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Known as the “architect of the nuclear age,” Enrico Fermi created the world’s first man-made nuclear reactor, Chicago-Pile 1, under an abandoned squash court at the University of Chicago. The world’s first controlled self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction took place in that pile on December 2, 1942.


Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1938 for his work on the artificial radioactivity produced by neutrons, and for nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons. He took the occasion to escape to the United States, avoiding the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini and the racial laws which threatened his Jewish wife. He worked first at Columbia University on fission and nuclear reactors until the work was moved to UChicago in 1942. His team at the University’s Metallurgical Laboratory designed and constructed Chicago Pile-1 as part of the Manhattan Project. Following this work, he joined a nuclear research institute at the University that would later become the Enrico Fermi Institute in recognition of his contributions to the field. He remained at the Institute until his death on November 28, 1954.


Fermi’s contributions to statistical and quantum physics are remembered by a category of elementary particles known as “fermions.” Born September 29, 1901, in Rome, his transformational contributions to many areas of experimental and theoretical physics rank as some of the most consequential of our time.

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Faculty member and Nobel laureate who ushered in the nuclear age by creating the world's first man-made nuclear reactor

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Photo Source: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf1-06029], Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

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