From Józef Rotblat to Joseph Rotblat, from Warsaw to London, receiving a Nobel Peace Prize in the meantime… Who is this Polish-British physicist?
Józef Rotblat was born on the 4th of November 1908 in Warsaw as the 5th child of a Polish Jewish family. He started attending a technical college quite early in his life and became an electrician. In 1928 he applied to university to develop his interest in physics. After getting a place at a university in Warsaw, he decided to combine his electrician job with studying, so he would work during the day and then attend evening classes. Due to his determination and perseverance it took him 11 years to do a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s degree and then a PhD. Ludwik Wertenstein, a precursor of Polish nuclear physics as well as Maria Skłodowska-Curie’s ex-assistant, was Rotblat’s teacher and mentor who in 1939 helped him get a scholarship to continue his studies at the University of Liverpool under James Chadwick – the 1932 Nobel Prize winner for discovering the neutron. Not long before Rotblat moved to Liverpool, he married Tola in Warsaw, however he couldn’t afford for his wife to join him on the way to England. Rotblat moved to Liverpool during spring of 1939 and little did he know that it would be the last time he would see his wife. After the outbreak of the Second World War, Tola was taken to the Belzec concentration camp and murdered.
Rotblat spent the first few years of the war in Liverpool working on an atomic bomb with James Chadwick. In February 1944 he moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA and started working in a laboratory alongside the best physicists from the entire world on a secret project called “Manhattan Project”. Their goal was to produce the atomic bomb for the USA to conquer Japan and Germany – that’s how the atomic bombs used in Japan in 1945 were created. Very soon before that happened, Józef Rotblat realized the harm and the damage that his invention was about to cause, which terrified him so much that he quickly withdrew from the whole project and moved back to England.
In 1946 Rotblat got the position of a senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool, officially became a British citizen and started using Joseph as his name instead of Józef. In 1949 he moved to London and became the Professor of Physics at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, a teaching hospital associated with the University of London, where he stayed until the rest of his career. In 1957 along with Bertrand Russell (a philosopher and a mathematician) Rotblat began Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, an international organisation gathering public figures to work on reducing the risk of nuclear warfare. This is the main reason why in 1995 Rotblat was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize – for his effort to diminish the role of nuclear weapon across the globe. In 1998 Joseph Rotblat was given a British knighthood. In 2004 he suffered a stroke and in 2005 he died in a London hospital due to sepsis.
The 31st of August 2020 marks 15 years since his death. Even though he spent most of his life in the UK and has been viewed by many people as a British person, Józef Rotblat was speaking Polish fluently until the end of his life, constantly emphasizing his bond with Poland and always calling himself “a Pole with a British passport”.