AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXVI , No. 2, Fall 2004

 
Marguerite Perey
Marguerite Perey, French radiochemist. Copyright ULP.

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Plans to Preserve and Study the Postwar Physics Archives of Strasbourg University
by Sébastien Soubiran

One year ago the University Louis Pasteur of Strasbourg inaugurated a program for the preservation of the records and the development of historical research on physics in Strasbourg since 1945. It focused mainly on paper archives but also included instruments and all kinds of materials related to the activity of physicists in the University of Strasbourg after the Second World War. The program mobilized numerous people with various kinds of knowledge and know-how: archivists, historians of science and technology, physicists, and curators.

This initiative is certainly unique in France, where no dedicated centralized structure exists to collect scientific archives. The National Archives office, though aware of the special character of the Strasbourg archives and others, has not put in place a national long-term policy for the benefit of this kind of material. Overall, few universities care about the preservation of their archives and at Strasbourg there is no University records department.

Research laboratory, Nuclear Institute, Strasbourg, 1954 .
Research laboratory, Nuclear Institute, Strasbourg, 1954 . Copyright ULP.

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Six physics laboratories or institutes have been chosen for the program: the Institute of Physics, the Astronomical Observatory, the Charles Sadron Institute (research on macromolecules), the Institute of Subatomic Research, the Institute of Physics and Chemistry (magnetic and optical properties of materials), and the Laboratory for Complex Fluid Dynamics. These departments represent most of the heritage of research in physics pursued at the University. Along with creating access to historical records of modern physics via the web and other media, the program aims to create a records management plan for physics laboratories attached to the university.

A significant role in the development of French physics

Historically, physics played an important role in the development and the renown of Strasbourg University. This role is partly due to the history of the University under the German state between 1872 and 1918 and again between 1940 and 1944, during which time the university was considered a showcase of German scientific research. Likewise it won support as an exemplar of French scientific research in 1918-1940 and after 1945. The work at Strasbourg made a big contribution to the emergence of new fields in physics in these periods. Famous scientists of both nationalities succeeded one another. For instance, Ferdinand Braun was the first director of the Physics Institute created by the Germans in 1872. He was followed by the famous French physicist Pierre Weiss when Alsace was returned to France. Louis Néel (Nobel prize), Charles Sadron, Serge Gorodesky and Marguerite Perey, all members of the French Academy of Sciences, spent part of their careers in Strasbourg. This heritage imparts to the patrimony of the University of Strasbourg a richness and special character that distinguishes it from other French universities.

The years just after the Second World War are important for the reconstruction of the university, which was forced to move to another city during the German invasion in 1940. The involvement of the state is strong compared to other French universities at that time. For example, a large laboratory was built for the study of macromolecules, directed by Charles Sadron. The university also took over from the Germans a 1.5 MeV Cockroft-Walton nuclear accelerator. With the help of Frédéric Joliot-Curie, a Nuclear Institute was created in 1947. It was the starting point of the development of nuclear physics and chemistry, one of the main fields of research in Strasbourg.

Physics archives at the University Louis Pasteur

A general inventory was made in the six physics departments chosen for the program in order to measure the quantity of historical archives that have survived. Although the quantity found is not big (approximately 150 linear feet), a year's experience showed that lots of valuable papers are certainly still in hiding or in private hands. The historical archives that were discovered consisted of various types of materials. Most of the archives had been stored without particular care, which means that their original organization has often been lost. The general condition of the archives is bad and it will be necessary to move most of them into a more appropriate storage place.

A precise inventory has yet to be completed; however a pilot study was started with the archives of Marguerite Perey, a famous French radiochemist whose archives were about to be destroyed. Like most of the archives found so far, they had been put away in the basement. Unfortunately, the archives of the nuclear chemistry laboratory met the usual fate a few months ago: they were destroyed when it was decided to clear the basement for security reasons (a common argument). Luckily the papers related to Marguerite Perey were preserved thanks to Mr. and Mrs Adloff, who worked with Miss Perey, and managed to create a small museum to preserve her memory. The museum was dismantled a long time ago when Mr. Adloff retired but the archives and the instruments he had collected were unexpectedly preserved. These archives have now been processed and an inventory was made. We expect the finding aid will be printed and made available online by the end of 2004.

More broadly, those connected with the program hope to organize all the data and other information and make it available on a Web site, step by step, in order to provide both scientific information for academics and instruction for a wider public. These are a few first steps in a revival of France's physics heritage. For information please contact Sébastien Soubiran, Archives scientifiques, Mission culture scientifique et technique de l'Université Louis Pasteur, 7 rue de l'Université, 67000 Strasbourg, France; phone: +33 (0) 3 90 24 06 16, Fax: +33 (0) 3 90 24 06 26, E-mail: Sebastien.Soubiran@
adm-ulp.u-strasbg.fr


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