Fermilab History and Archives Project


Return to the Wilson Years


The National Accelerator Laboratory will become the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory at a dedication ceremony to be held at the Laboratory on Saturday, May 11, 1974.

Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi, distinguished physicist,
whose name will head Illinois research laboratory

The plan to change the name of the Laboratory was announced on April 29, 1969 by Glenn T. Seaborg, then chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, It was understood then that the dedication and the changing of the name would take place when construction was complete. May of 1974 will find the Laboratory close to completion and running strongly in all areas.

In announcing the AEC's plans, Seaborg said in 1969: "It is particularly fitting that we honor Dr. Fermi in this manner, for in so doing we further acknowledge his many contributions to the progress of nuclear science, particularly his work on nuclear processes. Enrico Fermi was a physicist of great renown who contributed in a most significant way to the defense and welfare of his adopted land and to the enhancement of its intellectual well-being. His greatest achievement, the first sustained nuclear chain reaction, took place in a small laboratory in Chicago. It seems singularly appropriate, therefore, that the Federal Government recognize the memory of a man who was at the forefront of science in his day by naming in his honor a laboratory near Chicago - a laboratory which will have a major international impact on our understanding of the basic structure of matter."

Enrico Fermi was born in Rome, Italy, on September 29, 1901. He died November 28, 1954. The son of a railroad official, he studied at the University of Pisa from 1918 to 1922 and later at the Universities of Leyden and Gottingen. He became professor of theoretical physics at the University of Rome in 1927. He was a leading figure in a group whose influence has been felt in science and physics throughout the world, which included Emilio Segre, Edoardo Amaldi, Oscar D'Agostino and Bruno Rossi.

H. Anderson and Laura Fermi
H. Anderson, student and long-time colleague of Fermi,
on visit to NAL with Mrs. Laura Fermi

Fermi's accomplishments were in both theoretical and experimental physics, a unique feat in an age in which scientific endeavors have tended to specialize on one aspect or the other. In 1926 he proposed a theory of statistical mechanics to explain the behavior of electron gas degeneracy. In 1933 he developed the theory of beta decay, postulating that the newly discovered neutron decaying to a proton emits an electron and a particle which he called a "neutrino." The theory of a new force to explain this interaction later resulted in recognition of the weak interaction force, now known to be one of the family of four major forces. Over the last year, remarkable new discoveries have been made at NAL and CERN which have shed new light on the field of weak interactions which Fermi opened.

Experimentally, Fermi and his colleagues studied the behavior of the new particles; they bombarded all elements in the periodic table with the neutrons. They slowed down the neutrons, and produced a strange new product when bombarding uranium with neutrons which later was seen to be a splitting of the uranium atoms.

Fermi used the opportunity offered by the trip to Sweden to receive the Nobel Prize in 1938 to leave Italy, with his wife, son, and daughter, all growing restive under the Fascist regime. They came to the United States where Fermi accepted a position as Professor of Physics at Columbia University. It was by now recognized that nuclear fission (the splitting of the atom) had taken place in Fermi's and other similar experiments. Scientists recognized that this principle could be applied to construct an "atomic bomb," of tremendous import to world affairs in the early 1940's. The United States government formed the Manhattan Project to produce the first such bomb. Fermi moved to the University of Chicago and was placed in charge of building the first atomic pile in the squash court under the West Stands of the University's Stagg Field. Today, a plaque at the site reads: "On December 2, 1942, man achieved here the first self-sustaining chain reaction and thereby initiated the controlled release of nuclear energy."

Henry Moore Sculpture
Henry Moore sculpture at University of Chicago,
commemorating first nuclear chain reaction

At the end of World War II, the University of Chicago formed its Institute for Nuclear Studies, to keep together the scientists who had worked in the Metallurgical Laboratory on the development of the atomic bomb. Fermi joined the staff and continued his investigations of the nucleus of the atom, concentrating on the nature of the particles that make up the nucleus. He was very active in the design of the synchrocyclotron at the University which was, at the time of its completion, one of the most powerful atom smashers in the world. The magnet from this machine has been moved to the Muon Area of the National Accelerator Laboratory and in 1973 began to operate as a spectrometer for Experiment #98 here.

Fermi's theoretical work continued. He worked on the origin of cosmic rays and in developing a statistical method for treating high-energy collision phenomena and multiple production of particles.

Emilio Segre, a colleague of Fermi for many years, writing in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography in 1971, recalls, "During the postwar Chicago years, Fermi traveled a good deal, particularly to research centers, where he could meet young, active physicists. He repeatedly visited the Brookhaven National Laboratory, the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, the Los Alamos Laboratory, and many universities. He was welcomed everywhere, especially by the younger men who profit from these contacts with him and, in turn, helped Fermi to preserve his youthful spirit."

Present plans for the dedication observance on May 11 include a luncheon for distinguished guests at noon in the Central Laboratory cafeteria. Among the guests will be congressmen and State of Illinois officials. Mrs. Fermi will also participate in the dedication ceremony. A tour for the guests will be given from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. The dedication ceremony will begin at 3:30 p.m. Tours for others attending the occasion will be given after the ceremony.

Further details and arrangements for employees, their families and guests, and for the general public will be announced about May 1.

Donald R. Getz, Assistant Director of NAL, is in charge of the dedication arrangements.

Source: The Village Crier Vol. 6 No. 14, April 11, 1974


Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi, 1901-1954

At the time in its history when it is to be dedicated to an official position in high energy physics research in the United States, the National Accelerator Laboratory steps into deep traditions both of scientific achievement and of American concern for human welfare.

Enrico Fermi for whom the Laboratory will be named on Saturday, May 11, represents the highest of scientific tradition - the dedication, the brilliance that yields great new discoveries. Fermi's colleague, Herbert L. Anderson. described Fermi's achievement in this tribute on December 1, 1954:

"The eternal scholar, Fermi was always eager to learn. He was always grateful when he found out something new. What he learned he felt he should enrich. Having enriched what he learned he felt he should teach to others. Thus, he prepared the fertile ground out of which arose the new solutions and new ideas which kept his subject bright, fresh, and exciting...To explore the mysteries of nature with Enrico Fermi was always a great adventure and a thrilling experience. He had a sure way of starting off in the right direction, of setting aside the irrelevancies, of seizing all the essentials and proceeding to the core of the matter. The whole process of wresting from nature her secrets was for Fermi an exciting sport which he entered into with supreme confidence and great zest..."

Dr. Anderson, of the University of Chicago, is one of the collaborators in Experiment #98 at NAL together with experimenters from Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Illinois, as mentioned in the last issue of The Village Crier.

It was appropriate that another experiment, #1-A at the National Accelerator Laboratory, should study interactions of neutrinos, the particles which form the backbone of Fermi's famous work illuminating weak interactions. Fermi would no doubt be greatly enthused at the results indicating that this experiment may be opening a door comparable to the first description of electromagnetic phenomena 100 years ago.

Experiment 1-A represents a collaboration of experimenters from Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Wisconsin, and the National Accelerator Laboratory. Writing about the experiment recently. Dr. David Cline of the University of Wisconsin, spokesman for the group, notes:

"Until the last year or so the known similarities between weak and electromagnetic interactions were of a nature that did not compel one to imagine any deep connection between these two forces. In fact, it was thought that the electric charge carried by the currents in electromagnetic interactions was always different from the electric charge of the current that controlled the weak interactions.

"Experiments at CERN and NAL in the past year or so seem to have observed a new process and have inferred that a current also mediates the weak interaction which has the same electric charge as that of the electromagnetic interaction or in other words a 'weak neutral current.' The NAL experiment has also shown that the weak force is growing stronger at high energies and it is expected that at still higher energies than available with the existing NAL machine, the weak force will become stronger than the electromagnetic force.

Experimental equipment for Experiment 1-A at NAL A "traditional" neutrino interaction
Experimental equipment for Experiment 1-A at NAL, located in Building C at the end of the Neutrino experimental line Top, a "traditional" neutrino interaction with a muon emerging (at arrow) and, bottom, a "muon-less" event obtained by Experiment 1-A at NAL

"With these observations two important differences between weak and electromagnetic interactions are removed and it appears more plausible that these interactions may somehow have a common origin...It is possible that the study of weak and electromagnetic interactions is now entering the analogous phase of Oersted and Faraday in electromagnetism. Hopefully it will not take 42 years for a modern Maxwell to clarify the situation."

Dr. Benjamin W. Lee, head of NAL's Theoretical Physics department, and an authority on the search for the weak neutral current, commented recently:

"Experimental verification by one of the experiments now running at the National Accelerator Laboratory, and at CERN, of the existence of the neutral current is a cornerstone in our theoretical understanding of the workings of weak interactions. This is an extension of Fermi's original idea on beta decay. It is gratifying that the Laboratory has already accomplished this feat even before the dedication."

Other experiments in the Neutrino Area promise startling new insights into the realms being probed by Experiment 1-A. Indeed it is clear that the new energy ranges at NAL will reveal the horizons envisaged by the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy when it urged the construction of the NAL accelerator in 1965.

Enrico Fermi came to the United States from Italy in 1939, to escape the political pressures of the time. He was warmly received by his American colleagues and the U.S. benefited greatly from his work here. About thirty years later, in 1968, leaders of the National Accelerator Laboratory (the largest atomic research facility to be built since Fermi's death) carried on the tradition of the American scientific community's concern for human welfare. Dr. Robert R. Wilson and Dr. Edwin L. Goldwasser announced that this Laboratory would operate on a basic "Policy Statement on Human Rights." The Policy stated:

"It will be the policy of the National Accelerator Laboratory to seek the achievement of its scientific goals within a framework of equal employment opportunity and of a deep dedication to the fundamental tenets of human rights and dignity."

Dr. Wilson called on employees of the Laboratory to renew their dedication to this policy In April, 1974. He said in a letter to employees:

"This is an appropriate time for us to rededicate ourselves to some of the principles that are most basic to the style of this Laboratory."

The Policy Statement on Human Rights which accompanied Dr. Wilson's letter is reprinted here in the spirit of the time at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory when science and men will become dedicated to the newest American scientific endeavor.

The New York Times, in an editorial after Enrico Fermi's death in 1954, noted this same combination of men and science in Fermi's life. The following appeared in the Times:

"Much can be justly said of Dr. Fermi as a great teacher of science, as a loyal friend to his colleagues and as a source of inspiration for the generation of physicists which came after him. But for the great majority of us who are not physicists one aspect of his career deserves special attention. It was in Italy that Dr. Fermi was born and educated and there he achieved his first brilliant successes. But when he was at the height of his power, in 1938 his native land was ruled by Mussolini whose anti-Semitic campaign posed a threat which reached into Dr. Fermi's family. To escape this totalitarian oppression the Fermi family came to this land of freedom and then repaid us for that sanctuary in million fold measure.

"On this day after Dr. Fermi's death we may well meditate this lesson of his career and resolve anew to keep bright the light of freedom for all within these shores."*

*Copyright 1954 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.

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The Dedication Invitation


Saturday, May 11, 1974 - 3:30 p.m.
Central Laboratory

Robert F. Bacher   President, Universities Research Association
Charles H. Percy   U.S. Senator, Illinois
Melvin Price   Chairman, Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, U.S. Congress
Leon M. Lederman   Professor of Physics, Columbia University
Dixy Lee Ray   Chairman, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission
Laura Fermi    
Robert R. Wilson   Director, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

Source: The Village Crier Vol. 6 No. 18, May 9, 1974

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Mrs. Laura Fermi
Mrs. Laura Fermi spoke of her famous husband
Distinguished Guests at the Dedication
Distinguished guests dedicate Fermilab
Lederman, Dr. Ray, C. Hosmer
Lederman, Dr. Ray, C. Hosmer
Laura Fermi, Herbert Anderson
Laura Fermi, Herbert Anderson
Bacher, Percy, Laura Fermi, E.L. Goldwasser
Bacher, Percy, Laura Fermi, E.L. Goldwasser
A.G. Norman, C. Holifield
A.G. Norman, C. Holifield
Robert Bacher, URA President, master of ceremonies
Robert Bacher, URA President, master of ceremonies
Congressman Melvin Price
Congressman Melvin Price
Leon Lederman, Columbia University
Leon Lederman, Columbia University
H. Guyford Stever, Science Advisor
H. Guyford Stever, Science Advisor
Dixy Lee Ray
Dixy Lee Ray
Robert R. Wilson
Robert R. Wilson

Over 1,500 Fermi Laboratory people, along with many distinguished visitors, joined in celebrating the dedication of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory on Saturday, May 11, 1974. They heard Dr. Dixy Lee Ray (see Village Crier,February, 15, 1973, pg. 3), chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, speak of the "great hope and confidence in the future and the importance of this institution," as she dedicated the "building, the instrument, and the activity" of the laboratory to the memory of the famous physicist, Enrico J. Fermi. The gusty winds of the Illinois prairie blew constantly during the ceremony, held in the front of the Central Laboratory at 3:30 p.m.

MRS. ENRICO J. FERMI spoke briefly at the dedication of the newest, and largest, facility to be named after her famous husband. The Fermis came to the United States from Italy in 1939, and Mrs. Fermi described how Fermi began immediately to use the cyclotron at Columbia University for his fission research. Fermi compared these machines to the pyramids of Egypt, she said. "Both were tangible victories of men over the brute power of nature; both were built without consideration of financial return, she pointed out.

CONGRESSMAN MELVIN PRICE, chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, spoke of the dedication as "a culmination of the hopes and efforts of many people. And I am most pleased," he said, "to acknowledge that what has been accomplished has even exceeded the hopes of many of us." He praised the "new horizons" and the new effort underway at the Laboratory toward the goal of a 1000 BeV machine sometime in the future. "Such talent and enthusiastic dedication are precious gems in our store of true National treasure," Mr. Price said.

SENATOR CHARLES PERCY was also on the program for the Fermilab celebration. "It is not the least of your accomplishments that you have broken down social as well as scientific barriers," he told the audience, praising the equal employment opportunity program at the Laboratory. "I believe that you who study the most remote elements in the earth realize more clearly than most of us that all men and women are bound together by bonds far stronger than color or creed, and you encourage others in the area to see that."

"The Laboratory has renewed the Nation's appreciation of the role of scientists in our society," he went on to say. "We are realizing once again that we need to make scientific as well as social progress if we are to be a complete society. One important thing this Laboratory proves is that we can do both simultaneously and we can do them very well indeed."

LEON LEDERMAN of Columbia University, represented the scientific users of the laboratory as he described the esoteric experimenting that is underway at the Laboratory. He brought Enrico Fermi to life for those assembled by playing a taped recording of Fermi lecturing many years ago. "This formidable challenge laid down 22 years ago by Fermi has today for its interim response, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory," Dr. Lederman concluded.

DR. ROBERT R. WILSON. Director of the Laboratory, accepted the dedication on behalf of the Laboratory. "We are deeply honored to have the name of Fermi attached to our Laboratory," Dr. Wilson declared. And turning to Mrs. Fermi, he said, "Laura, I pledge that we will do our best to make this a laboratory worthy of the name of Enrico Fermi."

DR. ROBERT BACHER, president of Universities Research Association, served as master of ceremonies for the program. In introducing Dr. Wilson, he announced that Wilson has recently accepted an additional five-year appointment as Director of the Laboratory.

H. GUYFORD STEVER, Science Advisor to the President and Director of the National Science Foundation and at one time a member of the URA Council of Presidents, read from a letter written by President Richard M. Nixon to Dr. R.R. Wilson. The President expressed his "personal appreciation to you and your colleagues for an outstanding job in building and successfully operating one of the world's most complex machines."

Also seated on the platform were: JOHN ERLEWINE, General Manager of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission; EDWARD CREUTZ, Assistant Director for Research of the National Science Foundation; CONGRESSMEN CRAIG HOSMER and CHET HOLIFIELD, members of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy; DR. NORMAN RAMSEY, President-elect of URA, who previously served as URA President for seven years; A. GEOFFREY NORMAN, Chairman of the URA Board of Trustees; CONGRESSMAN FRANK ANNUNZIO; GERALD TAPE, U.S. Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and JOHN TEEM, Assistant General Manager for Physical Research and Laboratory Coordination, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Flags of the U.S. and nineteen other countries
Flags of the U.S. and nineteen other countries participating in research at the Fermi Laboratory flew at the Dedication Ceremony

Photos by FNAL Photographers

The Laboratory's Dedication Ceremony and associated activities were all a great success. Many people contributed much time and effort to make it work out so smoothly. It will be impossible for me to write a letter to each one of you who helped us with one or another phase of the festivities. I am therefore resorting to this means of expressing my gratitude to the many people who worked long hours at short notice and under difficult conditions to make it all come to pass.


Source: The Village Crier Vol. 6 No. 19, May 16, 1974


At the Dedication
At the Dedication

Festivities of the Dedication of the Fermilab began the night of Friday, May 10, 1974, with the first program of the Auditorium Committee's Artist Series, a dance concert before a full house in the Auditorium, performed by Chicagoland artists, followed by a social hour in The Atrium with members of the Fermilab Women's Organization as hostesses. The gala weekend brought together old friends and associates of the Laboratory, as well as distinguished visitors on their first trip to the Laboratory.


At the Dedication

At the Dedication

  At the Dedication

At the Dedication


Source: The Village Crier Vol. 6 No. 20, May 23, 1974


Laura Fermi

Laura Fermi, widow of physics pioneer Enrico Fermi, died Dec. 26, 1977 in Chicago after a short illness.

Mrs. Fermi, 70, succumbed to cardiac arrest. She died at the University of Chicago's Billings Hospital, a few blocks from the site of the first sustained nuclear reaction. Her late husband had designed the first atomic piles and produced the first nuclear chain reaction in a facility under the stands at Stagg Field in 1942.

Mrs. Fermi visited the Laboratory site in 1974 to participate in ceremonies renaming the former National Accelerator Laboratory to Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). Speaking briefly to the assembly, she said:

"I cannot think of any other place that has ... as great a potential for science and so much esthetical value."

"Fermi predicted that as they (future accelerators) would grow in power and size they would not be built on the earth but around it, and physics laboratories would be in outer space. At the time his remarks caused great bursts of laughter. But Fermi was a good prophet: in the early 40's he belonged to a society of prophets at Columbia University, and earned the highest score for correct prophecies. Outer space laboratories are already a reality, and you may expect that at some future time accelerators will change the aspect of the earth and make it resemble the planet Saturn," Mrs. Fermi said.

Mrs. Fermi came to the U.S. from Italy in 1939 with her husband, known as the father of the atomic bomb. She was active in anti-handgun and anti-pollution campaigns.

Among several books she authored were: "Atoms in the Family," "Illustrious Immigrants: The Intellectual Migration from Europe 1930-41," "Mussolini," "Atoms for the World" and "The Story of Atomic Energy." She was co-author of "Galileo and the Scientific Revolution."

Mrs. Fermi founded the Civic Disarmament Committee for Handgun Control. She also founded the Cleaner Air Committee of Hyde Park and Kenwood and served on the Chicago Air Pollution Control Commission. She was a member of the board of the International House of Chicago and the women's board of the University of Chicago. She was a Guggenheim fellow in 1957.

A year after her husband won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1938, the couple fled to the U.S. from the Fascist regime in Italy. She is survived by a daughter, Mrs. Nella Weiner, of Chicago; a son, Giulio, a microbiology researcher at Cambridge University, England; and two sisters in Italy, Mrs. Anna Montel and Mrs. Paola Franchetti.

Source: The Village Crier Vol. 10 No. 1, January 5, 1978