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.