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Famous Letters: Richard Feynman’s Beautiful Tribute to Departed Wife, Arline

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Some of the most famous letters in the world are love letters, and few are as moving as the one that physicist Richard Feynman wrote to his late wife. The Nobel Prize winner lost his love to tuberculosis when she was just 25 years old, and the pain and confusion he felt were immense. Written 16 months after she passed away, he writes about what it’s like to still want to care for her even after she was gone, and his yearning to have her do the same for him. Learn more about the love story of the pair and how it took him more than a year to understand his feelings after losing her.

His Great Love

Richard met Arline when they were in high school, and they would spend their summers on the beaches in Queens where the couple grew up. By his junior year, he knew he wanted to marry her. They were engaged while he was a grad student at Princeton, which was right around the time when Arline began to suffer from mysterious pain, fevers, and large lumps.

She was officially diagnosed with lymphatic tuberculosis in 1941 and the couple wed the following year. Few people supported this decision. Richard was unable to kiss Arline lest he potentially catch the illness too. He took her to a hospital in New Jersey after the ceremony and visited her every weekend thereafter.

The Famous Letters of Richard and Arline

Feynman and Arline wrote to one another while they were together, but of all these famous letters, the most compelling was the one he wrote so many months after she passed away. This letter was never intended to be seen by anyone, and in fact, no one even knew that it existed until after his death in 1988. While she was alive, he encouraged her to keep fighting. (For those interested in his professional achievements, he speaks of his work and of famous physicists in his inner circle, including spy Klaus Fuchs and Nobel winner Hans Bethe.)

Arline would be transferred several times during her illness, but she would never be able to live with her husband. By the end, she was in extreme pain and surrounded by nurses who didn’t have the skills to care for her. It was a tremendously tragic time, one that Richard wasn’t always able to cope with. At times, he downplayed her illness, but he would eventually come to understand that she needed his love and support above all else. Arline died a month before the first atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico, and Feynman was there for her when she took her last breath.

Undying Devotion

When Arline died, Feynman went back to working and shed no tears until months had gone by. In his writings, he says that the anticipation of her death helped him prepare emotionally. After all, she had been ill for several years before she was even diagnosed. It wasn’t until he walked through a store and found himself wondering if Arline would want one of the dresses that he finally broke down and cried.

When he writes to his wife, the words are sincere and heartbreaking. In the final letter she never got to see, he recounts that he never found a girlfriend after her death. He admits that she is the only real thing left to him, despite the fact she is gone. He describes meeting with other people as ‘turning to ashes’. He says, “You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.”

Olev Erik
the authorOlev Erik