This week, in light of current events, I’ve decided it was important to dedicate my column to some of those scientists that made great contributions to the field after having sought political refuge in the United States.
In 1932, anticipating the election of Adolf Hitler, Albert Einstein, father of modern physics known for his work on the Theory of Relativity, emigrated out of Germany. A year later, Einstein called his friend and fellow scientist, Max Born, and advised him to leave Germany immediately, while still legally able to do so.
Antisemitism had been gaining ground since the election, and all “non-Aryan” scientists and teachers were being systematically stripped of their titles and positions. This exclusionary segregation was even beginning to reach school playgrounds.
Not too long after, economist William Beveridge decided to set up the Academic Assistance Council. Its goal was to rescue Jewish and other politically vulnerable academics from Nazi Germany.
In October of 1933, in support of the high-brow escape committee, Albert Einstein gave a highly charged speech in London’s Albert Hall.
“It is in times of economic distress such a we experience everywhere today, one sees very clearly the strength of moral forces that live in a people.” Einstein went on to say, “the liberty of the individual that has brought us every advance of knowledge and invention—liberty without which life to a self-respecting man is not worth living.”
Soon after Einstein’s speech, the council began its rescue operation. This organization was successful in helping 1,500 academics escape and continue their research safely in Britain; providing grants, accommodations, and jobs.
And while Albert Einstein didn’t contribute directly to the bomb effort, he did write a letter to President Roosevelt, warning him of the German efforts to produce the atomic bomb. This letter helped jump-start the Manhattan project.
As the Axis expanded its reach, a second academic exodus made its way to the United States and many of those scientists were put to work on the bomb effort.
One such scientist was Lilli Hornig. Born in Czechoslovakia, her family emigrated to the United States from Berlin after her father was threatened with imprisonment in the concentration camps. Once in the States, Lilli went to work as a chemist in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project.
Roughly 70,000 people fled to Britain before war broke out in 1939, according to the Association of Jewish Refugees. Those included a remarkably talented group that had been cast aside by the Nazi regime, to the detriment of their own movement.
Aside from Nobel Prize Laureates, there were 18 future Knighthoods and over 100 Fellows of the Royal Society and British Academy.
Without the efforts of these talented asylum seekers, the Allies might not have won the war.
Gustav Born, son of Einstein friend and colleague, Max Born, went on to become a scientist, as well. In 1945 as a newly fledged British Army doctor, he was stationed to Hiroshima. Noticing that survivors of the atomic detonation had bleeding disorders, Gustav deduced that these disorders were due to a lack of platelets in the blood.
After his tour of duty ended, Gustav returned to the UK and continued his research which led to many advancements in the understanding of the role platelets play in the blood clotting process.
Though his parents returned to Germany after the war ended, Gustav stayed in Britain and never forgot the reason for his being there in the first place.
Before his death in April 2018, he was very much aware that he was one of the few remaining people who could talk about such a legacy first-hand.
“I’m sad that it almost ends with me,” he said. “I want them not to forget that things like this, the suppression of a country by a gang of murderous crooks and the victimization of people of good nature and good intention, it could happen again.”