Letter from Percival Hartley, Medical Research Council of Great Britain to Michael Heidelberger
In this letter, the biochemist and immunologist Percival Hartley lamented the coming of World War II and discussed his efforts
to keep the National Institute of Medical Research in operation at a time when the requirements of the military for scientific
and medical resources affected researchers in many fields. "I live in this daily stress of preparing for war; there is
no respite," Hartley wrote.
Item is handwritten.
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4 (232,653 Bytes)
1939-07-27 (July 27, 1939)
Medical Research Council of Great Britain
Courtesy of Michael Heidelberger.
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Medical Subject Headings (MeSH):
World War II
Antigens and Antibodies: Heidelberger and The Rise of Quantitative Immunochemistry, 1928-1954
I am very sorry to say that I have had to abandon my trip to America, to attend the Congress in September. I am very disappointed,
especially as I have my paper ready, sent in my abstract, and saved up 60 Pounds for the holiday. The explanation, of course,
is the international situation. Like everybody else, I have been hoping, week by week, that the situation could improve but,
instead of that, it has got steadily worse; and we have now got the Japanese problem--a far more serious business than most
people in England realize--to add to the European one. We all hope, of course, that there will be no war, but its imminence
has been very near more than once; and we simply do not know what may happen over a week-end--the usual time for our states
men to take a holiday and the Axis leader to do things! Actually, if only my personal affair and interests were concerned
I should be inclined to work it out and
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make the trip. My family will be far away in the country, and safe, I hope, if trouble came. But that is not all: I have
been doing nothing else for nearly two years except Defence work--actually, I can [. . .] you, what I can't [. . .] anybody
else, what that is [. . .] I have had to see to the provision of tetanus [. . .] and gas gangrene [. . .] which would be required
in case of war. This has been no small affair and we are not quite through with the job yet, but getting on: we have produced
all we think we shall require in our own laboratories so far, but the [. . .] keep going up and it seems to be a never-ending
business. Further, I have been told by the Government that, as I am a "key" man,--true enough, as only myself could
take the proper action quickly enough if war came--I am to stay near at hand and not go to U.S.A. So that has settled my
longed-for visit to you. It might have been possible to forget, for a while, all these troublesome things. This continual
state of tension is, I suppose, a few degrees better than actual war, but it is really rater dreadful. One's lawful-and
peaceful-occupation is gone, and I live in this daily state of preparing for war; there is no respite. I see little of my
family, and my holiday this year will be a few week ends at our Cotswold Cottage. It is a ghastly business. Munich, which
meant shame and humiliation for us had to be simply because we were unarmed and, militarily weak. We had disarmed to an extent
which nobody realized, and few were aware of, and France was almost equally unprepared. Some day we may know exactly what
happened at Munich--Chamberlain and Daladiu[?] must know--but very few thinking people believed that "appeasement"
of that kind would lead to anything else but further and increased demands. And that is precisely what has happened.
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There has been a tremendous change since Munich in the sense that we are no longer defenceless. In fact, it is probably true
that, whereas September last we could have been attacked and might have been defeated, we are now so strongly defended--especially
London--that it is likely that the blow [. . .] fall on us: it would cost the attacking force too much in men and material.
But that is not the case elsewhere, and one guarantees [. . .] that if the blow falls on Poland or Romania we have no option:
we shall be in it somewhere. So our preparations have to go on. Surely, there never was such madmen in a world before!
None of the common people of any country want war, and know that war need not come; and yet a few wild men can plunge the
whole world into war. Whether war comes or not I cannot myself see how economic collapse can be avoided: this is perhaps
least true of England which has great wealth and economic stability. But many other European nations are now organized for
war and nothing [. . .] and that is the [. . .]
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The Axis powers may prefer war--which they think they might win--to economic collapse which would mean the end of the regime
anyhow. We are a very united[?] people, but feebly led: we want a Roosevelt badly, a man with vision courage and strength.
You are greatly blessed in your President--at least, that is what we think over here.
I hope your Congress will be the great [. . .] it deserves to be as a reward for all the hard work you have put into it.
I hope you will not have a great many defections although I know a few [. . .] English delegates are situated as I am. But
I think more of the English who intended to come, [. . .]. The programme is a most interesting one and I am grieved that
I shall not be able to hear all the good talks with my good American friends that I had promised myself.
I hope you are all well. Mr. [. . .] is well in body, but [. . .] in mind and spirit at the state of the world today. We
try to maintain a calm and cheerful atmosphere in the home for the sake of the children, but it is not easy. Last September,
for example, Elizabeth's school was moved, at a few hours which, [. . .], and this had an upsetting effect on her at the
time but she has recovered her equanimity. Philippa is blooming as ever and she goes to Elizabeth's school in September.
We hope Charles is enjoying life at Harvard and doing well--it goes without saying of course that he will
With kind regards to all of you from all of us here.
P.S. Thanks so much for the books. I thoroughly enjoyed 'Doctors on Horseback' and the thriller as well (a body falls
downstairs). I keep 'Gone with the Wind' at the College and read it over again when I have finished it! It was so
kind to send [. . .].