommerfeld. In the spring of 1928 he transferred to the Theoretical Physics Department at Leipzig University, led by Professor Werner Heisenberg, and in the spring of 1929 he moved yet again to the Federal Institute of Technology (E.T.H.) in Zürich. He obtained his D.Phil from Leipzig in 1929, with his dissertation on the thermal conductivity of non-conducting crystals, written under the supervision of Wolfgang Pauli. From the autumn of 1929 to the autumn of 1932 he was 'Assistant' to Professor Pauli.

From the autumn of 1932 to the autumn of 1933 Peierls held a Rockefeller Fellowship, allowing him to work with Enrico Fermi in Rome, and with Paul Dirac and R.H. Fowler in Cambridge. From 1933 to 1935 he did research at Manchester University, funded by an 'academic assistance' grant supporting German refugees. From 1935 to 1937 he transferred his research to the Mond Laboratory at Cambridge University. In 1937 Peierls was appointed Professor of Applied Mathematics, later changed to Mathematical Physics, at the University of Birmingham. In 1963 he was appointed Wykeham Professor of Theoretical Physics at Oxford University, where he was a Fellow of New College. He retired from this position in 1974. In later years he worked as a part-time professor at the University of Washington.

During the war years, because of his German birth, Peierls was not allowed to work on research into radar. From 1940 to 1943 he did atomic energy work for the M.A.U.D. Committee and the Tube Alloys Project. From 1943 until the end of the war he worked on the Manhattan Project, both in New York and at Los Alamos.

Peierls's research work includes work on the quantum theory of solids, of electro-magnetic fields, and of the solid nucleus. Some of this was done jointly with L. Landau, H.A. Bethe, N. Bohr and others. Visits to other institutions included a semester at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton 1952, a semester at Columbia University 1959, The Battelle Visiting Professorship at the University of Washington for two quarters in 1967, and subsequent shorter visits to the University of Washington in 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 and 1973.

Peierls was awarded a C.B.E. in 1946, and was knighted in 1968. He was awarded numerous honours, both domestically and internationally.

He was a founding member of the Atomic Scientists Association and a member of their Council during its existence. He was a participant in the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. He was a member of the Continuing Committee 1963 to 1974, and Chairman of the Continuing Committee 1970 to 1974.

Peierls married in 1931. The couple had one son and three daughters. In 1985 Peierls published Bird of Passage: Recollections of a physicist, which covers his life until 1974. Peierls died 19 September 1995, in Oxford.



MSS. 11619/1-2/A.1-28 Biographical and autobiographical

MSS. 11619/3-4/A.29-53 Career

MSS. 11619/5-6/A.54-90 Honours and awards

MSS. 11619/7-13/A.91-137 Family correspondence and material

MS. 11619/14/A.138-148 Celebrations and commemorations

MSS. 11619/15-16/A.149-175 Personal correspondence and material

MS. 11619/17/A.176-205 Non-print material

MS. 11619/18/A.206-214 Obituaries and tributes



MSS. 11619/23-28/C.1-40 Organizations and committees

MS. 11619/28/C.41-44 Correspondence

MS. 11619/29/C.45-51 Addendum


MSS. 11619/30-36/D.1-105 Individuals

MS. 11619/37/D.106-116 Topics

MS. 11619/38/D.117-134 General correspondence

MS. 11619/39/D.135-139 Addendum





MS. 11619/49/H.1-10 Appointments, visits, research

MS. 11619/50/H.11-15 Lectures and teaching

MS. 11619/50/H.16-25 Scientific and personal correspondence



MSS. 11619/61-69/K.1-106 Scientific and general correspondence

MS. 11619/70/K.107-121 Shorter scientific correspondence

MS. 11619/71/K.122-124 Unindexed correspondence


MS. 11619/72/L.1-10 Theses and higher degrees

MS. 11619/72/L.11-19 Research grants and fellowships

MSS. 11619/72-73/L.20-34 Appointments, promotions, awards

MS. 11619/73/L.35-53 Prizes, medals, honours

MS. 11619/74/L.54-68 Institutions and organizations

MS. 11619/75/L.69-85 Publications

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The material was assembled from Peierls's home and departmental office in Oxford at various dates 1994-1995. Early in 1996, and after this catalogue's reference numbers had been assigned, the Peierls family kindly made available the letters of condolence they had received at his death.

Donated in 1996.

Related Materials

The material is a substantial complement to the papers made available by Peierls on his retirement from his Oxford chair in 1974, and which were received and catalogued by the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre and deposited in 1977 in the Department of Western Manuscripts of the Bodleian Library, MSS. Eng. misc. b. 197-226.
Supplementary catalogue of the archive of Rudolph (Ernst) Peierls (1907-1995)
Catalogued by Jeannine Alton and Peter Harper; EAD version 2020 by Catherine McIlwaine
2001, EAD version 2020
Language of description
The production of this catalogue was made possible by the support of the following societies and organizations: The Biochemical Society, The British Library, The E.P.A. Cephalosporin Fund, The Geological Society, The Higher Education Funding Council for England, The Institute of Physics, The Royal Society, The Royal Society of Chemistry, and The Wellcome Trust.

Repository Details

Part of the Bodleian Libraries Repository

Weston Library
Broad Street
Oxford OX1 3BG United Kingdom