Max Perutz and Meitnerium

Kathryn Aegis (
Wed, 23 Apr 1997 23:39:45 +0000

I had the immense privilege tonight of attending a lecture by Max Perutz
(Nobel Prize, chemistry) celebrating the life and accomplishments of
Lise Meitner, whose work led to the discovery of nuclear fission. It
was refreshing to hear that this female genius was respected and
esteemed by the top physicists and chemists, and the relevant
obscurity of her career had more to do with the disruptions wrought
by the two world wars.

A distinguished audience including friends of Perutz and prominent
members of the scientific community gathered in the elegant main room
of the Chancery of the Embassy of Austria. Somehow the Library of
Congress was persuaded to release their collection of books on
Meitner for the evening. Accompanied by slides of historical photographs,
Perutz provided both an historical overview and his own personal
insights into that turbulent period of history as it was experienced by
the great scientists of the era. He described Lise as a woman who
'combined a brilliant mind with a warm heart, compassion and a sense of

The stories he told reflected the quest for discovery and
pure joy of pursuing the frontiers of the new sciences, and this
positivity infected the audience. Upon the announcement that an
element discovered in 1982 has been named 'Meitnerium', a great round
of applause broke out. When we adjourned for chemical experiments
involving wine, I was able to have a few words with Mr. Perutz, wherein
I found him a friendly and upbeat person. Many thanks to the
Austrians for providing such an informative and entertaining evening.

*A brief summary for those interested:*

Lise Meitner was born into a Viennan Jewish family and was raised in
an intellectual atmosphere. Although official schooling for women
ended at the age of 14, Lise obtained private lessons and eventually
entered the Vienna University, where she studied under Boltzmann.
Moving on to Berlin, where she was to remain for 31 years, she
attended Max Planck's memorable debates with the logical positivists
who declared that atoms simply couldn't exist because they couldn't
be seen. In her first job, she was banned from the chemistry lab and
had to set up working space in a woodshed, because women weren't
allowed in the main lab! This proved only a minor setback as her
work progressed, and the discovery of X-rays led to exciting work in
radioactivity experiments. An hypothesis formulated by Lise,
Frische (sic?) and proven by Hahn's experiments resulted in two papers
that established fission as a reality and led to the infamous
memorandum to the British government detailing how to construct an
atomic bomb.

During World War I, Lise worked as an X-ray nurse on the Eastern
Front, the Italian front, and then the Russian front. Upon her
return to Berlin, she took a university position and began a lifelong
collaboration with Otto Hahn. Just prior to World War II, as the
Nazi laws took effect, Lise was denounced by one of her younger
colleagues. Invitations for safe haven arrived from colleagues around
the world, but she waited too long and became trapped in Berlin. A
group of Dutch physicists organized a complex rescue operation
involving the Dutch border guards, and Lise fled into Holland with
only two suitcases and ten marks. Unable to find work in Holland,
she left for Stockholm just in time to avoid the mass deportation of
Jews. Sadly, she remained stranded for many years in Stockholm
without money, equipment, or trained assistants who spoke her

In 1962 she retired to Cambridge, where Max Perutz met her
and later nominated her for the Ferme Prize. She was awarded the Ferme
Prize two years prior to her death. Although nominated twice for the
Nobel, she did not receive it, first due to confusion over which
committee should judge her work, and secondly due to the immense
communications problems during the WWII. It is somewhat fitting that
the Ferme Prize should be awarded to her, as Ferme used his own Nobel
Prize money to secure escape to the U.S. for himself and his Jewish