Biography of Laura Fermi
by her daughter Nella Fermi Weiner (1931 – 1995)
Second Draft of unpublished manuscript dated, Sept 18, 1994
First Publication: posthumous, © Olivia Fermi 2009
Comments or edits by Olivia Fermi are indicated with square brackets: [ ]
Laura was the child of Costanza and Augusto Capon. Augusto Capon was an Italian naval officer and in retirement was made an admiral. Costanza Capon managed a large household, often in the absence of her husband, whose career dictated much travel. The couple lived in Rome, Italy and had four children, Anna born in 1906, Laura (Lalla), Paola born in 1909 and Alessandro (Sandro) born in 1910.
The Capons were an upper middle class Jewish family.
Jews in Italy [by this time] were largely assimilated, and the Capons were no exception. In 1913, they moved into a large, commodious house where their children grew up. Costanza Capon’s mother, Laura Romanelli lived with them at some periods.
The children formed two pairs, Anna and Lalla were “the big ones,” Paola and Sandro “the little ones.” In an memoir of their childhood (La Famiglia Capon), Anna remembers Lalla as a little girl, being the more outgoing of the two, and also as the prettiest:
“If we are called into the parlor to greet one of Mamma’s friends, I am retiring . . . and don’t open my mouth: Lalla is always ready to answer questions . . .
‘What will you do when you grow up?’
‘<I will be> a countess and will have a dress with a train and a diadem of diamonds.’ She is certain of this brilliant future, and with much dignity Lalla says goodbye and distances herself . . . as if she were already a countess.”
Anna Capon also describes the large extended family of which they were a part – aunts, uncles, a great-grandmother and others.
After completing the Liceo [like a high school], Laura Capon began a course in general science at the University of Rome. Lalla was the only one of the three sisters who attended the University. Sandro, her brother, became an engineer. Anna and Laura had a shared social life. Anna was an artist and sometimes found Laura’s desire to meet with a group of physicists and mathematicians a bit boring and dubbed the group the “logarithms.” It was among the “logarithms” that Lalla Capon met Enrico Fermi, a brilliant young physicist who became a professor at the University of Rome at age 25 in 1926 and whom she married in 1928. (L. Fermi, Atoms in the Family, pp. 49-52). When she married she had finished two years at the University and her formal education stopped there.
Laura Fermi (Fermi), together with her friend, Ginestra Amaldi, wife of Edoardo Amaldi, one of Enrico’s colleagues wrote Alchimia dei Nostri Tempi, a book explaining their husbands’ work for lay people. This was published in 1936.
The Fermi’s had two children, Nella born in 1931 and Giulio in 1936. Also in about 1936 Fermi’s mother died. Before her death Costanza Capon, a practical woman and not an observant Jew, advised that the children should be baptized Catholic – given the choice (Enrico Fermi came from a Catholic family) it was better to be with the majority. So Nella and Giulio were both baptized when Giulio was born.
Within a year or two of Giulio’s birth, anti-Semitic rumblings began in Italy. These sprang from Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler, rather than from popular sentiment against Jews. The racial laws enacted at this time were mild by comparison to what was to come, but nonetheless alarming.
In the summer of 1938 the Fermi’s decided to leave Italy. For Fermi, this was a difficult decision, she had lived in Rome all her life, her family was there and her roots were there. Yet the imminence of war combined with anti-Semitism, were enough to convince her of the necessity of the move.
For Enrico Fermi the decision was easier. He had taught in the United States during the summers and had several offers of University jobs which he had declined at the time. Now he wrote, circumspectly for fear of censorship, that the reasons for declining no longer existed.
Several offers were renewed and he accepted a position at Columbia University in New York. At this time also Enrico Fermi was [told he had won] the Nobel Prize in Physics. They were not allowed to take money out of Italy, the prize money was very welcome indeed. The family left Italy December 6, 1938 and arrived in New York in early January of 1939. On the way they stopped in Stockholm where Enrico Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize. (Atoms in the Family, 115-6, 118-121).
Still the transition was difficult for Fermi. Though eventually she mastered the English language and was able to write fluently in it, language was one difficulty:
“Although I knew some English, writing was at first out of the question. On the positive side, democracy was much better than Fascism; on the puzzling side, instead of my children . . . learning from me, I began learning from them: the English language on a better and more colloquial level . . . and Americana in all its aspects. At home I talked mostly Italian with my husband and children, and the process of mastering English was painfully slow. Only after ten years in this country could I begin to write again.”
(Fermi, quoted by Commire, vol 6, 78.)
Fermi’s friend Camilla Fano believes that coming to the United States also facilitated Fermi’s career in some ways. There were more opportunities here and women were not as restricted as in Italy (personal communication). In any case, interrupted careers were common for women in Fermi’s generation.
After a brief period in New York, the Fermis bought a house in Leonia, New Jersey. A number of Enrico Fermi’s colleagues lived there and commuted to Columbia University. Special friends of the Fermis were Harold and Frieda Urey. Harold Urey had won the Nobel prize in chemistry and he and Frieda Urey were the models the Fermis turned to in their search for Americanization.
Other friends were Joseph and Maria Mayer. Joe Mayer was a chemist, Maria Mayer, a physicist, who later won the Nobel Prize against great odds, since as a woman, her career was considered secondary to her husband’s. After two years in Chicago, Enrico Fermi’s work took him to Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Fermis were there for a year and a half.
In 1945, after the stay in Los Alamos, the Fermi’s went back to Chicago, where Fermi spent the rest of her life. Enrico Fermi returned to academic work at the University of Chicago. Fermi was busy caring for her family and also did a good deal of entertaining. Enrico Fermi’s students and colleagues were often invited to parties large and small.
Fermi’s outside interests were very much on the back burner. She did some volunteer work. She joined the League of Women Voters, a group in which a number of her friends were active. She brought home the League’s recommendations and often these determined how both Fermis would vote.
The Fermis had become citizens in 1944 (personal recollection).
It was not until Nella went away to college that Fermi resumed writing. She wrote a number of short sketches which were never published. When it was suggested to her that she write a biography of her husband she replied: “My husband is the man I cook and iron shirts for. How can I take him that seriously?” wrote Emilio Segre, who had been Enrico Fermi’s first student and later a colleague in Rome days and again in Los Alamos, in his introduction to the 1987 edition of Laura’s book.
So Fermi did take up the suggestion and wrote Atoms in the Family: My Life With Enrico Fermi. The book was published in 1954 as Enrico Fermi was dying of cancer. Segre writes:
“I remember Enrico commenting to me when he knew that his days were numbered: ‘I hope the book will be successful; it will help distract Laura from her grief for me. It comes at the right moment.’”
In fact, it launched Laura’s writing career that transformed her from a retiring lady, in the shadow of her husband, into a well-known independent and personality.
Atoms in the Family enjoyed immediate success and Enrico had the satisfaction of seeing his wife’s book on the New York Times Best Seller list before he died. The book is light-hearted – it was written before anyone suspected that her husband would soon die.
Though Fermi included chapters on her husband’s work, which she explained in lay terms, most of the book was of a more personal nature and she speaks with wit and charm of her husband, herself, friends and family. The book was translated into a number of languages: of course into Italian, but also into Japanese and other languages.
Fermi’s next book was Atoms for the World: United States Participation in the Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy (1957). She had been invited to write this book as the historian for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The Conference was held in Geneva in August 1955 and was attended by delegates of seventy-three countries including the Soviet Union. The delegates were both scientific and political figures as Fermi explains in the first pages of the book.
[The Conference captured] a moment of great hope, inspired by President Eisenhower’s speech to the United Nations in December 1953 in which he pledged that the United States would devote itself to finding ways of turning the power of the atom to peace, not war.
In 1961, three books by Fermi were published. These were The Story of Atomic Energy, a book for young people; Galileo and the Scientific Revolution, written with Gilberto Bernardini; and Mussolini. As a consultant for the first of these she hired an 11 year old boy who gave her advice in exchange for a dollar and lunch (Commire, vol 6, 78). Of the last of these, Alice Kimball Smith said in her speech [at Fermi’s Memorial] that “while the book may not stand through time as the standard scholarly biography it will remain what Laura intended it to be, the portrait of a controversial figure viewed by an informed contemporary.”
Fermi’s last published book was Illustrious Immigrants: The Intellectual Migration from Europe, 1930-41 (1968). This is probably the most scholarly of her works and documents the lives and contributions of many of those who fled Fascism and Nazism and came to the United States. Ruth Grodzins, in her speech at Fermi’s Memorial, described it as the product of solitary research and extensive interviewing.
Contemporaneously with her writing, Laura was active in volunteer activities. In 1959 she took a new departure. She was distressed by the amount of soot and dirt she had to contend with in her home and decided to do something about it. She started, with Smith, her own group, the Cleaner Air Committee. There were seven charter members. One of them, Edith Y. Harris in “A Brief History of the Cleaner Air Committee of Hyde Park Kenwood” (Regenstein, Special Collections) explains how for 13 years, the committee met once a month and educated first themselves and then the community.
Members of the Committee testified in public hearings both locally and nationally. One very important activity was monitoring local buildings for smoke violations and reporting these to Chicago authorities. By 1971, cleaner air was a national concern and Fermi gradually withdrew.
The Committee disbanded in 1972 believing that the Hyde Park neighborhood was now a cleaner and more pleasant place to live. Fermi was a member of the Air Pollution Control Committee, City of Chicago, 1959-68 and of the Northeastern Illinois Metropolitan Area Air Pollution Board 1962-63.
Fermi’s next project was the Civic Disarmament Committee. Guns were not the problem they are now, but Fermi was indignant about gun violence even then. Camilla Fano, a long time friend of Fermi and a member of the Committee from its beginnings says that, as far as they could determine, the Civic Disarmament Committee was the first gun control group. Members testified in Springfield and Washington. Congressman Martin Russo of Chicago was a pro gun control ally.
The Committee also raised money for the National Committee for Handgun Control which was formed by Peter Shields in the 1970s. Fermi also advised and encouraged Shields. Both Fano and Ruth Grodzins, another Civic Disarmament Committee member felt that this committee had not been as effective as was the Cleaner Air Committee, probably because there was organized opposition to gun control from the National Rifle Association.
Nonetheless, Fano says, encouraged by the Committee, the Chicago Police had a campaign for people to turn their guns in, no questions asked. The guns were later melted down and formed into a statue. The Committee may not have seen immediate results, according to Fano, but it began a dialogue.
Fermi was active in the Civic Disarmament Committee almost to the end of her life. Grodzins reports that after Fermi’s death the committee contributed about $2,000 to Shield’s National Committee in her honor.
Since the 1960s Fermi was afflicted with a lung disease, kept in control with cortisone, but not cured. In later years her failing eyesight discouraged her from finishing the work she had started on Fifteenth Century Italian Women. She died of pneumonia, complicated by her lung condition.
As we have seen, her contributions were in two distinct areas – writing and community activism. The thread that ties these activities together is that both originate in the personal context of her own life. In her writings this is obvious particularly in Atoms in the Family mostly a biography of her husband, but part autobiography. In Mussolini she sought to understand the man most responsible for her leaving Italy, and Illustrious Immigrants perhaps served to put her own life in a broader context.
In forming the Cleaner Air Committee Fermi was initially addressing her problems as a housewife fighting soot [particularly visible on the sheets hanging outside to dry and piling up on the window sills], but soon went beyond that to study the causes and medical consequences of air pollution. The Committee for Civic Disarmament also started close to home. [out of a desire for greater public safety. She was profoundly affected by the aftermath of the work her husband had been such an integral part of – the birth of the atomic era and the creation and deployment of the first atomic bombs.] Though originating in a personal context, her activities, both her writing and community activism, went far beyond that context.
Camilla Fano describes Fermi as being always understated, always gracious and with old fashioned, ladylike manners. Her good manners did not desert her, even in the heat of disagreements. But, she had a core of iron when she was defending her causes. Fano believes that it was this combination of graciousness with firmness that enabled her to accomplish so much. Emilio Segre says of her: “Her force, intelligence, and benevolence blossomed in her later years in a remarkable way and she was one of those rare persons that kept growing in stature all her life.”
SOURCES: Books by Laura Fermi: Alchimia del tempo nostro (with Ginestra Amaldi, 1936); Atoms in the Family: My Life With Enrico Fermi (1954) this is probably the most extensive source for the first part of Fermi’s life.
Unfortunately there is no equivalent for Fermi’s later life. For this reason, the author has relied, in part on her own recollections. Atoms for the World: United States Participation in the Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy (1957); Mussolini (1961); The Story of Atomic Energy (1961); Galileo and the Scientific Revolution (with Gilberto Bernardini, 1961); Illustrious Immigrants: The Intellectual Migration from Europe, 1930-41 (1968). Fermi’s papers are housed in Special Collections at The University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library. These include manuscripts of her books and an unfinished work Italian Women of the XVth Century, a number of unpublished articles and short stories, book reviews, and miscellaneous items. “A Guide to The Laura Fermi Papers,” by Leslie A. Morris (1979) includes a brief biography of Fermi and an itemization of the collection. This guide is available from Regenstein’s Special Collections. Two separate archives in Special Collections contains papers pertaining to the Hyde Park Kenwood Cleaner Air Committee and those pertaining to the Civic Disarmament Committee. These include minutes of the committees, letters, publications etc. She also wrote an unpublished mystery story A Death in Atom City.
Other sources: A brief introduction by Emilio Segre’ to the 1987 edition of Atoms in the Family. Anne Commire, Something About the Author has a sketch on Fermi including an extensive quote in Vol 6, and an obituary in Vol 28.
Material, at one time, in the author’s possession: A copy of an unpublished hand written manuscript by Anna Capon “La Famiglia Capon” (The Capon Family); copies of speeches given by Emilio Segre’, Alice Kimball Smith, and Ruth Grodzins at Fermi’s Memorial (extensive excerpts of these are published in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists May 1978 2-3) and a few miscellaneous documents.