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Philip Morrison papers

Identifier: MC-0052

  • Staff Only
  • No requestable containers

Content Warning

Warning: Box 12d of this collection contains imagery of war, injury, and death that may be disturbing to viewers. Contents comprise photographs of the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, including the injured and dead. Folders containing these materials are identified in the finding aid.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

Description for boxes 1-3 only.

The papers in this collection focus on the period in Morrison’s life from 1934, when he entered graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, until he came to teach at MIT in 1964.

Includes notes created by Morrison while he was a student from 1934 to 1939 and some correspondence with family and friends from 1948 and 1959 to 1963. While the class notes may not represent all of the courses taken by Morrison, they do provide a useful picture of physics education at one of the major centers of theoretical physics in the country in the years immediately preceding World War II. The series also includes Morrison’s notes from classes and lectures given by physicists including J. Robert Oppenheimer and Neils Bohr.

Reflects Morrison’s teaching and research interests especially in the post-war years. There is little information on Morrison’s participation in the Manhattan Project or his teaching activities at the University of Illinois and Cornell University. The Cornell file does contain, however, course materials which he developed in part from notes and problem sets from one of Oppenheimer’s classes he attended at Berkeley. Information also documents Morrison’s activities with groups opposed to use of nuclear weapons, in the post World War II.

Box 12 (a,b,c,d,e) contain documents Philip Morrison saved from Los Alamos,Tinian Island, and Japan, between July and September 1945.


  • Creation: 1934 - 2005


Access note

Materials in this collection are open unless they are marked as restricted or as needing review. Restrictions are noted in the container list.

Conditions Governing Use

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Please see the MIT Libraries Permissions Policy for permission information. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection or MIT.


Philip Morrison (1915-2005) earned a BS degree from the Carnegie Institute for Technology in 1936. In 1940 he earned a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of California at Berkeley, under the supervision of J. Robert Oppenheimer. For the next two years he taught physics at San Francisco State College and at the University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign.

From December 1942 to 1944 Philip Morrison served with the Manhattan Project, Metallurgical Laboratory, University of Chicago. From October 1944 to 1946 he was with the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos Laboratory as physicist and group leader, working with the components and the testing of the first atomic bomb July 16, 1945.

He was then sent as part of Los Alamos Team, Project A (Alberta), to the Pacific command, Mariana Base, Tinian Island, to assist in the final assembly of the bombs dropped in Hiroshima, Japan on August 6th, and in Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945. On September 6, he joined the military mission led by General Thomas Farrell to Hiroshima (September 8-September 14) and Nagasaki (September 19 to October 8) to inspect the effects of the atomic bomb explosions.

He was an advocate for nuclear disarmament after the war, and was a founding member and first president of the Federation of American Scientists.

In 1946, Morrison left Los Alamos Laboratory and joined the physics faculty at Cornell University, where he remained until he came to MIT in 1964 as a visiting professor of physics, becoming a permanent faculty member in 1965.

In 1973 Morrison was designated an MIT Institute Professor, the highest honor awarded by the MIT faculty and administration. In 1984, Morrison's faculty colleagues at MIT selected him to be the James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award Lecturer for the academic year 1984-85.

Philip Morrison was known for his research and education work. He was a contributing staff member of the Physical Science Study Committee, which was organized to improve the teaching of physics in U.S. school.

Research areas were quantum electrodynamics, nuclear theory, radiology, isotope geology and, since the 1950s, in cosmic-ray origins and propagation, gamma-ray astronomy and other topics in high-energy astrophysics and in cosmology.

He was among the first scientists (in 1959) to call upon the professional community to begin a coordinated search for interstellar communications using a microwave search. His many publications and speeches, beyond research and astronomy, centered on two large issues: nuclear and conventional war and American policy; and the teaching and public understanding of physics and science in general. He authored or co-authored many books on these subjects, including THE PRICE OF DEFENSE, which he co-authored with five other students of the arms issue. The book, published in 1979, was the first to propose a detailed alternative defense posture for the United States.

A regular reviewer of books on science for Scientific American since 1965, Morrison also narrated and helped script films on science for Charles and Ray Eames. He appeared widely on radio and on British, Canadian and American television in a number of science programs and series, most visibly as author-presenter (with his wife, the late Phylis Morrison) of a six-part national Public Broadcasting System series, "The Ring of Truth," which first aired in 1987. He and his wife co-authored a book, The Ring of Truth: An Inquiry Into How We Know What We Know, (Random House, 1987) as a companion to the series.

His memberships included the Federation of American Scientists, American Physical Society (fellow), the American Astronomical Society (council, 1977-79), the International Astronomical Union, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia.

Among his awards are the Pregel Prize of the New York Academy of Sciences, the Babson Prize of the Gravity Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Westinghouse Science Writing Award, the Oersted Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers, the Priestly Medallion of Dickinson College, the Presidential Award of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1980; the Public Science Medal of the Minnesota Museum of Science, the American Institute of Physics' Andrew Gemant Award and the Wheeler Prize (with Phylis Morrison) of the Boston Museum of Science.

Adapted from MIT News Office article and Vita.

"Philip Morrison, 1915-2005, A Biographical Memoir" by Leo Sartori and Kosta Tsipis. NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, 2009.


24 Cubic Feet (21 record cartons, 7 manuscript boxes, 3 half manuscript boxes, 3 flat storage boxes, 1 oversize folder)

Language of Materials



Materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.

Source of Acquisiton

The papers were given to Distinctive Collections (formerly the Institute Archives and Special Collections) in 1979 by Philip Morrison and by his family in 2005, 2006, and 2013. The 2002 interview by Robert Norris was received from the Center for History of Physics in 2004, and the 2002 interview by Charles Weiner was transferred in 2010.

Processing Information

Photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are copies of publically available originals preserved in the National Archives. Several copies in this collection contain notes by Philip Morrison.

This collection is largely unprocessed. However, box 12 has been reviewed and rehoused by researcher request. Items in boxes dating from 1945 are fragile. Materials originally located in box 12 (now boxes 12a, 12b, 12c, 12d, and 12e) were grouped together by Philip Morrison prior to transfer and are to be kept together. His note about this is in the front of box 12a.

Processing Information note

Some collection descriptions are based on legacy data and may be incomplete or contain inaccuracies. Description may change pending verification. Please contact the MIT Department of Distinctive Collections if you notice any errors or discrepancies.

Transfer List to the Papers of Philip Morrison
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2021 July 16: Edited by Lana Mason to remove aggrandizing terms in the biographical note description.
  • 2023 February 22: Revised by processing archivist Chris Tanguay to update access notes.

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

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