The Abduction of Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner had stayed too long. At the time, however, it didn’t seem that way. Thirty years had earned her the position as the head of the physics department at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, a level of scholarship and respect to which no woman before her had risen.

After all, growing up in Austria in the late 1800s, education was not deemed necessary or important to women past the age of 14. Women did not attend university — the local University of Vienna was in fact closed to women until 1897, when Lisa was already nineteen years old. Whereas the high school curriculum prepared boys to pass the Matura, or college entrance exams, women had no such preparation or entry point.

Lise, determined to enroll in the university, engaged a private tutor to pass the Matura. She passed and matriculated at the University of Vienna in October 1901 and chose physics as her major. She earned her doctorate in physics on February 1, 1906.

Being only the second woman to earn a doctorate in physics from the University of Vienna, there was no professional path toward an academic career for a woman, rendering the job prospects for a woman with a doctorate in physics there meager to nonexistent. Looking for more opportunities, Lise moved to Berlin. There, she audited Max Planck’s physics classes, whose work on quantum theory would later earn him the 1918 Nobel Prize in physics. She was also able to find work with Professor Heinrich Rubens in his experimental physics lab, where she first met Otto Hahn. Her professional collaboration with Hahn would extend more than thirty years, until the fateful night of July 13, 1928. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Both Meitner and Hahn had been experimenting in the new and burgeoning field of radioactivity, and whereas Hahn needed someone to explain the mathematics and physics, Meitner needed a chemist to prepare the radioactive materials for study.

The one snag in their collaboration was that Emil Fischer, the Nobel prize recipient and Chair of the Chemistry department at the University of Berlin, would not allow women into his laboratory, for fear that they would set their hair on fire. So Otto Hahn setup a lab for Lise in a former carpenter’s shop in the university’s basement. Lise Meitner was finally doing the physics she loved, though in the basement, banned from any other part of the institute. In fact, when she needed to use the bathroom she had to walk to a restaurant down the street. When members of the chemistry department would walk by both Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner together, they would make a point to address him alone, “Good day Herr Hahn.”

The physics department was another matter. She developed close, lifelong friendships among her physics colleagues. She was a frequent guest at Max Planck’s home where many of the greatest physicists of the time congregated, often serenaded by Planck on the piano and Albert Einstein on the violin.

In 1912 Otto Hahn was offered a professorship of radioactivity at the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin, and asked Lise Meitner to join him, though without title or salary. Max Planck, probably in an effort to give her equal footing, hired Lise as his assistant, making her the first woman assistant in Berlin, the first rung on the academic ladder which had, up until that point, been closed to women. Because of this promotion, Meitner was able to not only join Hahn at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, but to do so at a salaried position similar to Hahn’s. At the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, or KWI for short, Meitner and Hahn would collaborate for another 26 years.

Meitner and Hahn, as Ernest Rutherford was doing in England, Irene Joliet-Curie in France and Enrico Fermi in Italy, were using radioactivity to discover new elements on the Periodic Table right and left. The process would go as follows. They would fire alpha particles at a radioactive source such as uranium, and identify the elements produced. Elements on the modern Periodic Table are ordered according to the number of protons in their nuclei. Hydrogen, the first element on the periodic table, has one proton, helium has two, lithium has three and so on. The current periodic table goes all the way up to element 118. However, in the early nineteenth century, before the discovery of the proton and the nucleus, elements were arranged according to their atomic mass. Any one element on the Periodic Table may have two or more different masses, because the mass of an element is not just determined by the number of protons in its nucleus but also the number of neutrons, another subatomic particle that had yet to be discovered. Atoms of the same element with different masses are called isotopes. When different isotopes were bombarded with alpha particles, they yielded different decay products. Every time a new decay product was discovered, scientists assumed that it came from a different precursor. They would name these precursors, which were as yet undiscovered, eka-aluminum, eka-actinium, eka-bismuth, and so on, meaning that they were the parent elements of aluminum, actinium and bismuth, respectively. For a time, they believed these precursors to be transuranium elements, in other words, elements on the Periodic Table with greater atomic numbers than uranium, all of which are human-made.

Once the proton and neutron were discovered, however, most of these newly discovered transuranium elements turned out to be isotopes of previously discovered elements. In other words, they were the same element, but had different numbers of neutrons and therefore different masses. One such discovery that proved to be a new element was the suburanium element protactinium, discovered by Meitner and Hahn in 1917, named for being the radioactive precursor of actinium.

After the first World War, Meitner was promoted to full professorship, and as such, created the physics department under her direction at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. After proving the sequence of radioactive decay, she was promoted to adjunct professor, becoming the first female university physics professor in Germany. Lise Meitner was one of the most prominent physicists of the time, despite being female. For being a woman, and being born Jewish, she would pay a dear price.

Meitner and Hahn saw the success that Enrico Fermi of Italy was having bombarding atoms with neutrons, rather than alpha particles. Neutrons are neutral subatomic particles. They have no charge. Alpha particles, on the other hand, have positive charges. When bombarding atoms with alpha particles, there was always a degree of repulsion between the positively charged alpha particle and the positively charged nucleus of the atom. When Lise and Otto followed suit, and used neutrons in place of alpha particles, they would discover something no one had discovered before.

Albert Einstein was in California in 1933 when Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of the German Reich. Though the Third Reich wanted to make an example of Einstein and strip him of his academic status, Einstein saw the writing on the wall and never returned to Germany. On April 7 of the same year, non-Aryans, defined as people with at least one Jewish grandparent, were to be purged from universities and governmental agencies. Lise filled out the required paperwork declaring her Jewish ancestry but convinced herself this would not affect her. After all, she was an Austrian, not a German.

Even when her professorship was revoked on September 6, 1933, she remained in Berlin, still able to continue on with her research. What would cause anyone to stay under such circumstances? For Lise, it was her love of Berlin, her passion for her research at the physics institute, and the physics colleagues with whom she surrounded herself, that convinced her to stay. She was at the top of her field, doing what she loved. That was enough. Besides, where else would a female physicist be welcomed?

The Nazis and their followers scoffed at intellectuals and scientists, and few remaining scientists were willing to stand up for the others, threatening their own fragile positions. A handful, however, did. Fritz Haber, the German-Jewish chemist who developed the self-named Haber process for preparing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen gas, generating the very explosives that fueled Germany’s military might during World War I, resigned as head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute rather than fire the Jews under him.

Other outspoken critics of the Nazi regine were Max von Laue, recipient of the Nobel prize in Physics for his discovery of x-ray diffraction in crystals, and Fritz Strassman, Hahn’s assistant. Strassman’s refusal to declare allegiance to the Nazi party rendered him unemployable in both academia and industry, though he was still able to keep his position at Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, on a much-reduced salary inadequate to meet even his basic nutritional needs. Outside of Germany, Ernest Rutherford in England, who, through his radioactivity work discovered the atomic nucleus, and Niels Bohr in in Denmark took upon the task of siphoning Jewish scientists out of Germany.

The positions vacated by these Jewish scientists were rapidly filled with German nationalists. "It appeared that the vacuum created by the dismissals would soon be filled by mediocre people whose scientific talents were not nearly as strong as their party loyalty," wrote Ruth Lewis Sime in her biography Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics.

While the surrendered Germans after the war in their revisionist history invoked moral superiority in their failure to develop the atomic bomb, it was more likely the “cleaning house” of their German-Jewish intellectuals that precipitated their defeat. Whereas Jews comprised only 1% of Germany’s population, they made up 20% of Germany’s science professorships in general, and 25% of the physics professors in particular.

The scientists remaining in Germany made an unwritten compromise with the Third Reich, declaring their unwavering allegiance in exchange for the ability to continue their scientific research virtually unfettered. It was a deal with the devil that Meitner realized only in retrospect.

On March 12, 1938, German troops crossed over the Austrian border to welcoming cheers and adulation. In one instant, Lise’s veil of protection, her Austrian citizenship, disappeared. Otto Hahn, concerned both for her and his standing at the institute, sought the advice of Heinrich Horlein, overseeing treasurer of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, returning with the advice that Lise needed to leave the institute immediately, never to return. Scientists outside of Germany, realizing Lise’s desperate position, sent letters requesting her lectureship abroad, a pretense to get out her out of the country.

In the United States, James Franck submitted an affidavit pledging to support her if she emigrated there, but to Lise, the U.S. was too far and too foreign. Closer to her was her nephew Otto Robert Frisch, who invited her to Copenhagen, the homeland of Niels Bohr. Lise accepted the Copenhagen offer, but the Danish consulate refused to issue her a travel visa without a German passport, as the Anschluss invalidated her Austrian passport . As Lise was compelled to maintain all semblances of her routine so as not to alert the authorities of her plans to escape, applying for a German passport was out of the question. In fact, she was so secretive about her plans that she limited her correspondence about these matters to human intermediaries, rather than risk the interception of written communications.

Without travel papers, it was nearly impossible to get Lise out. And besides, as the United States and Europe had been absorbing German refugee scientists over the last five years, they had already reached their saturation point.

Carl Bosch used his elevated status to write to the minister of the interior Wilhelm Frick asking permission to allow Lise to leave the country. After which, there was nothing he or Lise could do but wait for a response. Dirk Coster wrote to her from the Netherlands urging her to join his family for the summer, another pretense to get her out of the country. So did Paul Scherrer, asking her to lecture in Switzerland. But without travel papers, Lise could go nowhere.

Niels Bohr was alarmed enough after personally visiting with Lise in Germany, that he wrote to physicists across Europe to find or make a position for her — anything. In Scandinavia, university positions were closed to foreigners, but laboratory space was abundant. Lise could do research there, and Kirk Coster in Groningen and Adriaan Fokker in Haarlem sought donations from local scientists to provide Lise with some funds, albeit minimal.

On June 16, Bosch received his response:

I may most humbly tell you, in response to your letter of the twentieth of last month, that political considerations are in effect that prevent the issuance of a passport to Frau Prof. Meitner to travel abroad. It is considered undesirable that well-known Jews leave Germany to travel abroad where they appear to be representatives of German science, or with their names and their corresponding experience might even demonstrate their inner attitude against Germany. (Wilhelm Frick to Carl Bosch, June 16, 1938).

Still with no job to go to, and now forbidden to leave the country, the cards were stacking up against Meitner. Would that she had left Germany  5 years earlier, as many of her colleagues had. Further, the unintended consequence of Bosch’s requesting a passport for Lise was that she was now on their radar.

Luckily, offers started to crawl in. Coster and Fokker finally managed to gather enough donations to procure her living expenses for a year, but it certainly wasn’t enough, and very temporary. Lise was also offered a position at Manne Siegbahn’s new institute in Stockholm, part of the Royal Academy of Sciences. Lise accepted the latter, procured traveling papers from the Swedish consulate and arranged with her lawyer to transfer her bank account and ship her possessions after she had left. Coster and Fokker went back to their donors with the news that they wouldn’t be needing their money after all.

A day or two later, however, Bohr wrote to Fokker that the Swedish offer was not a done deal.

Meanwhile, on July 4, 1938 Carl Bosch found out that Germany’s borders were going to be closed imminently. Lise had to leave now if she were going to leave at all. Without confirmation from Sweden, she would take the position in Groningen after all.

Coster received the communication on Saturday July 9, 1938 and cryptically telegraphed back: “I am coming to look over the assistant [referring to Meitner] and if he suits me I will take him back with me.”

Meanwhile, Coster had not yet received permission for Meitner to enter Holland. It was urgent that she leave Germany imminently, but the Swedish offer was in flux and Holland had not agreed to accept her. They could do nothing that weekend but wait.

Fortunately, on Monday July 11, 1938, Meitner received word that Holland would admit her. Still, she had not heard from Coster. He was supposed to be in Berlin already. Was he on his way? Was he coming at all? Fortunately, Coster arrived late Monday evening, and planned on smuggling Meitner out of the country the next day on a lightly-traveled train route that crossed the border at Nieuwe Schans.

We agreed on a code-telegram in which we would be let known whether the journey ended in success or failure. The danger consisted in the SS’s repeated passport control of trains crossing the frontier. People trying to leave Germany were always being arrested on the train and brought back… We were shaking with fear whether she would get through or not. - Otto Hahn wrote in his autobiography, My Life.

The next day, Tuesday, July 13, 1938, Lise Meitner went to work at the institute as usual. She worked until 8 o’clock that night, correcting a paper that one of her young associates was preparing for submission. Otto Hahn went home with her, helping her pack a few of her belongings. While they were saying their goodbyes, Hahn slipped her his mother’s diamond ring. “Keep this. You may need it.”

She said goodbye to no one else, her excursion that night cloaked in utmost secrecy.

Paul Rosbaud drove her to the train station. A scientific publisher who had successfully relocated his own Jewish wife and daughter to England, Paul served as an Allied spy, using his influential position in the scientific community to gather German scientific intelligence. Though he would help many Jewish families escape Germany, Lise Meitner’s would be his most famous. As they drove closer to the train station, Meitner, consumed with the fear of being caught, and the regret of leaving the only life she had known, begged Paul to take her back, to no avail.

Kirk Coster was already on the train when Lise boarded. They greeted each other as if by chance. The train ride was pleasant enough, but with all her belongings reduced to two suitcases, and her destination unconfirmed, Lise was palpably upset. That upset quickly changed to heart-pounding fear, as Lise’s train approached the Dutch border. Would she be arrested? Or worse? Coster quietly took possession of the diamond ring, just in case. They crossed without incident.

Once in Groningen, Coster telegrammed Hahn that the “baby” had arrived, to which Hahn replied, “Heartiest congratulations. I was of course very happy about the news, as we were somewhat worried lately.” The worry about which he wrote was that the chemist Kurt Hess, Meitner’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute adversary, had alerted the authorities that she was about to run. Few knew how narrowly Lise had escaped.

Coster was congratulated by scientists around the world. One telegram from Linus Pauling read:

“You have made yourself as famous for the abduction of Lise Meitner as for [the discovery of] Hafnium.”

"I left Germany forever - with 10 marks in my purse," Lise Meitner would later write. And Hahn’s diamond ring.

Over the next few months, she and Hahn maintained their collaboration in writing. He had found barium in the filtrate of their experiments bombarding uranium with neutrons. Lise wrote back that the only way barium could be a decay product was if the uranium nucleus literally split in two. Lise wrote up the radioactive decay pathway that would create barium, and calculated using E = mc2 that 200 MeV of energy would be released as a byproduct. Lise penned the term nuclear fission for this process of splitting the atom.

Ironically, it would be their fission discovery that would lead to the war’s end. Unfortunately, in a German history rewritten to exclude non-Aryans, Lise’s contribution was omitted. Though the Nazis lost the war, their platform of racism and misogyny lingered on a willing world stage… and a complicit Nobel prize committee. After the war, Otto Hahn alone was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in chemistry “for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei."

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