Bomb scientist who won peace prize
Calls for a plaque to honour Joseph Rotblat, scientist who worked under Einstein on atom bomb research before campaigning for a nuclear-free world
08 June, 2017 — By John Gulliver
Joseph Rotblat, who lived in West Hampstead, was honoured with a knighthood and a CBE and made a Freeman by Camden Council
JOSEPH Rotblat, one of the great scientific figures of the past century, should have been regarded as a national treasure by our establishment.
A great nuclear physicist, he worked initially under Einstein on the atom bomb research in the United States, and probably because he eventually left the project in anger and frustration he was kept at a distance by the British government.
He couldn’t stand the thought that the bomb would cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
After the war he became a founding member of the Pugwash, Conferences, where scores of scientists met to resist the spread of nuclear bombs.
In the following decades he worked at St Bart’s Hospital and dedicated his life to the aims of Pugwash, which was run from a small office in the 19th-century block of flats in Bloomsbury – Museum Mansions in Bury Place.
And it is here that local residents, aided by the Polish Heritage Society, plan to put up a plaque to honour such a great man.
I met him for the first time in the 1990s when he delivered a lecture at the Imperial War Museum on the need to scrap nuclear weapons.
I went there not knowing what to expect – and into the small hall walked a man, straight-backed with military bearing, who spoke from the lectern, not in a donnish manner but simply and directly, for more than half-an-hour, without looking at any notes. I guessed he was in his late 70s but it turned out that, in fact, he was more than 90. I confess I was bowled over.
From then on I got to know him. He lived in West Hampstead and I visited his home once or twice where we talked about, inevitably, the cause nearest to his heart – the abolition of nuclear weapons.
He was honoured with a knighthood and a CBE and made a Freeman by Camden Council, but the media and the elite of society tended to ignore him – his anti-nuclear views didn’t fit in with the prevailing policies of post-war governments.
He was an intensely private man, and hardly talked about his early life in Poland where he was born in 1908.
I knew he was a man of deep convictions but he also had a sense of unyielding fidelity to friends. After working in a laboratory in Warsaw in the mid-1930s he realised he had to leave Poland as a Jew because of the imminent invasion by the Nazis.
So, he left to work in the physics department at Liverpool University under the renowned scientist Professor Rutherford.
As soon as he arrived in Liverpool he sent for the love of his life, his wife Tola Gryn, whom he had to leave behind.
But just as she was about to leave Poland she fell ill and couldn’t join him. “I’ll see you soon in a week or two when I’m better,” she wrote to him. But before she could leave the Nazis marched in and, as a Jewess, she fell into their clutches and was heard of no more.
Joseph never talked about this great tragedy but he remained single for the rest of his life.
He was honoured by friends and fellow scientists for his work against nuclear weapons – and, as a result, was awarded the Nobel Prize Peace Prize.
As a campaigner for a nuclear-free world he was frowned upon by the suspect British elite who were aware of his powerful influence among scientists.
However, ordinary local residents in Bloomsbury now want to honour him with a plaque. No doubt, as a man of the people who died at 97 in 2005, he would be happy with that.