When Lise Meitner visited the United States for the first time in 1946, she became the center of a media circus. She was cast as the “Jewish mother of the [atomic] bomb,” based on a story in the Saturday Evening Post by William L. Laurence, who was given nearly exclusive access to the scientists at Los Alamos, the seat of the Manhattan Project. In this 1940 piece, Laurence depicted Meitner as the discoverer of nuclear fission, the process by which nuclei split into roughly equal halves, yielding untold amounts of energy that the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki unfortunately experienced first-hand. Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., the pilot of the Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped Little Boy upon Hiroshima, already having flown eleven and a half miles away from the site by the time the bomb exploded, recalled, “observing a silver blue flash and experiencing a strange feeling in his mouth, the same feeling as if he touched the lead and silver fillings in his mouth with a fork.”
Laurence wrote that, while Meitner was “a scion of a family that had lived in Germany for many generations, [she] was not ’Aryan,’” and was therefore “forced to leave her native land to seek a haven where she could resume her work.” On the train from Berlin to Stockholm, she played over and over again in her head the results that she and her laboratory partner Otto Hahn had obtained in the laboratory, getting barium from the bombardment of uranium-235 with neutrons. She realized that what they had produced was not a new element as they had previously believed, but that they had split the uranium atom, making barium, which was roughly half the mass of uranium, and another element, krypton.
“When Lise Meitner arrived in Stockholm,” Laurence continued, “she did two things that started off a set of events as dramatic as any in the history of man’s endless quest for new means of mastery over his material environment. First, she prepared a report of the results of her strange experiment for a scientific journal, so that scientists in other parts of the world, both inside and outside Germany, might take up the quest for an answer to the puzzle. Second, she telegraphed the gist of her findings to a scientist friend in Copenhagen, Dr. R. Frisch.”
Laurence continued, explaining that Lise’s scientist friend Doctor Frisch was the son-in-law of famous atomic physicist Niels Bohr, and had cabled the news to his father-in-law who was in America at the time, “carrying on investigations with his colleague, Einstein, at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, and also with his other Nobel Prize winning colleague, Fermi, at Columbia.”
Bohr announcing Frisch’s news to a room full of physicists, who immediately ran out of the room, rushing to the nearest telephones to communicate the findings to their laboratories, planted the seed that would flower into the Manhattan Project, and the race to beat Germany in making the atomic bomb.
The embellished story as retold by Laurence is delicious in its imagery and dramatic flair, though not exactly true. The real story was not as dramatic in its telling, and yet, perhaps more dramatic in the sense that it actually happened.
Yes, Lise Meitner, who was born Jewish, was forced out of Nazi Germany, but she was Austrian, not Germany, and her mind was not full of thoughts of barium on her train trip out of Germany, but full of fear of being caught as she was escaping in the dead of night against strict orders to remain in Berlin. In fact, her neighbor had, that same day, informed the Gestapo of her plans to leave.
After leaving Berlin, she did not telegraph her barium findings to Otto Robert Frisch, but spent Christmas with him in Kungalv, where they pieced together the puzzle of fission. And Frisch was not Bohr’s son-in-law, but rather Lise’s nephew, who worked in Bohr’s laboratory in Copenhagen.
As a refugee leaving a country that wasn’t even hers, while her own country had been annexed by Nazi Germany, she had no rights and no passport, and left behind all her earthly belongings, the pension for which she worked her entire life and no sizable means of support.
Few to no countries would take the “mother of the bomb,” as their immigration quotas had been saturated months to years before, and, though Sweden was in the end able to absorb her, she would never again be in a position comparable to the one she earned for herself in Berlin.
And I mean earned in the fullest sense of the word. Lise Meitner was the second woman to ever graduate with a doctorate in physics from Vienna, moved by herself to Berlin as a young woman to better her chances at doing the physics she loved, and worked for years without pay because women were not hired to do physics research at the time. But her research was so extraordinary that she eventually was hired to do the work she loved, and by the time she was forced to leave Berlin, had earned a position of respect and academic stature equal to her male colleagues.
And, though she discovered nuclear fission along with her colleague Otto Hahn, unlike Hahn and others, she refused, though asked on multiple occasions, to have anything to do with the bomb. And when the Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery of fission, only Otto Hahn was chosen as its recipient.
Lise Meitner’s story is not just the story of every culture that has been denigrated by another, but the story of every woman who has been seemingly overlooked, passed over, or forgotten. But no more.