The Via Panisperna Boys

When the Spanish Steps Apartment was being renovated, we stayed for a time in the delightful Monti district, on Via Panisperna. We soon discovered that this little street had an very interesting past that intersected with my personal interest in WWII history in Rome.

Before WWII, Italy was a world leader in nuclear research. Some of the greatest minds in that field were the “Via Panisperna Boys” (I ragazzi di Via Panisperna), a group of young physicists at the University of Rome (La Sapienza), led by the brilliant Enrico Fermi.

Fermi at the blackboard

The “Boys” included Emilio Segrè, Giulio Racah, Ugo Fano, Ettore Majorana, Edoardo Amaldi, and several others. The group had their laboratories at Via Panisperna (today, part of the Ministry of the Interior complex) where they set up their often home-made equipment.

In 1934, the scientists made a discovery about how to bombard heavy metals with nuclear particles. This work led to the discovery of new heavy metals, which in turn led to the generation of nuclear energy, and, eventually, to chain reactions. At the time, the focus of the work was to find new therapies to fight cancers, but the magnitude of the Via Panisperna Boys’ work in the world of nuclear energy was quickly realized.

Despite the breakthrough work by these scientists, anti-Semitic laws imposed by the Fascist regime soon affected them. Segrè, Fano, and Racah, being Jewish, could no longer hold a university position: Segrè and Fano moved to the United States and Racah to Palestine. Fermi was not Jewish, his wife Laura’s Jewish heritage meant they too were targets of the same laws.

Enrico and Laura Fermi

In 1938, Fermi received the Nobel Prize in Physics in Sweden. After accepting the award, however, Fermi and his wife, Laura, did not return to Rome, but went to the United States, where Fermi had been offered a position at the University of Chicago. In Chicago, Fermi worked on the “Chicago Pile-1” project where he discovered nuclear chain reactions. Later, he was to be a critical part of the Manhattan Project.

So, the Via Panisperna Boys would one day change the world. Amazing to think that it all began on a little street in Rome.

Note to our friends in Hollywood: there’s much more to this story, including Laura Fermi’s own contributions to society, and the drama of the couple’s escape from Italy. I always thought this story would make a great movie!