June 24, 1936
President W. P. Few
Dear President Few:
I scarcely know how to reply to your letter of June 11th, but since you ask for a most confidential statement I shall be glad to say a word about how I myself would go about building up as strong as possible a department of physics at Duke University.
I should introduce into the department a number of young men of as pronounced ability as I could find, and then give them every possible opportunity to rise to positions of influence inside and eminence outside. In view of the fact that at least 95% of the ablest minds that are now going into physics are men - indeed, I do not remember that of the several hundred National Research Fellows in physics who have been chosen in the last ten years there have been any women - I should feel that my chance of building a very strong department would be better if I made my choices among the most outstanding of the National Research Fellows or other equally outstanding young men who for one reason or another thought it unwise to become candidates for National Research fellowships. Women have done altogether outstanding work and are now in the front rank of scientists in the fields of biology and somewhat in the fields of chemistry and even astronomy, but we have developed in this country as yet no outstanding, women physicists. In Europe Fraülein Meitner of Berlin and Madam Curie of Paris are in the front rank of the world's recognized physicists. I should, therefore, expect to go farther in influence and get more for my expenditure if in introducing young blood into a department of physics I picked one or two of the most outstanding younger men, rather than if I filled one of my openings with a woman. I might change this opinion if I knew of other women who had the accomplishments and attained to the eminence of Fraülein Meitner. I know of no other living woman who has had anything like her accomplishment or has prospects in the future of having such accomplishment.
Also, in the internal workings of a department of physics at a great university I should expect the more brilliant and able young men to be drawn into the graduate department by the character of the men on the staff, rather than the character of the women.
These considerations relate more to the graduate work than to the undergraduate. In a coeducational institution where there are many women students it is undoubtedly also desirable to have for pedagogical purposes women instructors, but only in very exceptional cases would I think that the advance of graduate work would be as well promoted by a woman as by a man.
Also, I have heard the resort that the general feeling which I have herein expressed had appeared to some extent in Franck's Laboratory at Göttingen, Miss Sponer having got herself into a larger position of influence on the administrative side of the research laboratory than was best for its effectiveness. This report may be only an unjustified rumor, perhaps worth looking up, however, if you are assigning her graduate responsibilities.
If the Rockefeller Foundation as a part of its effort to assist in meeting the very unfortunate exile program has supplied the funds for taking care of one of the exiles, the University may well profit by that act. If, however, I had administrative responsibility at the University I should want to watch developments very carefully to see that antagonisms were not aroused, since women instructors in physics in the long run might react unfavorably upon the prestige of the department, unless they were there solely because of their merit as physicists.