Jean Perrin

Jean Perrin

Jean Perrin was born in 1870 in Lille, France. He was an atheist, a socialist, and a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris. He had won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1926, and was a close associate of Marie Curie, her daughter, Irene and her husband, Frederic Joliot.

Perrin had served as President of the French Academy of Science and as Under-Secretary of State for Scientific Research in 1936. In 1938, he gave an address before the International Peace Congress in London in which he declared that world science stood or fell with democracy.

Perrin’s son, Francis, was also a physicist and was hired as a professor at Columbia University. After the German invasion, Perrin lived in Lyon as a refugee and it was there that he became active in the Free French Movement and member of France Forever.

In May 1941, Wilson Professor Emily Allyn received a telegram from Laurens Seelye of the Emergency Committee stating, “An urgent special delivery letter mailed tonight will reach you tomorrow in regard to Dr. Jean Perrin physical chemist and Nobel prize winner. Appointment of this noted scholar for one semester will almost certainly insure his leaving France and perhaps save his life.”

Letters for Allyn and Wilson College President Paul Swain Havens arrived the next day. Seelye wrote, “I know you will excuse this urgency, for it may be a matter of life and death.” The letter to Havens gave instructions from bio-chemist Louis Rapkine, who was responsible for rescuing dozens of French scientists, about the precise language to write to French officials to help Perrin get the necessary permissions to leave France.

These appeals included one to the Ambassador of the French Republic, Gaston Henry-Hay.  Havens uncharacteristically signed the letter “Your humble servant”. Henry-Hay replied “Unfortunately, due to present circumstances, I am not in a position to forward to my Government the invitation you wish to address to Professor Jean Perrin.”

Rapkine’s next suggestion was to write directly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at Vichy in July.

In early September, Perrin received his exit visa. Finally, on December 17, 1941, Havens received a telegram from Rapkine stating that Perrin had made it aboard the last American export liner before all service between the US and Europe was cut.

After spending the Christmas holidays with his son in New York, Perrin finally arrived at Wilson in January 1942. He spent several months giving lectures in both Chambersburg and New York as well as serving as Dean of the University in Exile. Havens wrote to Laurens Seelye expressing deep concern that Perrin was not well and was overworking himself.

Erna Barschak whose time at Wilson overlapped with Perrin, wrote about him in her book. “An unforgettable experience was the reaction of Professor Perrin, the great French Nobel prize winner, to the food abundance in this country. Professor Perrin, a former collaborator of Madame Curie, had, in spite of his age, helped to organize underground resistance in France, and finally was forced to take refuge in this country because of the Gestapo.”

“When I asked him about living conditions in France, he didn’t say much about his own deprivations. ‘The younger people needed food worse than an old man. It was horrible to see boys and girls in their teens going hungry.’”

“Professor Perrin was startled when he came to a faculty tea the second day after his arrival in the winter of 1941. We had been having four o’clock tea every afternoon, with toast, jam, and butter – which at that time was still unrestricted. ‘But I already had buttered toast in the morning’, said Professor Perrin incredulously, ’is it really possible to have butter twice a day?’”

“The old man, so deeply grateful for everything which American hospitality offered the seventy year old scientist of world fame, couldn’t enjoy such abundance longer than a few months. He soon died from a stomach disorder. Was the rich food too much for him who had been conditioned to the meager European way of life?”

Perrin was buried in New York, but after the war, his body was returned to France where he was given National Funeral Rites and was buried in the Pantheon.

Jean Perrin