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Oral History Transcript — Mrs. Elaine Hartree

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Interview with Mrs. Elaine Hartree
By Thomas S. Kuhn
In Cambridge, England
May 12, 1963

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Elaine Hartree; May 12, 1963

ABSTRACT: This interview was conducted as part of the Archives for the History of Quantum Physics project, which includes tapes and transcripts of oral history interviews conducted with ca. 100 atomic and quantum physicists. Subjects discuss their family backgrounds, how they became interested in physics, their educations, people who influenced them, their careers including social influences on the conditions of research, and the state of atomic, nuclear, and quantum physics during the period in which they worked. Discussions of scientific matters relate to work that was done between approximately 1900 and 1930, with an emphasis on the discovery and interpretations of quantum mechanics in the 1920s. Also prominently mentioned is: Ralph Fowler.


The following memorandum is dictated from notes taken during a conversation with Mrs. Hartree on the afternoon of May 12, 1963, shortly before the recorded discussion with Lise Meitner. As is natural, most of what Mrs. Hartree had to say was about the biography and personality of her husband. I did not, however, attempt to get a full picture.

Contrary to the indications in our schematic biography, the two Hartrees actually were at school together, though they scarcely met until Douglas returned for a visit from Cambridge early in 1915. After that they saw an increasing amount of each other until their marriage in 1923. At school Hartree was a very close friend of Lancelot Law Whyte, the two went up to Cambridge together, and they stayed close friends until 1922.

Hartree got far enough at Cambridge to take the part one Tripos before leaving for the war. During the war he was a member of an applied mathematics group under the general direction of Hill. The group included also Fowler and Milne. It is very probably during these war years that Hartree’s strong taste for applied mathematical work was formed.

After the war, Hartree returned to Cambridge and was initially there influenced by the lectures of Appleton, and Fowler. Apparently, though, the really decisive event was Bohr’s lectures in 1921. Mrs. Hartree more than confirmed the report that C. G. Darwin gives in his obituary in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. She does not at all remember just how Hartree felt about them, but he apparently spoke of them repeatedly as the most exciting and important thing that had happened to him. Among other things, he made a point of introducing his fiancee to Bohr during that visit. She was not able to tell just how those lectures may have influenced his later career, but she was very clear that he made a point of keeping up with the original literature. She clearly remembers, for example, that the two of them translated the Bohrheft of Naturwissenschaften together, her German being rather better than Hartree’s. Also, she indicated that he had very carefully studied the papers of Dirac and admired them.

Mrs. Hartree made a few representative remarks about the effect of his research interest on their family life. Before they were married, he had told her that he was determined to do research and that it would somehow or other often come first. She was prepared for that though she found it hard often to get used to. In particular, she remembers one Christmas Eve when Hartree said to her, “I can’t do Christmas tomorrow; I have just had a brainwave.” This she had clearly found very difficult to take. Again, she mentioned that often on Sundays or holidays Hartree would go off and climb a hill by himself because -- it was something of a joke in the family -- “Daddy has lost a factor of 2.” When he returned, she and the children would eagerly say, “Did you find it?” When he replied no, there were universal groans.

Mrs. Hartree indicates that her husband was a devoted teacher who took immense pains with his research students and identified closely with them. Also she indicates that when they first went to Manchester, Hartree, who had done little or no lecturing before, found it impossible to get much of any research done during the first three years because he had to put all his time into preparing his lectures. As one evidence of his concern with teaching, she indicates that he never lectured from old notes, but prepared over again each year. In this connection, I asked her whether Fowler had been at all the same. She seemed quite clear that he had not been as good. He was, she said, too impulsive and impatient a man for that. On the other hand, though the two families were never terribly close, she indicated considerable affection and admiration for Fowler. Mrs. Hartree also mentioned that Fowler was a person of very broad interests and abilities. She was apparently particularly impressed by the fact that he could, and on occasions would, quote Milton at very great length.

In contrast to his great concern and interest with teaching, Hartree was not at all fond of committee work and other administrative functions. Though he had begun as a student at St. Johns College and had then been a Fellow there before a brief tenure at Christ’s, he chose Christ’s rather than St. Johns for his professorial fellowship when he returned to Cambridge from Manchester, and this had to do with the contrast mentioned above. Apparently the very great size of St. Johns made him less happy with the common room group there. He preferred, perhaps less formal, activities at Christ’s. He had himself been happier there.

In speaking of Hartree’s scientific personality and activities, Mrs. Hartree indicated that he had been particularly friendly with Blackett, and that he had had great admiration for C. T. B. Wilson and for Coulson of Oxford. He had, on the other hand, had a certain distrust of people who jumped to conclusions, for example, Cowl and Lovell. At much the same time, Mrs. Hartree spoke of her husband’s real devotion to applied mathematical work and of the rather small value, or at least total lack of interest, that he placed upon “pure mathematics, Hardy and others.”

Both of the Hartrees were very fond of Manchester. They particularly valued the fact that they had very much broader contacts there -- their neighbors were not generally academics -- than they had had at Cambridge. In particular, she said that they had been very glad that their children were raised in a community like Manchester rather than in the strictly academic environment of Cambridge. She did say that Hartree himself had not found so wide a range of scientific life there as he had at Cambridge, but frequent trips to Cambridge, to meetings of the Royal Society, and so on, had kept him entirely in touch. Speaking of Hartree’s return to a Cambridge professorship, Mrs. Hartree made the surprising remark that there had been no theoretical physicist at Cambridge since Fowler’s death. I reminded her that Dirac had been there, and she said that he had been away a good deal of the time and besides was probably not very good with students. In any case, for whatever reason, Hartree had been for some time helping some of Fowler’s students by correspondence from Manchester even before he was offered the new job.

I asked Mrs. Hartree about the scientific meetings that her husband had attended at Cambridge. She said he went regularly to meetings of the Kapitza Club, the ∇2V Club, and the Cambridge Literary and Philosophical Society. At least, she said, he did that until after their return to Cambridge in his later life. By that time things had become quite specialized and his general attendance at meetings was by no means so regular.