Leni and Lisa: the women behind the man

Leni and Guido outside a guesthouse in Edinburgh

Despite coming from a large family where he was the eldest of 5 brothers and 3 sisters, Guido Pontecorvo’s immediate family consisted only of his wife Lenore and his daughter Lisa.

Ponte described his marriage to Leni, a Swiss art-historian in November 1939 as “the best thing I ever did” and the two shared a long and happy marriage until Leni’s untimely death in 1986. In the summer of 1940, when Italy entered the war, Pontecorvo was arrested as an enemy alien and interned on the Isle of Man. The internment lasted six months. The detainees, a mixed group of Italians and a few others, were lodged in a row of seaside rooms surrounded by barbed wire. As Pontecorvo recalled later “it was not bad, although a bit cramped”.  After six months Ponte was examined by a magistrate who asked questions, mainly about his attitudes, and released him. Leni, in the meantime, having lost her Swiss neutrality for marrying an enemy alien, had to move to Glasgow where she was supporting herself by giving language lessons.  Ponte took a train to Glasgow. It was a cold and bleak night in early June 1941. There was a blackout and he had no money for a taxi so he walked to the lodgings where Leni was living and knocked at the door. Glasgow was the city where he was to live for the next 27 years.

It was during this time in Glasgow that Leni gave birth to their daughter Lisa, their only child. She became a dedicated community activist in the Caledonian Ward, Islington and Camden and campaigned for the protection of historical buildings and for more green space and gardens in the area.  Lisa was tragically killed in 2008 in a cycling accident in London. She was a popular and well respected member of her community and, after her death, several memorials were placed around Thornhill in Islington and Edward Square as a mark of respect. The musical flying squad also wrote, produced and performed a folk opera to celebrate Lisa’s life and achievements.

Lisa Pontecorvo

Lisa  adored her father and took great pride in his archive after his death. She was determined to find a good home for it and we are very grateful that it ended up here at Archive Services where it will be preserved with collections of other notable geneticists who worked in Pontecorvo’s department, such as James Renwick and Malcolm Ferguson-Smith.

The Pontecorvo collection holds a variety of records relating to Ponte’s personal and family life, such as photographs, household account books, love letters, Leni’s diaries and memoirs (which reveal what life was like as the wife of a professor living and working in Glasgow in the 1950s and 1960s), and the Pontecorvo household guestbook (which records signatures of academics, friends and family who visited the Pontecorvo’s over the years).  It also includes an album and programme for Pontefest, an event which Lisa organised for friends and colleagues to celebrate her father’s life and work after his death.

The papers that have survived in Ponte’s archive demonstrate that he was very much a family man and that his wife and daughter were extremely influential throughout his life.



Categories: Archive Services (GUAS), Library

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. I loved this account of Pontecorvo’s life. It made him a real person not just a research scientist!

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