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William A. Fowler Papers

Identifier: 10070-MS

Scope and Content of Collection

The working papers, correspondence, reprints, and biographical material of William Alfred Fowler form the collection known as the Fowler Papers at the California Institute of Technology Archives.

The Fowler papers form an exceedingly rich and important collection for the history of physics and astrophysics, as well as for the politics and sociology of science in the twentieth century. Fowler saved a vast amount of material, including documents related to his mentor Charles C. Lauritsen from the 1920s and 1930s at Caltech. Lauritsen destroyed most of his own papers connected with Caltech's World War II rocket project, but Fowler preserved his, giving researchers today a detailed first-hand account of Caltech's intensive involvement in the war effort. A similar level of documentation exists for Fowler's involvement in postwar defense work, particularly the study of strategic nuclear weapons known as Project Vista, and the creation of the Office of Naval Research (ONR).


  • 1917-1994



The collection is open for research. Researchers must apply in writing for access.

Publication Rights

Copyright may not have been assigned to the California Institute of Technology Archives. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Head of the Archives. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.


Physicist William A. Fowler received the Nobel Prize in Physics with Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar in 1983 for his "theoretical and experimental studies of the nuclear reactions of importance in the formation of the chemical elements in the universe." For most of his scientific career, he was the acknowledged leader of the discipline of nuclear astrophysics and the driving force behind the theory of nucleosynthesis that the elements and their isotopes were generated in stellar furnaces.

Fowler was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on August 9, 1911, and grew up in Lima, Ohio. He graduated in engineering physics from Ohio State University in 1933, then moved to the California Institute of Technology, where he began his graduate studies under the supervision of Charles C. Lauritsen at Caltech's Kellogg Radiation Laboratory. He received his PhD in 1936 for his thesis on radioactive elements of low atomic number. Fowler spent his entire scientific career at Caltech, where in 1970 he was named the first Institute Professor of Physics, a position he held until his retirement in 1982.

Early nuclear studies at the Kellogg Radiation Laboratory established the basis for quantitative determinations of reaction rates of interest in stellar processes. In the late 1930s reactions in the C-N (carbon-nitrogen) cycle were being studied at Kellogg, but World War II intervened, and the laboratory staff was engaged in defense research throughout the war. Fowler and his colleagues worked on a variety of defense projects, first on the invention of the proximity fuze for anti-aircraft rockets, and later on the development of rocket ordnance for the US navy. For that work, he received the Medal of Merit in 1948. After the war Fowler and his colleagues at Kellogg returned to the field of low-energy light-element nuclear physics, aiming a major fraction of their research at nuclear reactions in stars. Fowler continued his defense work after the war, dealing with the study of strategic nuclear weapons as the scientific director of Project Vista.

Fowler's interest in nuclear astrophysics was stimulated by Fred Hoyle's visit to Caltech in the 1950s. Fowler spent his sabbatical year of 1954-55 at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, England, where he started a collaboration with Fred Hoyle and with Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, which culminated in their 1957 seminal paper, "Synthesis of the Elements in Stars." Subsequently, Fowler and Hoyle studied the nuclear processes of supernovae and extended their research to dating the synthesis of chemical elements from the abundance of their isotopes—a field of research which later became known as nuclear chronology.

In 1967, Fowler, Hoyle, and Robert B. Wagoner produced a comprehensive study regarding the dynamics of expansion of the universe and the resulting nucleosynthesis, known as Big Bang nucleosynthesis. That same year, Fowler's collaboration with Georgeanne Caughlan and Barbara Zimmerman led to the publication of the first of a series of reviews evaluating experimental nuclear reaction rates. This series of reviews continued with a variety of co-authors until 1988 and provided a foundation for the study of stellar evolution and nucleosynthesis.

Throughout his scientific career, Fowler was also very active in a variety of societies and professional organizations. He served terms as an officer and then as president of the American Physical Society (1976) and was a member of the Governing Board and Executive Committee of the American Institute of Physics (1974-1980). He also served on the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation (1968-1974), the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences (1970-1973, 1977-1980), and as member and then chairman of the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NUSAC) of the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy (1977-1981).

Fowler received many honors in addition to the Nobel Prize. These included the Vetlesen Prize (1973), the National Medal of Science awarded by President Gerald Ford in 1974, the Eddington Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1978), the Bruce Gold Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1979), and the Legion of Honor awarded by President François Mitterand in 1989.

Fowler continued his scientific research and his lecturing activities until his death due to kidney failure on March 14, 1995.


94 linear feet (209 boxes)

Language of Materials



These papers document the career of William A. Fowler, who served on the physics faculty at California Institute of Technology from 1939 until 1982. Focusing heavily on nuclear physics and astrophysics, the Fowler papers form a rich and important collection for the history of physics, and illustrate the politics and sociology of science in the twentieth century. They also contain substantial material on Caltech's World War II rocket developments, plus documents on Project Vista, a Cold-War strategic defense study headed by Fowler.


The collection has been divided into twelve sections (see Table of Contents), organized in 213 archival boxes. The Correspondence Section (Series I) contains a large amount of both incoming and outgoing correspondence. Letters are arranged chronologically within the alphabetically ordered folders. An effort was made to gather the general as well as a major portion of the scientific correspondence into one main section. However, some correspondence has been left in other sections, in particular, in the Technical Files (Series IX) in order to preserve its original context. World War II rocket project correspondence and Project Vista correspondence is also found in the relevant sections. Correspondence concerning awards and honors, including the Nobel Prize, as well as family correspondence, has been placed in Series X, Biographical Material. Researchers with access to a digital version of this finding aid should conduct name and keyword searches in order to find all correspondence by or with one individual or on one subject or project.

Fowler spent his entire scientific career at Caltech, and his papers contain extensive information on the history of Caltech in general, and on the Kellogg Radiation Laboratory in particular. Series II, California Institute of Technology, is subdivided into Fowler's teaching material, Kellogg Radiation Laboratory material, the Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy (PMA) Division material, and general documents. Some portions in the PMA section are sensitive (faculty salary distribution, appointment and promotion files, etc.), and thus will be closed for an indefinite period.

Series III deals with World War II and its immediate aftermath. Caltech's principal involvement was the rocket project sponsored by the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). Fowler kept administrative material regarding the project, as well as many technical reports. This section of the collection has also been subdivided into five parts: Administrative Material, Facilities, Reports, Correspondence and Miscellaneous. The reports subsection is the longest and most complex. Reports are organized by type: Caltech weekly progress reports from October 1941 through September 1945; local intermediate reports between November 1941 and June 1945; OSRD and CIT technical reports during 1942 to 1946; and technical reports organized by subject in the original order in which Fowler had kept them. Correspondence is organized by person, organization, or subject. Visual material connected with the rocket project can be found in miscellaneous under "The South Pacific Theatre Trip." Sixteen-mm films on the rocket project have been placed in Series XI, Photographic Material, and in Series XII, Oversize, Box 210.

Project Vista material is gathered in Series IV and contains correspondence, administrative material and reports. One box of slides pertaining to Project Vista can be found in Series XI, Photographic Material.

Fowler was very active in many scientific and professional organizations, and he also served in an advisory capacity to several government agencies, laboratories and the military. His most extensive involvements, aside from World War II activities and Project Vista, were with the American Physical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation's Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NUSAC). The material dealing with these organizations and others, including a significant portion of correspondence, is found in Series V, arranged alphabetically according to the organization.

Fowler's talks and lectures both at Caltech and elsewhere are arranged in Series VI in chronological order. Folders in this section contain a wide variety of talk-related documents, from talk outlines and notes to related correspondence. Every effort has been made to identify each talk and its date and venue, but often the information about a given talk remains sketchy. Many talks were delivered several times, usually in varying forms, and many were also eventually published. Researchers should note connections between material in the talks section and in the following section (Series VII), Manuscripts.

Series VII, Manuscripts, contains Fowler's drafts, manuscripts and some unpublished manuscripts in chronological order. Additionally, some manuscripts by other authors are included. Folders in this section contain a variety of materials such as manuscript drafts, notes, figures, and tables, and even correspondence, as many of Fowler's papers were co-authored. Fowler's habit was to refer to his publications by abbreviations formed from the last-name initials of the authors. If two co-authors had the same last initial, such as Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, his convention was to use the superscript 2 (for "squared"). Thus, he commonly refers to his famous publication with the Burbidges and Fred Hoyle, "Synthesis of the elements in stars" (1957), as B2FH. The sets of data on thermonuclear reaction rates, published in several volumes with different co-authors, are also referred to by Fowler in this same shorthand. Typically on these projects his collaborators were Georgeanne Caughlan and Barbara Zimmerman (respectively C and Z). Fowler's shorthand references to his publications have been included in some instances in the manuscripts section of the finding aid and will be found throughout the collection.

Printed publications in reprint or offprint form that were extant in the Fowler collection are grouped together in Series VIII under the heading Reprints. It should be noted that the reprint section does not contain all of Fowler's publications, only those that were included in the original collection given to Caltech.

The large and complex set of technical materials donated to Caltech has been put together in Series IX, Technical Files. For the sake of clarity, this material has been subdivided into broad subject areas and further subdivided into narrower topics. However, readers will find some overlap between subsections. Further, the technical files contain a wide variety of materials, from calculations, plots, notes, data and memos, to full exchanges of letters with collaborators and interested parties. Every effort has been made to describe the contents clearly and to list names of correspondents in this section of the finding aid, so that researchers with access to a digital copy may conduct name searches. The subsections of the technical files are: Nuclear Physics; Nuclear Astrophysics (including nucleosynthesis of the elements [subdivided thermonuclear reaction rates, nuclear processes, cross-section material], the solar neutrino problem, stars and supernovae, cosmochronology [subdivided into particle physics and the early universe, and the inflationary universe]); Published and Unpublished Papers and Talks (by Fowler and others), and Miscellaneous. The subsection on papers and talks overlaps to some degree with the previous Sections VI and VII, but the distinction in this set of files is the presence of purely technical notes and ancillary materials. Once a project had taken an identifiable shape as a talk or manuscript, it was removed to Series VI or VII. Researchers will again need to recognize the relationships between the Technical Files section and the Talks and Manuscript sections.

The Biographical Section (Series X) includes records of Fowler's early and later education (up to and including his graduate work at Caltech), his family, his awards, including the Nobel Prize, plus miscellaneous biographical information of interest. Also included are several oral histories and interviews. Researchers may also refer to the oral history conducted through the Caltech Archives' Oral History Project. The first interview in this series was completed by John L. Greenberg in 1983, and the supplement by Carol Bugé in 1986.

Photos, slides, and films are collected in Series XI, Photographic Material, though additional photos can be found in the Oversize Section (Series XII), such as the rocket project photos and conference group photos. The Oversize material also contains a selection of certificates and various awards, honorary degrees and medals.

Acquisition Information

The papers were donated to the Caltech Archives by William Fowler in several installments between 1980 and 1986, bringing the collection to approximately 67 linear feet. After Fowler's death in March, 1995, his heirs completed the donation of the papers, nearly doubling the size of the collection with approximately 60 more linear feet.

Related Collections

In addition to using the Fowler Papers, researchers are encouraged to consult related collections in the Caltech Archives. The Historical Files contain miscellaneous material on William Fowler acquired from many different sources. Researchers should also consult other related manuscript collections at the Archives, such as the Papers of Charles C. Lauritsen and Thomas Lauritsen, the Earnest C. Watson Papers, the Joseph Foladare Papers, and the Physics 3 Project collection (the latter specifically on the World War II rocket project). Caltech's photo archives and artifact collections contain further material on Willy Fowler, as do the audio-visual archives for films, video tapes, and audio tapes. For a complete listing of all William A. Fowler material in the Caltech Archives, researchers may consult the Archives' web site at:

Processing History

The pre-1995 papers were roughly sorted into document boxes, plus about 15 linear feet of original binders consisting mainly of Office of Naval Research files. The 1980 accession was processed by Assistant Archivist Susan Trauger in 1980. This material deals mainly with the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NUSAC) and various astronomy committees. A rough inventory for about one third of the pre-1995 collection was prepared by C. Bugé, L. Wood, and M. Williamson.

Thanks to a grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics, further processing of the complete collection took place from 1998 to 2000. This generous award by the AIP allowed the Caltech Archives to finish processing the pre-1995 donation, process the complete 1995 donation, and finally, merge the two portions into a single integrated collection, making it accessible to the scholarly community.
Guide to the William A. Fowler Papers, 1917-1994
Under Revision
Processed by Nurit Lifshitz, assisted by Charlotte Erwin, Laurence Dupray, Carlo Cossu and Jennifer Stine.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Edition statement
Updated in 2020 by Penelope Neder-Muro

Repository Details

Part of the California Institute of Technology Archives and Special Collections Repository

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MC B215-74
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