October 18, 2017

Archive Visit: The Joseph Rotblat Papers

Welcome to the HSTM Blog, 2017 edition! I'm Will Vogel, the 2017-2018 Communications Coordinator, and will be serving as editor for the blog this year.

     And now for something somewhat different. This blog had a number of incisive posts in 2015, but has since fallen into hiatus. As part of an effort to reverse this, I’m penning this post as one less ‘academic’ in tone than the excellent pieces which has appeared thus far. Rather than writing a well-researched and argued analysis (mental energy that could go to dissertation writing!), I’ll be discussing my recent research trip to the UK. I invite you to write similar posts about your own lived experiences as an academic in HSTM (research, teaching, and conference experiences seem like excellent candidates), or indeed posts in the vein of those which have appeared before, discussing elements of your work.
     My trip, allowed by the generous support of the Institute for Global Studies' Dunn Peace Research Scholarship, took me to the Churchill Archives Center, at Cambridge University. The Churchill Center serves as a broadly construed ‘life and times’ archive for Winston Churchill, housing his papers, as well as those of a number of other military, governmental, and scientific figures from (generally) the 20th century. The general focus of this collection is on British figures, but I would imagine that it would be useful for any number of projects outside of British history per se (as mine is). Reflecting the value of its collections, the Center was placed on the UNESCO International Memory of the World Register in 2015.

The Churchill Center (WinstonChurchill.org)

     The Archives were an excellent environment for research, with well-written finding aids (available in electronic and paper form), and a well-organized if formalized system for requesting folders of documents. Photography is permitted, provided one pays a fee of £1 each day one takes photographs. The archives are well-staffed, and all of the staff were extremely helpful and friendly. As one might expect for an institution of this sort, it has a well-maintained web presence, with electronic finding aids on the Janus server, a useful website, and (of course), an oft-updated Twitter feed.
     The actual subject of my visit was the Joseph Rotblat collection. Rotblat was a fascinating figure, born in 1908 in Warsaw (then in the Russian Empire), who worked as an electrician before becoming a nuclear physicist in the 1930s. He left Poland shortly before the Second World War broke out, but lost his wife, who was trapped by the German invasion and died in a concentration camp. Having independently conceived of the weapons potential of a fission chain reaction, he joined British nuclear bomb research, and worked on the Manhattan project, before leaving in 1944 when he concluded that the threat of a German bomb was unlikely to materialize. Horrified by the offensive use of the bomb research, he shifted fields into medical physics, which at the time cost him a Royal Society membership. As a researcher on the biological effects of radiation, he became one of the founders of the Pugwash conferences in 1957. Named after the Canadian resort town in which the first meeting took place, these conferences enlisted international groups of scientists to discuss problems relating to the general theme of disarmament, such as the threat of nuclear fallout. Rotblat served as a central figure in the Pugwash movement for the remainder of his career, literally organizing it from his home in the early 1960s. For this work, he shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize with the Pugwash organization. He died in 2005, having lived through two world wars, the entire history of the Soviet Union, and the first seven decades of the nuclear age.

Joseph Rotblat (The Guardian)

     Due to his central involvement in the Pugwash movement, Rotblat’s papers include substantial administrative records for the movement. My visit was primarily to view these, and they proved to be a goldmine. I was primarily interested in Pugwash’s activities in opposition to chemical and biological weapons, which included a fascinating project in the 1960s to duplicate (presumed) secret military work on technology to rapidly detect pathogenic airborne microbes. These papers will help immensely with my dissertation work. The broader picture of the organization which emerged from the archive was also fascinating, as a network of informal Cold War diplomacy with impacts on the Partial Test Ban Treaty and early Vietnam War negotiations. This picture fits with Matthew Evangelista’s discussion of Pugwash and other transnational organizations in his 1999 book Unarmed Forces, but the new availability of Rotblat’s papers (which were only opened to the public a few years ago) suggest the possibility for new scholarship on the Pugwash movement and its role in the Cold War. There were also the fun little tidbits one finds in any good archive. For instance, Bertrand Russell (at the time the titular leader of the Pugwash movement), was apparently sympathetic to Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories.

Copyright Churchill Archives Center. Not a novel finding, but new to me!

     While I didn’t get to any other archives while in the UK, I did get a chance to visit Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyards one weekend. Between that and previous visits to Baltimore and Boston this summer, my dissertation research has allowed a surprising amount of naval history tourism! All good things must come to an end, however: my next two trips will be to Madison, WI and Atlanta, neither of which are noted for their historic ships.

Ex-USS Constellation (1854), Baltimore Harbor. Author's photo.
USS Constitution (1797), Boston Harbor. Author's photo.
HMS Victory (1765), Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Author's photo.

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