Leó Szilárd Biography


Birthday: February 11, 1898 (Aquarius)

Born In: Budapest

Leo Szilard was a renowned inventor who was involved with the Manhattan Project responsible for development of the first ever nuclear reactor. Szilard was born to a Jewish Civil engineer and took after his father when he enrolled at the Palatine Joseph Technical University. But with the ensuing war, he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian military. Ill-health however prevented him from being deported to the battle front. He then resumed his studies at the technical university but his Jewish roots proved to be a hindrance in his path and he moved to the University of Berlin where he studied physics under the expert guidance of greats such as Albert Einstein and Max Planck. In the course of time he spent in Berlin, Leo was involved in several inventions which included the cyclotron and electron microscope. Since he never documented any of these inventions, others were credited for building them. As the rising Nazi-oppression made it difficult for scientists to pursue research of their free will, he fled to London, where he began working at the St Bartholomew's Hospital. It was here that he discovered a technique to separate isotopes from the compounds, which was named as the Szilard–Chalmers effect, after its discoverers. Later he was involved with the Manhattan project which designed the nuclear reactor. Read on to know more about his life and works.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Leo Szilard

Died At Age: 66


Spouse/Ex-: Gertrud Weiss Szilard

father: Louis Spitz

mother: Thekla Vidor

Physicists American Men

Died on: May 30, 1964

place of death: La Jolla

City: Budapest, Hungary

Founder/Co-Founder: Council for a Livable World

discoveries/inventions: Einstein Refrigerator

More Facts

education: Technical University of Berlin, Humboldt University of Berlin, Budapest University of Technology and Economics

awards: Albert Einstein Award

Childhood & Early Life
Leo Szilard was born on February 11, 1898 in a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary to Louis Spitz, an engineer and his wife Thekle Vidor. He was born with the name Leo Spitz but his surname was changed to Szilard, meaning solid when he was 2 years old. He was the eldest among the three children in his family.
Szilard studied at the ‘Realiskola School’ in Budapest and graduated at the age of 18 in 1916. At the same time he was awarded the ‘Eötvös Prize’ which was conferred upon students with exceptional knowledge in mathematics, in Hungary.
In the year 1916, he took admission in engineering at the ‘Palatine Joseph Technical University’ but only a year later he was called for army duty and became an officer. It was not till three years from first taking admission that he was able to resume his education.
In 1919, the ‘Palatine Joseph Technical University’, renamed ‘Budapest University of Technology’ did not want to have Leo as one of their students since he was Jewish and finding the situation untenable he made his way to Germany later that year.
Szilard joined the ‘Institute of Technology in Berlin-Charlottenburg’ in 1919 but he became disenchanted by engineering after a while and enrolled in the physics course at the ‘Friedrich Wilhelm University’.
He was taught physics by some of the most gifted minds in physics including Albert Einstein and in 1922 he was awarded a doctorate in physics.
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After serving as an assistant at the ‘Institute of Theoretical Physics’ Szilard was appointed as a private lecturer at the same institute in 1927. During that time he produced a paper which laid the foundations for the study of information theory.
Although Leo Szilard had acquired German citizenship; he realised that he could not stay in the country for long due to the rise of Nazism and in the year 1933 he went to Vienna. A year later he joined the ‘St. Bartholomew’s Hospital’ in London as a member of the physics department.
Szilard was intrigued by Lord Rutherford’s claim that atomic energy wasn’t viable for the real world and wanted to prove his assertion wrong. He worked on separating isotopes in collaboration with T. A. Chambers and successfully demonstrated the ‘Szilard-Chambers effect’.
In the year 1937, he moved to the United States to teach at ‘Columbia University’ and after discussions with Eugene Wagner as well as Albert Einstein wrote a letter five years later to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt regarding the atomic bomb.
It was in the year 1942 that Szilard started with his experiments at the ‘University of Chicago’ in relation to the nuclear reactor in collaboration with Enrico Fermi and till the conclusion of the Second World War he continued to conduct research there. It became known as the famous ‘Manhattan Project’.
In the year 1946, this accomplished physicist was appointed as a professor at the ‘University of Chicago’ where he taught biophysics. He collaborated with chemist Aaron Novick and discovered devices like the chemostat as well as the phenomenon called feedback initiation.
Leo Szilard also held an avid interest in literature and in the year 1959 he published a book titled ‘The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories’, which contained stories of satire on how science can be a deadly thing if it falls into the wrong hands.
Major Works
The erudite scientist made numerous contributions to the field of science but nonetheless his most important benefaction to the field of physics remained his design of nuclear reactor based on the principle of nuclear chain reaction. He was among the group of scientists who led the ‘Manhattan Project’ for manufacture of nuclear devices during the World War II.
Awards & Achievements
He was conferred with the ‘Atoms for Peace Award’ in the year 1959 due to his repeated pleas for using atomic energy responsibly and to regulate the manufacturing of nuclear weapons.
In 1960, he was given the ‘Albert Einstein Award’ in recognition of his path breaking work in theoretical physics.
Personal Life & Legacy
Although many thought that Szilard would remain a bachelor all his life; he married Gertrud Weiss in the year 1951, at the age of 53. They had no children.
During his final years he was suffering from bladder cancer and was undergoing cobalt therapy. On May 30, 1964, the erudite scientist died of a heart attack while he was sleeping.

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