The Archivist’s Nook: CUA Scientist Lights Up Her World

Lise Meitner lighting up in this undated photograph from her younger days before she lit the world with nuclear fission. University Photograph Collection, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Austrian born Lise Meitner (1878-1968), a Jewish convert to Christianity and pioneering woman of science, was a renowned physicist who co-discovered nuclear fission. This discovery made nuclear weapons possible although this was not her intention. She worked for decades with Otto Hahn in Germany at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, including the prewar Nazi period, before fleeing to Sweden in 1938 where she worked at Manne Siegbahn’s laboratory. Many consider her the most significant female scientist of the twentieth century and Albert Einstein called her the German ‘Marie Curie.’ What most people do not know is that she also was a visiting professor in 1946 in Washington, D.C. at The Catholic University of America (CUA), where one of her sisters, who had converted to Catholicism, was married to CUA psychology professor, Rudolph Allers.

While Meitner had refused to work with the U.S. Manhattan Project to develop atomic bombs, she nevertheless feared revenge at the hands of Nazi sympathizers following the end of World War II. She wanted to leave Europe for a time to visit the United States. Accordingly, CUA Rector, Rev. Patrick J. McCormick, in a letter dated November 2, 1945¹ appointed her a visiting professor for the spring semester, February through May 1946, and she accepted in a letter dated November 27, 1945.² After her arrival in Washington, she was honored at a reception in Caldwell Hall on February 10, 1946. She gave a press conference the following day in McMahon Hall, where she was introduced by Karl Herzfeld, head of the CUA Physics Department. Meitner stated she was “happy to have the privilege of joining the science faculty of the Catholic University of America….I look forward to my stay in America for the opportunity it affords me to profit by the outstanding scientific results obtained in this great country.”³

National Catholic News Service Press Release, February 12, 1946. Meitner Reference File, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

On the CUA campus, Meitner gave lectures on nuclear physics on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursdays 5:10 to 6:00 and Fridays, 12:00-1:00, plus conducted a weekly nuclear physics seminar. Collecting several honorary degrees, she also toured and lectured at several other universities, including Brown, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and Wellesley. Speaking at Hopkins on March 21, 1946, she urged American women to make an effort to understand women of other countries, saying “women possess a special aptitude for building international understanding. They control the spiritual and ethical education of future citizens, and how they mold minds and character might decide the future of mankind.”⁴ Before leaving America, she received awards from the National Conference of Christians and Jews and as “Woman of the Year” from the National Press Club, including a dinner with President Harry Truman.

Following her American sojourn, Meitner returned to Sweden where she was active at the Swedish Defense Research Establishment (FOA) and the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, participating in research on Sweden’s first nuclear reactor. In 1947, she became a professor at the University College of Stockholm. She became a Swedish citizen and retired in 1960 to England, where she died in 1968. While the Nobel Committee overlooked her contributions to the discovery of nuclear fission and awarded the 1944 prize to her partner Otto Hahn, she received the Max Planck Medal of the German Physics Society in 1949 and shared the Enrico Fermi Award in 1966. Additionally, named in her honor are craters on the Moon and Venus, a main belt asteroid, and Element 109 (Meitnerium), the heaviest known element in the universe.

Invitation to Meitner Reception, February 10, 1946. Rector/President Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

¹ Letter, McCormick to Meitner, November 2, 1945, Rector/President Records, ACUA.

² Letter, Meitner to Cormich (sic), November 27, 1945, Rector/President Records, ACUA.

³ Press release, CUA, February 11, 1946, Meitner Reference File, ACUA.

⁴ Washington Post, March 21, 1946.

 

The Archivist’s Nook: Mother Teresa’s Archival Footprints

Eileen Egan and Mother Teresa, Catholic Relief Services Visit to Leper Families, 1958. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
Eileen Egan and Mother Teresa, Catholic Relief Services Visit to Leper Families, 1958. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

On an October day in 1960, a small, sari-clad woman arrived in Las Vegas. It was her first visit to the United States and first time away from her adopted home in India in over 30 years. A former geography teacher and now head of her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, this unassuming nun known as Mother Teresa had arrived in a city she described as a perpetual light festival, or “Diwali.” While little known outside Kolkata (Calcutta) at the time, Teresa had been invited to address the National Council of Catholic Women annual conference. Sitting at a little booth during the conference, she addressed an endless series of questions about her sari, free service to the poor, and Albanian origins.

Months ahead of her trip, Teresa had written to her colleague, Eileen Egan: “Thank God I have plenty to do – otherwise I would be terrified of that big public. Being an Indian citizen, I will have to get an Indian passport.”¹ This one sentence encapsulates much of the relationship between Egan and Teresa, revealing personal elements of Teresa’s life and work, as well as the more mundane background work it took to continue her mission.

Egan and Teresa, ca. 1970s. Catholic Relief Services was instrumental in aiding and spreading Teresa’s mission and message across the world. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
Egan and Teresa, ca. 1970s. Catholic Relief Services was instrumental in aiding and spreading Teresa’s mission and message across the world. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Egan, a long-time peace activist and employee of Catholic Relief Services, had been a co-worker of this relatively unknown nun for five years at this point. In the 1940s, both Teresa and Egan each experienced a calling to aid those ravaged by poverty, disease, and conflict. While Egan put her organizational and journalistic skills towards refugee relief, Teresa began the initial steps in founding a new religious order devoted to tending the sick, poor, and dying. In 1955, they would meet for the first time in the streets of Kolkata. Out of this initial meeting, the two women would strike up a close association that would endure the following four decades.

Thanks to Egan’s donation, the Archives holds the records of this relationship in the Eileen Egan’s Mother Teresa Collection. Not only did Egan and Teresa correspond regularly, but Egan collected materials related to the life and work of Teresa and her order. Their personal and professional interactions are reflected through hundreds of handwritten letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, and more.

Not only can one glimpse letters discussing administrative duties and spiritual reflection from Teresa, one see the growth of her order and renown as the world became inspired by this quiet sister working in the streets. Among the various highlights are: photographs documenting the first Missionary house to open outside India, in Venezuela in 1965; letters preserved in which Teresa agrees to accept her first honorary degree at Catholic University in 1971; an autographed copy of Teresa’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech; and, letters from Sunday school students across the United States writing to the newly-minted Nobel laureate.

Mother Teresa playing with an abandoned child, Kolkata, 1960. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
Mother Teresa playing with an abandoned child, Kolkata, 1960. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

For a scholar of Teresa and her order, the collection is rich in biographical insights. In addition, the Archives houses a second Mother Teresa collection – the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa in America. This collection, begun by Violet Collins, catalogs the history of the lay American and international volunteers working alongside the Missionaries of Charity. While this collection is less focused on Mother Teresa, it does provide a glimpse into the work of lay people inspired by her example.

Returning to Egan, however, provides further insight into Teresa’s time in Nevada. To calm herself before addressing the crowds gathered at the conference, Teresa requested a trip out into the surrounding desert. Sitting silently next a cactus, Egan reports that the future saint silently meditated until she felt ready to face her audience. Upon completing her contemplation, Teresa did finally collect a souvenir – “a few of the long cactus spines which were easily twined into a crown of thrones. This she took back to Calcutta as a tangible memento of Las Vegas. It was placed on the head of the crucified Christ hanging behind the altar in the novitiate chapel.”²

Those interested in exploring more of the insights Egan or the Co-Workers collections offer into the life of the saint or the work of those she inspired, can contact the Archives by emailing lib-archives@cua.edu.


¹ Eileen Egan, Such a Vision of the Street: Mother Teresa – The Spirit and the Work (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1986) 134.

² Ibid., 137.