Three pioneering women in science: a story of science, faith, and the power of friendship

Above: The Uddman House in Kungälv where Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch stayed while visiting Eva von Bahr.  It was on this visit that Meitner and Frisch had the breakthrough insight that nuclei can undergo fission and release large amounts of energy. Photograph by Hesekiel.  [Information about photgraph and copyright at huset, Kungälv.jpg]


Three pioneering women in science: a story of science, faith, and the power of friendship

This is the story of the intertwined personal and professional lives of three pioneering women of science, Lise Meitner, Elisabeth Schiemann, and Eva von Bahr, who lived in a time of great upheaval, marked both by great scientific triumphs and by the human disasters of the Nazi regime and two World Wars.

It is the story of their scientific contributions, their spiritual journeys, and their friendship that spanned fifty often-turbulent years.  The story features many of the great names of twentieth century science, including the Nobel laureates Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Otto Hahn, James Franck, Gustav Hertz, and Max von Laue.  But the center of this story is Lise Meitner, who, although she missed out on the Nobel Prize, was herself a great name in science due to her discoveries in nuclear physics, one of which, the phenomenon of nuclear fission, was a turning point in world history.

Starting their careers and their friendships

Lise Meitner completed her Ph.D. in physics in 1906 in her hometown of Vienna.  In the following year, she went to Berlin to hear the lectures of Max Planck, one of the founders of quantum theory, and would remain there for the next three decades.  When she arrived in Berlin, she met Otto Hahn, a chemist who had just returned from a research position in Canada. The two scientists formed a strong interdisciplinary team, with Hahn as the experimentalist and Meitner as the theorist.  Their first laboratory was in the former woodworking shop of the Institute of Chemistry, but Meitner was not allowed to enter the institute itself until 1909 when the laws changed to allow female students.  Hahn and Meitner quickly discovered several new nuclear isotopes and were able to publish three major articles in 1908 and six more in 1909.  In 1912, Hahn and Meitner moved together to the newly established Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry.  For all these years Meitner’s work was unpaid, but this would change in 1912, when she became an assistant to Max Planck himself.  In 1914, she was offered an attractive position at the University of Prague, which led to her getting a significant increase in salary to keep her in Berlin.

Lise Meitner’s parents were Jewish and had enrolled all their children in the Jewish Community (Israelitische Kultusgemeinde), but provided them with a liberal, largely secular education within a culturally Christian milieu.  In November of 1908, at the age of 30, Lise Meitner was baptized and became a member of the Lutheran church.  Characterizing her conversion as merely a cultural adaptation would oversimplify the matter; it was a deliberate and conscious choice.  The fact that she chose Lutheranism over Catholicism, despite two of her sisters converting to Catholicism earlier that year, suggests that she was influenced by deeply Lutheran colleagues and friends, in particular Max Planck, Otto Hahn, and her friend Elisabeth Schiemann.

Meitner had met Schiemann shortly after arriving in Berlin.  They met on a local train on their way to the university.  Meitner was soon brought into Schiemann’s family circle.

Elisabeth Schiemann was born in Fellin (today Viljandi), a city in Estonia, but their family moved to Berlin shortly afterwards to avoid local conflicts aimed at the German minority in the Baltic states.  As a youth, she taught French for several years, but then began to study science with a special emphasis on botany, first as guest student and later as a regular student when women were admitted to Prussian universities in 1908.  She received her Ph.D. in 1912, her thesis topic being mutations in the mold fungus Aspergillus.

Meitner met the Swedish physicist Eva von Bahr in 1912 at one of the Wednesday Colloquia that were held in the library of the Physics Institute in Berlin.  Von Bahr had become, a few years earlier, the first woman to complete her “habilitation” 1 and receive a “venia docendi” (authorization to teach) in Sweden.  However, upon the death of her mentor Knut Angstrom in 1910, she was only allowed to retain her teaching position on a temporary basis.  Although von Bahr’s dissertation gained international acclaim, it did not enable her to continue her research in Sweden.  So, between 1912 and 1914, she continued her research in Berlin at the Institute of Experimental Physics.  During this brief period of time, she found that the absorption spectrum of hydrogen chloride gas is discrete rather than continuous,2 a result which supported Max Planck’s quantum theory.  Its significance is shown by the fact that von Bahr was the only Swedish researcher mentioned by Niels Bohr in his 1922 Nobel Prize lecture3 on the structure of atoms.  In the autumn of 1913, she was invited to join the research group of James Frank and Gustav Hertz.  However, a few months later she had to return to Sweden to care for her mother, who had suffered a stroke. Although her mother died a few months later, von Bahr was unable to return to Berlin because of the outbreak of the First World War.

World War I: decisive years

Lise Meitner was deeply motivated to serve her country, inspired by Marie Curie and her daughter Irène Curie, who had joined the war efforts as X-ray nurses.  In August 1915, Meitner was deployed to the Eastern Front in Lemberg (now Lviv, Ukraine).  There, she experienced the harrowing reality of war, witnessed the suffering of severely wounded soldiers, the reality of death, and the road to recovery.  She assisted in the operating room and took X-ray images to facilitate diagnoses and surgeries.4 She always deeply admired people who lived charity as a reality of being Christ’s disciple, like the Catholic priest who every evening would visit those patients who might die in the next hours, “giving consolation to all, whether Catholic, Protestant or Jewish.” 5

Meitner would return to Berlin in 1916 and turn her research in a new direction:  looking for the “precursor” of the element Actinium.  In radioactive decay, the nucleus of one element can turn into the nucleus of another element.  In fact, there are “chains” of such decays (such as Thorium-230 to Radium-226 to  Radon-222 to Polonium-218 to Lead-214 to Bismuth-214, etc.), and it was thought that the starting elements of such decay chains included the elements Uranium, Thorium, and Actinium.  However, there was a question about Actinium.  Since even the most stable isotope of Actinium has a half-life of only about 22 years, all Actinium on Earth would have completely decayed away very early in Earth’s history.  Consequently, the Actinium that is now found in rocks cannot be primordial, but must have arisen later in Earth’s history as the result of the radioactive decay of some other, as yet undiscovered, “precursor” element.  It was this postulated precursor element that Meitner and Hahn and their competitors in other laboratories were searching for.

The processes of acquiring laboratory equipment (such as a platinum vessel), obtaining the starting material “pitchblende,” and of separating out, identifying, and “characterizing” the new element were long and difficult and the burden of them lay mostly on Meitner’s shoulders, as Hahn was absent due to the war.  The breakthrough came in the summer of 1917, and on March 16, 1918, Hahn and Meitner submitted their paper6 stating: “We have succeeded in discovering a new radioactive element and demonstrating that it is the mother substance of Actinium. We propose, therefore, the name Protactinium.” Meitner had proved her talent and was now a renowned scientist.

Meanwhile, Eva von Bahr, unable to return to Berlin and facing barriers to securing a position in Sweden — women were not allowed to pursue academic careers as professors there until 1925 — made the difficult decision to leave academia.  She opted to teach mathematics at an adult education college (“folkhögskola”) in Brunnswick, Dalarna, near the Norwegian border. These colleges, originating in Denmark and later spreading to the Nordic countries, had mostly highly motivated students from rural and economically poor backgrounds.  She had fond memories of her time at a folkhögskola in Denmark during her youth. Teaching mathematics and physics had been a consideration for her before her short career in scientific research, and she now embarked on this new path.  Not only did she enjoy teaching, she also met Niklas Bergius, a silent, reserved but highly knowledgeable teacher in humanities whom she married in 1917.  Niklas Bergius was a convert to Catholicism, and even spent some time in a seminary, but left the seminary in 1908 because of the strict rules against theological Modernism, since he did not accept any intellectual restriction in his philosophical studies.  He became distant to his faith. In the autumn of 1918, the college in Brunnsvik temporarily closed its doors due to severe food shortages in the area, and the couple moved to Denmark. Here they got acquainted with the Jesuits, which was a life-changing experience for both of them. Niklas returned to the sacraments, and Eva, who considered herself an atheist, started a journey that would lead her to embrace the Catholic faith in 1930.

Elisabeth Schiemann, meanwhile, had started work in 1914 as senior assistant at the Institute for Genetics of the Agricultural University of Berlin. Her tasks were to build and maintain the Institute’s collection of crop plants, maintain the library, and conduct the undergraduate training in plant breeding. At the time, botanists had to address two new findings: the rediscovery of Mendel’s rules and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and both fields influenced her future research.  With her research on the crossbreeding of winter and spring barley (Hordeum sp.), and the history and geography of different barley species, she received her “venia docendi” in 1924.

The decade after World War I

Although defeat, poverty, diseases and famine characterized Germany and Austria at the end of World War I, in both countries democracies were established and science thrived.

Lise Meitner became head of her own radiophysics department at the Institute of Chemistry in 1918.  After the discovery of Protactinium, she had turned her interest to beta-ray spectra of radioactive substances.  In 1922, she received her habilitation, and was appointed associate professor in 1926.  Her career progressed steadily over the next few years.  Physics brought joy and meaning to her life and she was surrounded with friends and colleagues.  Albert Einstein called her “our Madame Curie” and nuclear physicists everywhere valued her expertise.

Her friend Elisabeth Schiemann conducted her research on the geography and history of crop plants, taking up the 1926 idea of Nikolaj Vavilov that the “center of origin” of a crop plant was the place where one found the most genetic diversity compared to the original variety or species.  In the case of wheat (Triticum), the earliest findings and the highest variety are present in Egypt, the Middle East, and Ethiopia.  Schiemann also started crossbreeding experiments on different species of strawberries (Fragaria), a work she tried to maintain even in the difficult years of World War II.  In 1928, Erwin Baur established the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Breeding Research in Müncheberg near Berlin, and this seemed to present an opportunity for Schiemann, but in 1929 she broke with Baur.  The reasons are not entirely clear, but we can pinpoint two events: Schiemann had been promised to lead her own department for the history of crops in Müncheberg, but Baur hesitated and decided otherwise.  And in Baur’s institute in Dahlem, his successor became Hans Kappert, at that time a not well-known scientist and nine years Schiemann’s junior.  She felt treated unjustly, and injustice was the one thing she could not tolerate, as she would prove later in her resistance to the Nazi regime.  But she was not a person to nurse resentments and Baur and Schiemann reconciled in 1933.  Schiemann came to appreciate Kappert’s expertise and acknowledged this in an encomium she wrote on his 60th birthday in 1950,7 Leaving a secure position, she became a visiting research fellow at the Botanical Museum in Berlin-Dahlem.  In 1932, she established herself as expert scientist with her book “Die Entstehung der Kulturpflanzen” (“Origin of Cultivated Plants”).  The focus of her work shifted from the experimental-genetic aspects to the more descriptive field of the history of crops and she devoted herself to questions of plant systematics.  Her financial situation would remain precarious until 1945.

In Sweden, Eva von Bahr-Bergius had set on the path to conversion.8 She had a clear longing for God, who was drawing her into the Catholic Church, mainly through the silence and beauty found in holy Mass and the Eucharist, but also through the dogmas and the essence of the Catholic Church.  Her analytical and scientific mind focused on intellectual truth.  She took her time on reflection, reading and writing.  She was received into the Catholic Church on February 22,  1930, twelve years after starting her journey to faith.  In the first half of the 20th century in Sweden, Catholics were not only a small minority, but were also still discriminated against in law, and society at large was unfriendly and even hostile to Catholicism.  Eva von Bahr did not shy away from challenges and wrote her conversion story in 1933,9 a journey from formal Lutheranism to atheism in her years at university and further on to her return to Christian faith by embracing Catholicism.  She provided a review of theological and existential reflections on texts she had read and key events in her life.  She stated that the purpose of her conversion story was to describe her path to Christian faith and why this path ultimately led her to the Catholic Church.  It was her initial intention only to clarify her own thoughts by answering a friend in writing, but she decided to publish it in order to inspire others seeking for the truth.  It was originally written for a small audience who had friendly attitudes toward the Catholic Church.  But once it was published widely, it quickly attracted harsh criticism, to which she responded with a postscript to her book, published in 1934.  Here she took more liberty in sharpening the defense of the Catholic Church and of her own decision to join it.

Under the Nazi yoke

In Germany, the National Socialist (Nazi) Party came to power in early 1933, and almost immediately promulgated a law discharging all government employees of “non-Aryan descent,” including university faculty. The major exemption, for the time being, was for veterans of World War I.  This had immediate repercussions to Lise Meitner’s friends and colleagues.  The Nobel laureate James Franck resigned on April 17, 1933, saying that “we Germans of Jewish descent are being treated as aliens and enemies of the Fatherland.”10 Fritz Haber received the order to dismiss Jews in his institute and answered by submitting his own resignation: “My tradition requires of me that in my scientific position I select my collaborators on the basis of their professional qualities and their character, without questioning their racial condition.” 11 Meitner’s nephew Otto Robert Frisch had been in Hamburg since 1930, working in the institute of Otto Stern, but in 1933 Stern and most of his collaborators, including Frisch, were dismissed.  Frisch went first to London and then to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Many more stories could be added, since 15 – 20% of German university employees in sciences had Jewish ancestry.  In the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in Berlin alone, 55 employees were dismissed in 1933 and the following years.12 Lise Meitner herself had her teaching license and title revoked in September of that year, but was relatively safe, given her Austrian citizenship.  She was 55 years old, far away from any thought of retirement, but also hesitant to emigrate and start something new.  She continued her research at her institute, and could count on the support of Max Planck, Max von Laue, and Otto Hahn. Despite the rise of antisemitic sentiments and actions in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, she was respected as a scientist and continued her work.  She initiated a joint research project with Hahn in 1934.  Together they set out to investigate “transuranic elements”, elements beyond Uranium, i.e. with an atomic number greater than 92, a research field that Enrico Fermi had started by bombarding Uranium with neutrons.  Their research, however, would lead them on a different path and to a breath-taking and epoch-making discovery.

The rise to power of the Nazi regime affected each and every institution.  The Lutheran church was divided on the question of anti-Semitism.  The Nazi regime wanted them to implement the measure to dismiss persons with Jewish ancestry.  While a majority accepted this, the so-called “Confessing Church” — around Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller — was adamant in their protection of fellow Protestants with Jewish ancestry, but had an unclear or indifferent stance towards non-Christian Jews.  Elisabeth Schiemann felt deep concern for the integrity of the faith that both pastors and lay people had a duty to guard.  She joined the Confessing Church in 1934 and encouraged their leaders to take action to protect not only baptized Jewish people, but also those who had remained in their Jewish faith.  She saw with remarkable clarity that the pseudo-scientific arguments being used to promote the German “pure race” theory were corrupting public opinion and even the Confessing Church. She expressed her deep concern in a letter to pastor Niemöller:

“Dear Pastor! The attack on the deposit of faith that both you and I […] have to guard has come from biology! Biological knowledge gained through careful and responsible work has often been falsified by dilettantes and then turned into the pillars of doctrinal buildings that must collapse because these pillars are rotten. We geneticists have a somewhat difficult time against this flood of conceptually misleading dilettantism that is being poured out on our people.” 13

She then proposed implementing courses on biology in the continuing education of Protestant pastors and later taught these courses herself.  She went to church services in the St. Annen-Kirche, the same church that Lise Meitner attended. Schiemann was also active in the circle around Anna von Gierke who organized lectures on religion, politics, and history and held Bible study groups, and later helped Jewish people to find hiding places and obtain food stamps while also assisting them to escape from Germany.

Meitner’s escape from Germany

On March 12, 1938, Germany annexed Austria, rendering all Austrian passports invalid.  Concerns escalated within her circle of friends and the local and international scientific community.  Despite receiving invitations, including one from Niels Bohr in Denmark and a one-year position in the new Institute for Radioactivity in Sweden, she found herself unable to secure a visa.  The annexation left her trapped, as she was no longer permitted to leave Germany.  In the following months many letters were sent to find a position and funding in Holland and Sweden, a difficult task in countries with an already high number of refugee scientists.  In Germany, the highest echelons of the Nazi regime were aware of Meitner’s case: they were planning her dismissal from the research institute and intending to confine her within Germany.14

On July 12, 1938, Meitner was informed by her colleague Otto Hahn of an escape plan. She was instructed to continue her daily routine at the institute, pack two small suitcases at home, and meet her Dutch colleague Coster the next morning for a train journey to the Netherlands. Hahn gave her a diamond ring from his mother for emergencies.  The Dutch border authorities were informed in advance.  On July 13, she crossed the German-Dutch border without scrutiny from German officers.  The same day, a telegram to Berlin was sent: “The child has arrived,” to the relief of Otto Hahn and those knowing the case.  The details of her escape were kept confidential, with a fabricated narrative suggesting she had gone to Austria for a summer vacation.  Unable to remain in the Netherlands or Denmark, she received an immigration offer and a position in Sweden, facilitated by Eva von Bahr, who — in close contact with Niels Bohr — played a crucial role in organizing the relocation.  Elisabeth Schiemann, however, remained unaware of Meitner’s whereabouts for several weeks until receiving news directly from her.

Arriving in Sweden in August, Meitner spent a short summer vacation with Eva von Bahr and her husband and then took her research position at the Nobel Prize Institute in Stockholm.  For Lise Meitner’s 60th birthday on November 7, Elisabeth Schiemann sent her friend photos and a chronology of events in their friendship of 30 years. She wrote:

“The treasures that you have hidden within you and which have only grown through giving will not remain barren, they will come out one way or another and help you for the new beginning, which is difficult, like everything; but later, in retrospect, such a waiting period will look small again.” 15

Meanwhile in Germany, the Nazi party ramped up the persecution and forced emigration of Jews. When a young Polish Jewish refugee in Paris learned that his family would also be deported, he took a revolver and fatally wounded Ernst von Rath, a leading member in the German embassy.  Retaliation followed on the spot: in the night of November 9, 1938, Jewish property and Jewish-owned shops were vandalized, synagogues were burnt, Jews were killed or put in prisons. Shattered glass everywhere — this night is remembered in history as “Kristallnacht”, the “night of shattered glass.”

A turning point in history

Lise Meitner felt hopeless and helpless. She had hoped to spend the Christmas holidays in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr’s family, friends and with her nephew Otto Frisch, but she now learned that she would not receive a visa.  Eva von Bahr received the news, and immediately invited Meitner and Otto Frisch to her home in Kungälv.16 During these days in Kungälv, science history — and world history — was written: On December 19, 1938, Lise Meitner received a letter from Otto Hahn telling her that he and Fritz Strassmann, by bombarding Uranium with neutrons, had results they could not explain. They had decided they would at first tell only Meitner and ask her whether she could come up with a solution to the mystery.  They had used chemical processes involving Barium to separate and identify the various elements that resulted from the nuclear experiment.  In the jargon of chemistry, they had used Barium to precipitate and isolate different chemical “fractions.”  But initially they had only looked at the filtrates not the precipitates; once they did, they realized that some of the radioactivity they saw was connected to Barium itself, suggesting that radioactive isotopes of Barium had somehow been produced by the nuclear processes. But this seemed impossible given that Barium nuclei are only about half the size of Uranium nuclei, and so could not come from Uranium through any of the kinds of radioactive decay that were then known about (i.e. “alpha decay”, “beta decay”, or “gamma decay”).

Meitner knew the expertise of Hahn and Strassmann well enough, and did not question their findings, but was puzzled too and wanted to discuss these results with Otto Frisch when they met for Christmas.  They went on a long walk and got immersed in conversation.  They began their consideration of the problem using the so-called “liquid drop model” of nuclei, which treats nuclei as drops of an incompressible fluid of very high density.  Meitner proposed that a Uranium nucleus, when hit by a neutron, might become elongated, then start to pinch in the middle, and finally split into two smaller nuclei, in this case the nuclei of Barium and Krypton. (Uranium has atomic number of 92, Barium of 56 and krypton of 36.)  Since Krypton is a noble gas, it would have escaped detection in Hahn and Strassmann’s experiment, while the Barium would be detected.

Meitner and Frisch concluded that it was an interplay play of forces: The Uranium nucleus, held together by nuclear force, can be deformed and destabilized when hit by a neutron, resulting in electrical repulsion temporarily overcoming the nuclear-force attraction to break the deformed Uranium nucleus  into two smaller nuclei, each of which would be held together by the nuclear force.  Using two methods of calculation — the first based on the electrical repulsion of the two nuclei formed in the process, the second based on Einstein’s famous formula E=mc2 — they concluded that the process would release enormous energy: 200 million electron-Volts for every Uranium-235 nucleus that was split.  Could they know that this nuclear power would be used in building the first atomic bombs in less than seven years?

Results on the chemistry were published in January of 1939 in the journal Naturwissenschaften17 by Hahn and Strassmann, and on the new nuclear physics process, called “nuclear fission”, in March of 1939 in the journal Nature18 by Meitner and Frisch.  Within a few weeks a large number of laboratories had verified the findings, and nuclear fission was written into science history.

Meanwhile, another historical event was unfolding: on September 1, 1939, World War II started with the German invasion of Poland.

In the grip of World War II

Lise Meitner’s first years in Sweden were difficult.  She grappled with learning a new language and adapting to a different cultural environment.  Her belongings remained stranded in Berlin and when they finally arrived, some items were damaged or missing.  However, the most formidable obstacles came from her professional situation.  She received her salary directly from the Nobel Foundation and was given a modest office and an inadequately equipped laboratory at Manne Siegbahn’s newly established Institute.  Siegbahn considered her a burden from the start.  He regarded her more as a competitor than a colleague.  And her requests for a budget, apparatus, and an assistant quickly resulted in a strained relationship.  Lise Meitner felt unwelcome, isolated, unappreciated, and lonely.  Her situation would only change in 1945.

Lise was also concerned for family and friends: her brother-in-law Justinian Frisch was detained in Dachau but released in 1939, and he and his wife (Lise’s sister Auguste) were able to escape from Vienna to Stockholm, where they remained until 1948, when they would join their son in England.  Lise was able to help the physicist Hedwig Kohn to emigrate to Sweden and later to the U.S. In other cases, however, she remained unsuccessful.

Even if her Christian faith did not provide Meitner with much consolation in this time of trial, the Lutheran Church was her spiritual home.  She had been a member in the St.-Annenkirche in Berlin Dahlem, and became a member of the Lutheran community in Engelbrechtskyrkan in Stockholm.  Meitner always felt uncomfortable when confronted with dogmatic concepts — especially by Catholics, such as Eva von Bahr or her own sister Carola.  She was “thoroughly Lutheran,”19 as Eva von Bahr told her probably more than once.  Lise Meitner was a woman sincerely searching for truth.  She acknowledged that some bible verses accompanied her throughout her life.

Meitner had a deep respect for life: physics and chemistry “cannot tell us what ‘life’ means, and I am referring not only to the complexity of human life but the simplest living organism. In front of this, we can only stand in awe and respect, in the same way as when seeing a wonderful landscape or when listening to a beautiful piece of music — is this not also a part of being religious?” 20  In 1942, she wrote that when first encountering Albert Schweitzer’s view that religion meant respect for all life forms, even the smallest animal, it seemed to her “shallow and cheap,” but that now she recognized that this respect contained a deep insight. “If respect for the miracle of life were deeper,” she exclaimed, “world history would look very different!” 21

On April 9, 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway.  On this day, Lise Meitner was with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen — once again trapped!  She had at last received a visa and wanted to use the cyclotron in Bohr’s laboratory to finally investigate “transuranic elements.”  She remained a few more days in Copenhagen, but then decided to leave without results.  Her fear that the plane back to Stockholm could be accidentally or forcefully stopped in occupied territory did not materialize.  Given her refugee status, though, reentry into Sweden was complicated.  Unnecessarily though, since unbeknownst to her the Swedish embassy in Denmark had already prepared papers for her, upon specific request from Stockholm.22 Seven weeks later, a new element, with atomic number 93, was created by colleagues in California and named Neptunium.  Over the following decades, many other transuranic elements have been discovered — in 1982, the element with atomic number 109 was synthesized and called Meitnerium in her honor.

In the first year of war, family concerns prevailed in Eva von Bahr’s life: her elder sister, Hedvig Alexanderson, who lived with her family in Stockholm, and who also was a good friend of Lise Meitner, was diagnosed with cancer, and underwent painful X-ray treatments, without success, and died in early January 1941. (Hedvig’s granddaughter would later write a biography of Lise Meitner and Eva von Bahr.23)  Eva’s husband Niklas had isolated himself for years in his own world, but the war and political developments in Europe spurred him to action: he traveled to Gothenburg to participate in work and protest meetings, and Eva accompanied him.  She also became active in the Swedish humanitarian organization Svenska Norgehjälpen (Swedish Support of Norway).

The threat that Germany could also invade Sweden was on everyone’s mind.  Would her friend Lise once again need to flee?  What could happen to her niece Karin whose husband was Jewish and whose three children belonged to the Jewish community?  Like many others, Eva von Bahr had already started planning for what could be done in a situation of danger.  Meanwhile, Lise Meitner had tried her best, but in vain, to help her colleague and friend Stefan Meyer to get out of Vienna, as she told Eva von Bahr in March of 1942.  In the same letter, Meitner thanked von Bahr: “your friendship with me is truly one of the best things that has happened in my life. Therefore, I cannot thank you with words, but can only convey to you the feelings of my heart.” 24

In 1943, the tide of the war turned, to the relief of many.  The geographical distance between Stockholm and Kungälv made meetings difficult, but Eva von Bahr and Lise Meitner wrote letters and talked on the phone from time to time. In the late years of war, and up to 1947, von Bahr’s life became more and more quiet and restricted to Kungälv, because her husband became frail and depressed.

Meanwhile, Elisabeth Schiemann lived in Berlin and had the full experience of food scarcity and air raids and learned of many tragic life stories among her own family, friends and acquaintances: sons or fathers lost in war, mothers dying from disease, people persecuted, deported or committing suicide to avoid deportation, people losing their homes.  Her frequent letters to Lise Meitner give us a record.  But they did not tell everything, letters were censored.  When two of her acquaintances, Valerie and Andrea Wolffenstein, were threatened with deportation, she first explored escape routes to Switzerland, but was temporarily arrested at the border; but since the map with the detailed plans was not discovered, she was able to return to Berlin.  Together with her sister Gertrud, she then hid Andrea in her apartment for two months until Valerie and Andrea  found other hiding places and were finally able to leave Berlin.  They survived the war and it was their testimony that led to Elisabeth Schiemann being posthumously honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” in 2014.

In 1940, following a denunciation and a dispute over the conversion of Schiemann’s associate professorship into an adjunct professorship, her ‘venia legendi’ was revoked in 1940.  The regime considered her politically unreliable. The main reason was her opposition to the new ideological conditions for conferring a doctor’s decree at the University for Agriculture in 1938.  Her own defense to the Ministry of Education in 1940 gives an indication of her rectitude:

“In this statement, I rejected the connection between the doctoral degree and the commitment to an ideology on the grounds that ideologies are not the prerequisite, but the fruit of scientific knowledge in the pursuit of truth, and therefore the pursuit of truth alone should be the highest guideline for scientific work.” 25

Like many other scientists, Schiemann continued to work tirelessly, despite dire working conditions and severe setbacks: the Museum of Botany went up in flames, and her crossbreeding experiments were destroyed more than once in aerial bombardments.

Finally, after 5 long years, the long-awaited end of the war in Europe meant new endeavors for her in reorganizing science in Germany.

Peaceful years

In August 1945, atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  “Mother of the atomic bomb”: this was a fame Lise Meitner never wanted.  She had been invited to collaborate on the Manhattan project, but had emphatically declined. During World War I she had seen enough of war with all its pain.  She had discovered the power of nuclear fission, but she never advocated for its use in warfare.

On November 16, 1945, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that Otto Hahn had been awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his discovery of the fission of heavy atomic nuclei.”  Lise Meitner was left out, although a careful look at the history suggests that this was for other reasons than that she was a woman.  Although she was not present for the final experiments, it was Meitner who had started the project, assembled the team, worked on it for nearly four years, and finally interpreted the results.  She had been nominated 48 times over the years, for the discovery of Protactinium and for nuclear fission, but never received the prize.

Appreciation arrived from elsewhere.  In 1946, Meitner was named “Person of the Year” by the U.S. National Press Club and was a visiting professor of physics at the Catholic University of America that Spring.  In 1949, she received the Max Planck Medal together with Otto Hahn, and in 1966 the Enrico Fermi Prize together with Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann.

In 1946, she moved from Siegbahn’s department to Gudmund Borelius’s physics department at the Royal Institute of Technology, and later to the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences.  Looking back in 1964,26 she could say “that in Sweden too, physics has brought light and fullness into my life,” and specifically thanked Oskar Klein, Sigvard Eklund and Gudmund Borelius.  She remained in Sweden until 1960 when she moved to Cambridge, England, to be close to Otto Frisch, his parents, and other relatives who lived there.  She died in October 1968 at the age of 89.  Engraved on her tombstone are the words that Otto Frisch chose for his aunt: “A physicist who never lost her humanity.”

In 1946, at the age of 65, Elisabeth Schiemann became full professor at the newly opened University in Berlin, a position that she retired from two years later, because of increasing pressure from Communism in the eastern part of Berlin.  She remained as director at the Institute of History of Crop Plants in Berlin-Dahlem, the western part of Germany until 1956.  She was a strong person, austere, and sometimes even harsh. She was described as follows: “A woman with a sharply critical mind and logical thinking made people even more uncomfortable in her time than she would do today.  Especially as she defended her theses clearly and energetically — academically and in her ‘worldview’, i.e. rejecting National Socialism and being a member of the Confessing Church.” 27 She was nominated to be a member of the Max Planck Gesellschaft in 1953 and the Leopoldina in 1956.  In 1959, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, Elisabeth Schiemann was honored with the Darwin Medal by the Leopoldina, being the only female recipient among 18 colleagues.  She died in January 1972.

Eva von Bahr’s husband Niklas would die in 1947.  One of his pupils described him in these words: “Niklas Bergius was a personality whose strong claims to spiritual freedom also later occasionally provoked spiritual crises, but his loyalty to the Church nevertheless did run like a red thread through his life and his actions.”  Eva edited his essays on Catholic saints and helped publish them in the book, “Helgon. Korta biografier.” (“Saints. Short biographies”). The house in Kungälv was too big and too empty for her after his death, and she moved to Uppsala.

A friend from her time in Brunnsvik said when trying “to briefly characterize Eva …, three little words come to mind: clarity, rigor, goodness. […] The last time I saw her in her home in Uppsala, the 86-year-old Eva was sitting surrounded by books and studying an English work on the theory of relativity, full of the mysterious magic signs of differential equations.” 28 Love for science accompanied her thus for all her life!  And since 1930, Eva von Bahr had found her spiritual home in the Catholic Church community.  She died on  ebruary 28, 1962 and was buried at the Catholic cemetery in Stockholm, next to her husband.

Letters among these three women reveal their interest and their concerns for over 50 years.  While their relationships were marked by depth and warmth, they also bore strains.  Lise Meitner accepted, but never understood that Eva von Bahr was willing to give up the dream of a scientific career in 1914. This discord led to a hiatus in communication for nearly a decade, which only ended in 1938 when Elisabeth Schiemann asked Eva von Bahr whether Lise Meitner could be welcomed in Sweden.  Eva von Bahr’s contact with fellow scientists Niels Bohr and the theoretical physicist Carl Wilhelm Oseen in Uppsala helped her to bring Lise Meitner to Sweden.  And her home in Kungälv would later be remembered for the discovery of nuclear fission.

In 1945, when the world learned of all the atrocities that the Nazi regime had committed, Lise Meitner made strong reproaches to her German friends and colleagues, especially Otto Hahn, Max von Laue and Elisabeth Schiemann, that by remaining in their country and their institutions they had contributed to all the temporary success of the Nazi regime; and she did not even make an exception for her own decision to stay in Berlin until 1938.  She expressed her expectation that scientists should officially acknowledge their share in the blame.  Her friends in Berlin, however, having gone through all the misery of the war, had little to no understanding for Meitner’s position: their mind was on overcoming the disastrous years between 1933 and 1945 and in rebuilding their country, which lay in rubble.

The controversy was tough, and letters could do little to abate the conflict.  Meetings could do more. In 1946, Lise Meitner met Otto Hahn in Stockholm, and one year later Elisabeth Schiemann in London. It would take more time to heal on both sides, though. In 1947, Fritz Strassmann, who had become professor in Mainz, proposed to her that she come back to Germany.  She told him that she neither could nor would live in Germany again.  In 1949, the time for finding peace with Germany and her friends had come.  When she was awarded the Max Planck Medal together with Otto Hahn, she wrote to Max von Laue that she was very pleased, in part because of her “love and reverence” for Planck, in part because she regarded as a “very valuable gift every bond that ties me to the old Germany that I loved very much, the Germany to which I can hardly be grateful enough for the crucial years of my scientific development, for the deep pleasure in scientific work and a very dear circle of friends.” 29 A few months later, Nelly Planck, the daughter-in-law of Max Planck — her husband had been executed by the Nazis for being part of the plot to assassinate Hitler on July 20,  1944 — stayed several days with Lise Meitner and they discussed the difficult time in Germany.  She could then write Elisabeth Schiemann: “A long-closed door to the past had suddenly been opened.” 30 And this meant a new future for Lise Meitner and her friends in Germany.

Pioneering women

Eva von Bahr’s scientific career was curtailed by the prevailing restrictive legislation in Sweden and the outbreak of World War I, hindering her return to her research position in Berlin.  But science still remained dear to her: she remained interested in physics, used her contact with fellow scientists to help her friend Lise Meitner, and applied her scientific acumen when discovering the rational foundations of the Catholic faith.  She devoted her life to her family, to teaching, and to her Catholic community.

Elisabeth Schiemann, an authority in crop cultivation history and genetics, navigated a complicated career path. Departing from a secure position due to interpersonal challenges with her superior, she found greater research autonomy. She was dismissed from the position as associate professor due to her staunch opposition to the Nazi regime, thus staying authentic to herself and remaining steadfast in her principles.  Throughout wartime adversities, she persevered in her research amidst destruction wrought by fire and aerial bombardments.  Mainly invisible at the time, she was actively involved in helping her Jewish compatriots.  Being an expert in the field, she was able to contribute to rebuilding science after World War II.  She was an incredibly strong woman, committed to research, integrity, faith, and true care for others, warranting broader recognition beyond German-speaking spheres.

Lise Meitner was a brilliant scientist and a warm and compassionate friend.  She faced exile from Germany in 1938, and lost nearly everything: her friends, her research position and facilities, and her cultural milieu.  Her lasting contribution to science, the discovery of the physics behind nuclear fission came shortly afterwards.  Yes, she did not receive the Nobel Prize, but she gained unwavering appreciation by the scientific community in later years and left an indelible mark in the annals of physics.

Pioneers pave the way into new endeavors, and often encounter serious obstacles.  Lise Meitner, Elisabeth Schiemann and Eva von Bahr were steadfast, courageous and resilient, and committed to those around them.  They are true role models, particularly for women in science.

May we find in our scientific endeavors what Lise Meitner taught us in a lecture at the Austrian UNESCO Commission in 1953: 31

“Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity; it teaches people to accept reality, with wonder and admiration, not to mention the deep joy and awe that the natural order of things brings to the true scientist.”

[Those who wish to read more by Dr. Moritz may go to her blog “Science Meets Faith” and her facebook page of the same name.]



1.. Habilitation is the highest academic degree in many European and non-English-speaking countries and higher than a doctorate. The candidate fulfills a university’s set criteria of excellence in research, teaching, and further education, which usually includes a “second thesis”.

2.. H.M. Randall (1954). “Infrared Spectroscopy at the University of Michigan,” Journal of the Optical Society of America 44(2)97:  “A major advance was made in 1914 when Eva von Bahr showed that the doublet bands of HCl acid gas were definitely serrated.”

3.. Niels Bohr, “The structure of the atom” Nobel. Lecture, December 11, 1922.

4.. Letters of Lise Meitner to Elisabeth Schiemann, Aug 27/30, 1915; Sept 24/26, 1915; Oct 18, 1915; and Dec 22, 1915. In Bande der Freundschaft. Lise Meitner – Elisabeth Schiemann – Kommentierter Briefwechsel 1911-1947, J. Lemmerich (1910), p. 42-55.

5.. Letter of Lise Meitner to Elisabeth Schiemann, Sept 24/26, 1915, ibid.

6.. O. Hahn, L.Meitner, “Die Muttersubstanz des Actinums, ein Neues Radioaktives Element von Langer Lebensdauer”, Physikalische Zeitschrift 19 (1918), pp. 208-218.

7.. Elisabeth Schiemann, “Hans Kappert Zum 60 Geburtstag”, Der Züchter 20(7)(1950), pp.193-194, DOI: 10.1007/BF00709816

8.. The author relied on references in the article by Maria Ekelund, “The art of coming out as a Catholic – A study on the rationalization of the non-rational desire for God in Eva von Bahr-Bergius’s conversion story” (Uppsala, 2007).  [Eva von Bahr would presumably have rejected the term “rationalization” here. Although her conversion story was first initiated by a desire for God manifested in the beauty of Catholic liturgy, her path to full communion with the Catholic Church was an intellectual journey to the rational foundations of Catholicism.]

9.. Eva von Bahr-Bergius, “Min väg tillbaka till kristendomen“ (My Way Back to Christianity) (1933).

12.. R. Rürup, “Forscherinnen und Forscher, die ab 1933 der Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften vertrieben wurden” (Researchers who were expelled from the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Science from 1833 onwards), in Senatsverwaltung Berlin – Bildung für Berlin (2007) Berliner Wissenschaftseinrichtungen in der NS-Zeit.  104 members of the different Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in Germany are listed; 55 is the number of those who were from the institutes in Berlin in the sciences (excluding law) and who suffered racial discrimination (excluding political discrimination).

10.. James Franck, in Göttinger Zeitung, 18 April 1933, reprinted in “Max Born, James Franck: Physiker in ihren Zeit: Der Luxus des Gewissens”, p. 114.  See R.L. Sime, Lise Meitner – A Life in Physics (1997), p. 139.

11.. ibid., p. 142.

12.. R. Rürup, “Forscherinnen und Forscher, die ab 1933 der Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften vertrieben wurden” (Researchers who were expelled from the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Science from 1933 onwards), in Senatsverwaltung Berlin – Bildung für Berlin (2007) Berliner Wissenschaftseinrichtungen in der NS-Zeit.  104 members of the different Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in Germany are listed; 55 is the number of those who were from the institutes in Berlin in the sciences (excluding law) and who suffered racial discrimination (excluding political discrimination).

13.. Letter of Schiemann to Niemöller, July 31, 1935. Underlining in the original.  See Martina Voigt, “Bekenntnis und Widerstand im Nationalsozialismus“, in R. Nürnberg, et al., Elisabeth Schiemann 1881-1972 – Vom Aufbruch der Genetik und der Frauen in den Umbrüchen des 20. Jahrhunderts (Basilisken Presse 2014) p. 321. “Sehr geehrter Herr Pfarrer! Der Einbruch in das Glaubensgut, dass Sie – und ich als evangelischer Christ in gleicher Verantwortung – hüten, ist von der Biologie her geschehen! Biologische Erkenntnisse, die in sorgfältiger und verantwortungsbewusster Arbeit gewonnen sind, sind vielfach von Dilettanten verfälscht und dann zu Grundpfeilern von Lehrgebäuden gemacht worden, die zusammenfallen müssen, weil diese Pfeiler morsch sind. Wir Genetiker haben einen etwas schweren Stand gegen diese Flut von begriffsverwirrendem Dilettantismus, der über unser Volk ausgeschüttet wird.“

14..  On 16 Jue 1938, the Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute received a letter from the Ministry of Interior outlining this plan. See R.L. Sime, “Lise Meitner’s escape from Germany,” American Journal of Physics 58 (3)(1990), DOI: 10.1119/1.16196.

15.. Letter of Elisabeth Schiemann to Lise Meitner, on Nov 3, 1938, in J. Lemmerich, ibid.: “Dreissig Jahre und nochmal 30 Jahre – sie waren doch sehr reich – warum sollen nicht auch die letzten 30 noch mal ihren Reichtum haben. Die Schätze, die Du in Dir geborgen hast und die im Geben ja immer nur größer wurden, werden ja auch nicht brach liegen, werden so oder so herauskommen und Dir für den neuen Anfang helfen, der schwer ist, wie alles; aber später, retrospektiv schrumpft solch eine Wartezeit doch wieder zusammen.“

16.. Eva von Bahr had to solve a small problem: their house had heating only in the living-room and their own rooms, but not in the guest zone. The solution was that the guests would stay in a nearby small hotel. The hotel now has a plaque remembering Lise Meitner’s and Otto Frisch’s stay there in 1938-9.

17.. O. Hahn and F. Strassmann, “Nachweis der Entstehung aktiver Bariumisotope aus Uran und Thorium durch Neutronenbestrahlung; Nachweis weiterer aktiver Bruchstücke bei der Uranspaltung,“ Naturwissenschaften 27 (1939), pp. 89–95.

18.. L. Meitner and O.R. Frisch, “Disintegration of Uranium by Neutrons: a New Type of Nuclear Reaction,” Nature 143 (1939), pp. 239–240.

19.. Letter of Lise Meitner to Max von Laue, Aug 15, 1941.  Ref. in A. Schweighofer, Religiöse Sucher in der Moderne Konvertitinnen und Konvertiten vom Judentum zum Protestantismus in Wien um 1900 (Religious Seekers in Modern Times: converts from Judaism to Protestantism in Vienna around 1900), (2013), p. 273.

20.. Letter of Lise Meitner to Carola Allers, Feb 22, 1955. Ref. in Schweighofer A., ibid., p. 277

21.. Letter of Lise Meitner to Max von Laue, June 2, 1942. Ref. in Schweighofer A., ibid., p. 278

22.. H. Hedqvist, Kärlek och kärnfysik: Lise Meitner, Eva von Bahr och en vänskap som förändrade världen (Love and Nuclear Physics: Lise Meitner and Eva von Bahr, a friendship that changed the world) (2012).  See also: R.L. Sime, “Auswanderung und Exil: Lise Meitner in Schweden 1938-1960“ in L.A. Dahl and J.S. Fure, Skandinavien als Zuflucht für jüdische Intellektuelle 1933-1945.

23.. H. Hedqvist, ibid.

24.. H. Hedqvist, ibid., ch. 17.

25.. Elisabeth Schiemann, letter to REM, April 29, 1940. Sven Kinas “Schiemann und die ‘Säuberung‘ der Berliner Universität 1933 bis 1945“ in R. Nürnberg, et al. (2014), p. 356.  “In dieser Stellungnahme habe ich die Verknüpfung der Erteilung der Doktorwürde mit der Verpflichtung auf eine Weltanschauung mit der Begründung abgelehnt, dass Weltanschauungen nicht die Voraussetzung, sondern die Frucht wissenschaftlicher Erkenntnisse im Streben nach der Wahrheit sind, und deshalb allein das Streben nach der Wahrheit als höchste Richtschnur für die wissenschaftliche Arbeit gelten sollte.“

26.. L. Meitner, “Looking Back”, Bull. Atom. Sci. 20 (1964), pp. 2-7, 170,

27..  Quoted in P. Hillmann, et al. (2014) “Zeitzeugen im Diskurs“ in R. Nürnberg, et al. (2014), p. 496. The quote is of Maria Hopf, who worked with Schiemann between 1951 and 1956: „Eine Frau von scharf kritischem Verstand und logischem Denken war zu ihrer Zeit noch unbequemer als heute. Zumal sie ihre Thesen klar und energisch vertrat – in Wissenschaft wie ‚weltanschaulich‘, d.h. Ablehnung des Nationalsozialismus und Mitglied der bekennenden Kirche.“

28.. JG, (1962) “Eva von Bahr-Bergius in memoriam” in Credo Katolsk Tidskrift 43 (2)(1962), p. 93 (original in Swedish).

29.. Letter of Lise Meitner to Max von Laue, April 25, 1949, in R.L. Sime (1997), ibid., p. 358. See also J. Lemmerich (2010), ibid., p. 355.

30.. Letter of Lise Meitner to Elisabeth Schiemann, Aug 10, 1949, in J. Lemmerich (2010), ibid., p. 356:  “Eine lang verschlossene Tür in die Vergangenheit war plötzlich geöffnet worden.”

31.. Lise Meitner in a lecture, Austrian UNESCO Commission, 30 March 1953, in Atomenergie und Frieden: Lise Meitner und Otto Hahn (1953), p. 23 – 24. Trans. Sime R.L. (1997), p. 375


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