Francis Perrin

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Interviewed by
Spencer Weart
Interview dates
November 11 and 15, 1977
American Institute of Physics, New York
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:

Interview of Francis Perrin by Spencer Weart on 1977 November 11 and 15, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA,

For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location. 

Francis Perrin's and Frédéric Joliot-Curie's careers from 1910s through 1960s, with particular attention to the state of French science during World War I and after, and to French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), 1946-1952. This interview was held to discuss a draft of the first four chapters of Weart's book Scientists in Power. Part of the interview consists of Perrin's corrections and comments on various points in the draft, and part covers additional questions raised by Weart.


Perrin came to US during WW II on invitation of Columbia University and Rockefeller Foundation, with Louis Rapkine's help. About 20 French scientists were brought over FP arrived October 1941 and taught graduate chemistry students, freeing Urey. FP couldn't do atomic energy research since he wouldn't take first papers. Attended physics seminar etc. at Columbia but didn't discuss atomic energy much. Halban “didn't want very much that I should go" to Montreal."

"He was a little worried that I was associated by Joliot to the initial group. And didn't like it so much; he considered the fundamental patents as very important. When I put forward the idea of criticality and things like that. Joliot has said we will be a group of four for the fundamental patents and so on. But Halban was not quite ready to accept this. He preferred that I shouldn't go there." Boris Pregel was very friendly with Jean Perrin (who arrived in December ‘41 and died April '42), and helped him. FP and a few other French scientists in New York worked in Pregel’s small laboratory on possible applications of radioactivity (not fission). Schlumberger Corp, created a new corporation, Electromechanical Research, to work on detection of mines, etc., and FP went to Houston twice as consultant, especially on guided missiles.

After de Gaulle decided to form a Consultative Assembly — most of whose members would be from the Resistance within France, but a few from Free French abroad... France Forever was to name a representative from the U.S. But those coming from America, for example, had to be accepted by those smuggled out of France.

When we had to take the decision, I was a member of the committee of France Forever… one of about twelve members… I don't remember exactly how it came… Henri Torres, a lawyer a grand avocat d'assises (eloquence, emotional speeches and so on) asked to be sent to Algiers… He was more or less a rightist, connected with some rightist movement in France before the war. I said across the table, 'I don’t think the French Resistance will accept him.' Nevertheless the committee decided to send his name. And a telegram came back, "We won't accept Henri Torres." Then they said, 'Well, you guessed…what was the spirit of the French Resistance; you must go. " It was Henri Bernstein who insisted thus. Also, FP had lived a year in Paris under the Occupation.

In Algiers FP met de Gaulle. I had, twice, a half an hour talk with de Gaulle in Algiers. He wanted to know about America, the Free French movement in America, and things like that. Most of the 50-odd members of the Assembly came from within France. FP didn’t discuss fission much with him (not knowing much); DeGaulle was first really informed by Auger and Gueron in Montreal in July 1944.

PERRIN'S COMMENTS ON FIRST CHAPTERS OF WEART'S BOOK; FRENCH SCIENCE CA. 1910-1920 (N.b.: Perrin read these chapters in the interval since the previous brief session.)

General comments on book. FP didn't read H.G. Wells' The World Set Free, though "it was mentioned often by friends and I read many books of H.G. Wells. My father admired him." In WW I, the Ecole Normale scientists were lieutenants in the infantry; those in the Polytechnique in the Artillery, "less exposed". Seignobos was "the soul" of L'Arcouest. "We went on his sailing boat…fifteen or twenty on board, during the holidays… We were just gathered around Charles Seignobos and speaking with an intermingling of generations." Louis Lapicque's son married FP's sister. "Those who had been in the Army for more than four years, just out of the Ecole Normale or not yet — and after four years in the trenches in the war, for many it was very difficult to come back to scientific research. They went into teaching and things like that. We lost not only those who were killed but many of those who had just been between the age of 22 and 26, deeply involved in the war, and who couldn't take up research." Further, the older scientists had all been in war research, Jean Perrin became an expert in acoustical detection, first of underground mining between the trenches; designed instruments to go in underground gallery and detect direction of digging. Then he worked on acoustical detection of aircraft, "especially at night, to direct the searchlights to find them." Such devices were still in use at the start of WW II.

Painleve had turned to politics; "He said, 'At my age I won't do any more good things in mathematics.' Like Emile Borel twenty years later. He became active in politics… when he was elected in the fifth arrondissement of Paris — a great victory, because he conquered a seat in the assembly which was previously held by a rightist." Jean Perrin worked closely with him in WW I, since JP was under the Ministry of Inventions which Painleve headed. They had meetings to discuss — there were lots of inventors sending ideas that had to be sorted…They were great friends and worked much together at that time. And Borel still more."

After Painleve left as Prime Minister, Perrin continued research but Borel went back to the Army as a major in heavy artillery, near the front, for a year or so. J. Perrin at start of war had been a captain in an infantry regiment in Normandy, then went to the Front for one or two months, then back to Paris to work on separating inventions as to their value. But German physicists had not done so much war work and had stolen a march on the French. In England and the US some scientists also kept up non-war research. Frency philanthropy was done almost entirely by rich Jews; other industrialists "never thought of giving anything to anybody." Many Jews had "a passionate interest for science, for welfare, for hospitals, things like that."

Before WW I "the teaching burden was rather light, on the professor at a university. My father had to lecture two hours per week…" There was cumul — he also taught at the Ecole Normale de Sevres — but administrative work was not heavy in comparison with now, when there are far more people working in a laboratory. It was about the same just after WW I.

FP began teaching at the university under special conditions, as asst. professor (1933) in the Institut Henri Poincare. The director, Borel, had set the condition that the young professors "should teach only two hours a week and not four hours as it should have been,” to leave them more time for research.

FP himself had a good bit of time for research, much more than others.



Relationship of F. Joliot and I. Curie was not deep love; "they felt they were complementary to each other…" they did fall in love, but not passionately. Character of Borel's provincial origins: son of Protestant pastor, though himself free of religion. Tough peasants, realistic. Reasons for setting up CNRS; old university bureaucracy was “entirely dominated by the classical universitaires, Normaliens, and old professors… It was to be independent of the spirit of the university." For example, modern biology was very hard to introduce. There was not one professorship for microbiology in Paris before WW II, only zoology and botany, one or two physiology. After WW II, Pierre Auger pushed through some modern chairs against the university. "The CNRS itself was too much connected with the universitaires. The committees on the CNRS were professors of the universities, dominated by botanists and zoologists."

The Institut Pasteur was the only center for really good work.

"The first important meeting organizing the Front Populaire was organized by me… I was a member of the Comite de Vigilance [Antifasciste], closely connected with Langevin. I visited Blum, Daladier and Thorez to persuade them that they should come to the same meeting, organized in the large hall of the Mutualite in Paris... I remember going first, maybe, to Blum and saying, "You must come, because Thorez and Daladier will.” I had not seen them yet. And I went to Thorez and said, "Blum is coming and Daladier is coming, so you must come." And eventually they came…. It was initiated [by] the Comite de Vigilance. Langevin was behind that, of course… I was chosen because I was young and active and could contact them more easily… It was a very serious thing for me. During the meeting one of them was late, and during ten minutes I couldn't be sure all three would be there.


Eventually all went well, and I remember going out after that to a brasserie where we went often and asking, for the first time, for a big glass of beer." Before this FP had known Blum, might have met Daladier, had not met Thorez.

Palais de la Decouverte: founded on top of an exhibition, with aid of Henri de Jouvenelle. Mme. Curie and her friends "were thinking that out of fundamental research will come applications, especially for radioactivity in the field of medicine and biology. But they were not passionately devoted to their laboratory work because of direct possible applications… It will come, but they thought only of advancing learning."


Langevin was a bit more connected with application, due to his wartime work on ultrasonics. Joliot "was fascinated by industry and nearly went into industry, but eventually, after talking with Langevin, he decided to go into fundamental science… he was not thinking of practical applications…it would come; the general progress of fundamental science is essential for the general progress of technology, and so on… But they were not doing it for that."

Discovery of artificial radioactivity: "I remember the discovery by Joliot of the production of a radioactive beta-plus element. It started by an observation in the cloud chamber. He was working with his cloud chamber and he had, probably, aluminum foil closing the chamber, and an alpha polonium source.... He was always fascinated by looking at a Wilson chamber. And so he was looking… to observe the positive electrons produced by these alpha particles on aluminum, and he observed that even when the alpha particle source was taken away, after twenty second or so, there were still positive electrons coming out of the aluminum foil... I... clearly recall that it was like this. But as soon as he saw that — he was alone with this Wilson chamber — he went immediately to call his wife, to associate her with the discovery, thinking that it was so important, there would be so much work to publish it quickly, and he wanted to have everything in common with her from the start… "They immediately began working with a geiger counter in the next room. Artificial radioactivity: extraction of new element (phosphorus) done in a few days. Irene was really a radiochemist, Joliot a physicist, but he prided himself on being able to do good chemistry.



Chiefly Pierre Auger and Joliot, discussing with de Gaulle. The essential work began after Hiroshima: "it was really with Hiroshima that de Gaulle took the question seriously." The main actors were Dautry, Auger, Joliot, and Jean Toutee, the latter the one who wrote down the ordinance; FP had nothing to do with drafting this. Toutee had already drafted the ordinance for the Regie Renault, and extended many of the privileges of this industry to the CEA, "but a great difference: Renault was to earn money for the government, and we were spending a lot of money for the government."

Dautry: friendly relations with FP. Some tension with Joliot. When the committee met "it was under their double chairmanship. They were on both sides of the table and no one knew who was presiding. Dautry didn't like it very much, and Joliot insisted that should be on exactly an equal footing." After Joliot's dismissal and the one-year hiatus, FP came in under slightly different terms; the Administrator-General now presided alone. Dautry and Joliot were friends and had great admiration for one an0ther, but still there was some tension since both wanted the authority. After Dautry's death, "Guillaumat always suffered from sharing the power with me. And he made me suffer a little. But eventually he recognized that it was a very good structure." FP admired him and worked well with him.


Contacts with government: mainly at UN negotiations, Auger was very active and influential in diplomacy. "And Joliot didn’t like it very much that Pierre Auger was so much prominent in the international scene," Auger left the CEA rather quickly.


There was no jealousy between Joliot and FP but a little between Joliot and Auger. Dealings for fundraising was "essentially Dautry and Joliot;” FP did very little.

"From the start de Gaulle was interested in atomic energy because of all its potential practical use.” But of course he was very interested in nuclear weapons. He did not insist that it should be done at once; he saw it was in a rather distant future at that time." FP doesn’t know who wrote Parodi statement to UN; probably a minister — not Joliot. Joliot affair: he had become Party member just before end of wax"

It was difficult for Joliot after the Communists left the government since he was in it on a high level. “They insisted that Joliot make a provocation to the government" (Gennevillier statement) Joliot did not exactly tell FP this, but FP is sure they did, "the following day Joliot told us, 'If after what I've said they don’t fire me I don't know what they want." — "'Si le gouvernment ne me revoque pas, apres ce que i'ai dit, je ne sais pas ce qui leur faut." What more is needed?

"But I'm sure he did it as an order from the Communist Party.”

After he was dismissed, "it was a great shock for him, he was expecting it but nevertheless it was a great shock, It was so much for him this development of nuclear energy" and the Commissariat. “For several years he was under this shock."

FP acted as High Commissioner for the next year, but his appointment was difficult. I. Curie was dropped from the Committee; Jan, 1, 1951 a new person had to be named. "They wanted to appoint the head of a large mining industry, completely private industry, I said, I won't if you appoint Henri Lafond as a member of the Committee instead of Irene Joliot. And we had discussions for four months.

In the government there were Jules Moch supporting me. Pleven was Prime Minister." The Minister for Defense was against me. There was another man, Rocard [?] who might have been appointed instead of me... They were fighting together. And Dautry supported me. He thought I was the best man for it. And he liked me; he was a great friend, of my father and so on."

At one point Dautry took FP to the Prime Minister and supported FP; — appointment; a few weeks later this was done., "You see, they thought I would be too indulgent for Communists,'" There were many in the Commissariat, since Joliot had "'accepted them quite openly!” Responsibility for security checks of people hired was given with FP’s agreement, to the Administrator-General. That was a crucial point, Instead of Lafond, Pierre Ailleret was appointed, which FP approved... research chief of Electricite de France.

FP didn’t know LaFond but he was representing within the Commission, private interest. Connections with industries were excellent, but it shouldn't be in the Committee."

Ownership of facilities: I had my first difficulty with Guillaumat on such a question. When a factory was to be erected near Narbonne to purify uranium from the ore to pure uranium oxide, this factory was to be paid for by the Commissariat. And the question arose; what should be its status? Should it be, a private company, in, which the Commissariat should have a fifty percent share maybe — but a private company, or like many other things we had fully under the Commissariat?

I said it should be under the Commissariat fully, like the factory at Le Bouchet, which was completely under the Commissariat… I said it should be completely under the Commissariat. Guillaumat said, No, it should be under the control and responsibility of a private industry. And we could not agree. So we went to the minister — when we could not agree, we went to the minister.

During the eight years I worked with Guillaumat we went twice to the minister… It was a Socialist minister. He said eventually, "You will give it to private industry."

This was under Guy Mollet as Prime Minister; FP was dealing with the minister for atomic energy. "I had been a member of the Socialist Party from the time I was in the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1918 up to the war in Algeria." Guy Mollet supported torture in Algeria, so FP quit; joined the Parti Socialiste Unifi; in 1968 this became too leftist and FP left; rejoined the Socialist Party, about 1971, under Mitterand. FP knew Jules Moch and other party leaders; Moch was a friend of Jean Perrin; during Algeria meant to fight Mollet within the Party.

Plutonium: encouraged by Lescop.



Decision was under the minister Felix Gaillard, to build large Marcoule graphite reactors. "The first one would just produce plutonium, and practically no electricity." (There was a small turbine, which produced 5000 watts or something, but this was only half as much power as the blowers, on the other side, required.) An extraction factory also built. "The decision was supposed to prepare two possibilities: the possibility of weapons and the possibility of breeder reactors. We couldn't know whether we could ever get enriched uranium for power production…"This plutonium industry was in the view of the government essential for preparing weapons but also from the beginning the idea that we could thus go to breeder reactors." I was slightly reluctant.

I remember talking with John Cockcroft, who was head of the atomic energy in Britain. He said, 'You shouldn’t build these reactors. Then you will have the military on your back from the start… It will be unbearable for you if you go with such reactors.' But eventually we decided that it should be done anyway, and the government, thinking of the possibility of making weapons…"

The first decision...there was quite a group inside the Commissariat, Guillaumat, the Administrator-General, said, we must prepare for atomic weapons. But the first decision to really prepare for a nuclear explosion, the first testing of a bomb was taken by Pierre Mendes-France. Just while he was Prime Minister there was a meeting the 30th of December 1954. I think Jules Moch was there and so on, Jules Moch spoke strongly against it. Myself, I was against it. And so on. But eventually Mendes-France decided the Commissariat should prepare for a nuclear explosion. And after that — he didn't tell it to me, but he told it to Bertrand Goldschmidt — (Guillaumat said,) 'I'm glad Mendes-France took this decision. He was the only man to convince Perrin that we should prepare weapons.' And indeed I had spoken with Mendes-France; I knew why he wanted it."

M-F. had been to speak at the United Nations and FP had been with him as nuclear expert. "Going back to France we spoke about the possibility of nuclear submarines — which this should be done because anyway, twenty years from now, the only good submarines would be nuclear… And for the weapons he told me, You see, when we are discussing among the four permanent members of the Security Council -America, the Soviet Union, England and myself, each one are like gangsters gathering around a table, and each one taking his knife and putting it under the table (thumping the underside of the table with his fist): "Now we can talk." With their bombs. And I have no bomb [thumping under the table] to talk with them.' He suffered from it… He showed me that for the political influence of France it was essential. And really de Gaulle (had) thought first of this political prestige for France to have nuclear weapons."

Military had shown some interest, theoretical work on implosion etc. ca. 1955; also on diffusion separation. Aside from Dassault's presence on the Committee, prior to 1952 there was only limited military interest: "Not pressing on us for weapons” really it became important after Joliot's dismissal, '51, '52, when I was already High-Commissioner." The military and Felix Gaillard were interested at that point. "Gaillard was convinced that nuclear power… for industry would come very soon. So he gave us a large amount of money to prepare both directions," "Lescop was very much in favor of nuclear weapons …specifically weapons. For many reasons. And he was extremely in favor of private industry against the Commissariat."

When Guillaumat became Administrator General he asked Lescop to resign: "'I know you don't agree with him; it's already difficult with two people with responsibility" without a third being opposed. Thereafter there were no more Secretary-generals.

Lescop had "not a great influence…eventually his action was of no importance." The real actors were Dautry and then Guillaumat, whom FP admired very much. Had to go to an industrial scale, even for research; the employees increased 10 times during FP's 18 years as High-Commissioner.


I wonder if I may keep this tape in our archives,


I don't see anything to be — you may choose what you want really of what I have said.


OK, so it is open for scholars to use it, future people.


No, I don't see anything — I will try to send you documents which will make it easier for you, but all what I have said, if it’s put into form, could be said.


OK, thank you very much."