Laura Fermi

Italian-born writer and political activist

Laura Capon Fermi (16 June 1907 – 26 December 1977) was an Italian and naturalized-American author, historian, and political activist for nuclear disarmament, human rights, and gun control. She was married to Enrico Fermi from 1928 until his death in 1954.

Laura and Enrico Fermi at the Institute for Nuclear Studies, Los Alamos, 1954


  • Rasetti, a first-year student of physics like Fermi, was not a usual person; his main interest was directed to that part of the world which is not made of human beings. ...
    ... He had organized a group of students among whom Fermi was prominent in an "Anti-Neighbors Society." The society's single aim was to pester people. The tricks they played ranged from placing a pan of water on a door left ajar which would give a shower to the first person going through, to exploding a stink-bomb in a classroom during a solemn lecture. For the latter prank Rasetti and Fermi, who had built the bomb, risked being expelled forever from the university. They were saved by their teacher of experimental physics, Professor Luigi Puccianti, a tolerant man with keen judgment, who stressed their scholarly achievements at an especially convoked disciplinary meeting of the faculty.
  • ... I reached the door and read the sign:
    "Ettore Majorana" Centre for Scientific Culture.
    "Ettore Majorana ...." The name brought back the memory of a slim and swarthy young Sicilian leaning against the tall plane tree in my parents' backckyard, isolated and quiet among the numerous merrymakes at my wedding reception. It was the summer of 1928, and earlier that year Majorana had joined the small group of students being trained in "modern" physics by Enrico Fermi and Franco Rasetti. Fermi had told me marvels about him: he was a wizard at mathematical calculatons; in physics he was a genius, like Galilei and Newton. Nature had bestowed upon him exceptional intellectual gifts ... but not the power to cope with life. After a few years of association with the group, Majorana stopped going to the physics building; despite his outstanding work he isolated himself and eventually became almost a recluse. Then, after a dramatic return to the academic world and a few weeks of teaching at the University of Naples, he mysteriously disappeared in 1938, forever, perhaps a suicide, or perhaps a hermit in the secrecy of some convent. Forgotten for many years, his name was now a beacon attracting to Erice the brilliant in science, the young as well as the old.

Quotes about Laura Fermi

  • ... Born in 1907, Laura Capon came from a family of upper-middle-class Italian Jews. They were living in Rome when Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922; and when she and Enrico married in 1928. Laura, who had been studying science, enjoyed following her husband’s work and related breakthroughs in physics. She helped my grandfather write his first textbook. Five years of forced wartime secrecy from 1940–1945 temporarily broke the flow of discourse between them. She shared more about those details in Atoms in the Family, but my grandmother doesn’t mention how Hitler’s Holocaust robbed her of her father Augusto Capon, an admiral in the Italian Navy. Because of his position, my great-grandfather didn’t believe he was in danger, even when the situation under Mussolini continued to deteriorate. The elderly Admiral Capon refused an offer from Enrico’s older sister Maria to take shelter at her home outside of Rome along with some other Jews.
  • The founder of the Civic Disarmament Committee (CDC) of Chicago interpreted the US gun problem in light of her experience working for nuclear peace and universal human security in the early Cold War. As the spouse of Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who conducted the first successful experiments in nuclear fission at the University of Chicago in 1942. Laura Fermi had witnessed the birth of a new global order. Like Enrico and many of the scientists who contributed to the Manhattan Project, Laura Fermi became active in the nuclear peace movement after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fermi learned to organize activists first in the peace movement and then, beginning in 1959, as a local environmentalist, years before the cause gained national attention. ... At the end of the 1960s she turned toward disarming civilian populations and abolishing handguns, reasoning that disarmament was as feasible for American citizens as limiting nuclear proliferation had been among nation-states. Others working in nascent gun control groups marveled at her incomparable wit and humor and her tireless passion for peace. She liked to tease audiences that they should "never underestimate the power of little old ladies in tennis shoes."