Caroline Herschel – 18th Century Astronomer

Caroline Herschel c. 1829 (source)

Caroline Herschel c. 1829 (source)

As a girl, Caroline Herschel’s expectations were limited, but she had a quick mind and the ability to learn. Although most of what Caroline learned would be to benefit and help her brother, she went on to become a brilliant astronomer in her own right, discovering nebulae, star clusters, and eight comets.

Caroline Herschel was born March 16, 1750 in Hanover (now in Germany.) She was the fifth of six children born to Isaac Herschel and Anna Moritzen. Her parents were industrious and hard-working, her mother a housewife and her father a gardener and musician. Her mother saw no need to educate a girl, but Caroline was able to learn the basics of reading and writing, and because of the family talent for music, her father insisted that she learn to play the violin.

Caroline suffered a couple of childhood illnesses that left their mark; smallpox when she was three left her with scars and a damaged left eye; typhus at the age of ten stunted her growth, leaving her with an adult height of 4′ 3″. Her mother showed her little affection and envisioned Caroline as her housekeeper. Her father reminded her frequently that she was unlikely to find a husband because she had no fortune or beauty. She was probably looking at a bleak future.

In 1767, Caroline’s father died and her favorite brother William, who had moved to England, suggested that she come live with him. William’s intention was to make his living as a musician and to study astronomy, and he wanted Caroline to come keep his house. At first her mother refused to give up the work that Caroline did for her, but she agreed when William promised to send her the money to get a maid to make up for Caroline’s absence. So in 1772 at the age of 22, Caroline returned with her brother to England.

Telescope made for Caroline by William in 1795 (Photo: Wikipedia user Geni, source)

Telescope made for Caroline by William in 1795 (Photo: Wikipedia user Geni, source)

Even though she still kept house, Caroline’s life was completely different with her brother. She studied math for the first time, so that she could keep his household accounts. William gave her voice lessons and she learned to play the harpsichord so that she could accompany him. Soon she became well-known for her singing and began to get engagements for solos, although she refused if William couldn’t be the conductor. William also insisted that she take lessons in dancing and how to conduct herself in society. She thought many of the people she met in society shallow, but the lessons would serve her well because she and William soon came to the attention of King George III for their work in astronomy.

William’s astronomy work began to take up more and more of his time. Displeased with the telescopes available he began to build his own and was soon selling them to others. Caroline and their brother Alexander ground by hand the mirrors needed for the telescopes, and Caroline did William’s calculations, carefully cataloging his observations in the night sky.

On March 13, 1781, William spotted what he thought was a new comet, but after careful observation realized that it was a planet. His discovery of the planet Uranus brought him to the attention of the King. The next year William was made the official astronomer of King George III and received a pension of £200. Caroline was no longer just a helper, but an apprentice and would soon be credited with her own discoveries. This also brought with it more visibility in society and with the royal family. William and Caroline were often invited to Windsor, and Caroline got to know the princesses Sophia and Amelia as she patiently answered their questions about the stars.

Caroline never wanted to outshine her brother, but in 1783 while he was away she discovered 3 nebulae. Then on August 1, 1786, she discovered her first comet. This discovery brought her to the attention of the scientific community and The King gave her a small salary for her work as William’s assistant. It was only £50, but she wrote in her diary that it was the first money she had ever received that she felt she could spend on whatever she wished.

Sir William Herschel c. 1805 by James Sharples (source)

Sir William Herschel c. 1805 by James Sharples (source)

Around this time William got married and Caroline began doing more work on her own. Between 1788 and 1797, she discovered seven more comets and began work on revising Flamsteed’s star catalog. She verified the information, made corrections, and added 560 stars that she and William had observed. She submitted this catalog to The Royal Society for publication. But her most impressive and recognized work was The Reduction and Arrangement in the Form of Catalogue, in Zones, of All the Star-Clusters and Nebula Observed by Sir William Herschel in His Sweeps. For this work, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded her a Gold Medal calling it “a work of immense labor” and “an extraordinary monument to the unextinguished ardor of a lady of seventy-five in the cause of abstract science.”

The medal from the Royal Astronomical Society was awarded to her in 1828, six years after William’s death and after she had returned to Hanover. She also received medals from the King of Denmark and the King of Prussia, and in 1835, the Royal Astronomical Society bestowed honorary membership on two women for the first time, Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville. The extract for the award stated that “the time is gone by when either feeling or prejudice, by whichever name it may be proper to call it, should be allowed to interfere with the payment of a well-earned tribute of respect.”

For Caroline, however, her crowning achievement probably came only a few months before she died. The work mentioned above was the basis for her nephew’s study of his fathers work. William’s vast undertaking, The Survey of the Heavens, was completed when his son Sir John Herschel completed and published the survey of the heavens in the southern hemisphere. She received a copy of Cape Observations just months before she died on January 9, 1848 at the age of 97.

Even in her death she was concerned for her brother’s fame. Her epitaph, which she composed, states in part “The eyes of her who is glorified were here below turned to the starry heavens. Her own discoveries of comets and her participation in the Immortal labors of her brother, William Herschel, bear witness of this to future ages.” Working with her brother, she advanced the science of astronomy and the recognition of women in science.

Caroline Herschel at 92 (source)

Caroline Herschel at 92 (source)

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Gertrude Belle Elion – Nobel Prize Winner in Medicine

Gertrude Belle Elion, unknown date, courtesy of the National Cancer Institute (source)

Gertrude Belle Elion, unknown date, courtesy of the National Cancer Institute (source)

“Acyclovir turned out to be different from any other compound Elion had ever seen. It is so similar to a compound needed by the herpes virus for reproduction that the virus is fooled. The virus enters normal cells and starts to make an enzyme that helps it reproduce. This enzyme activates Acyclovir and turns into something that is toxic to the virus. In short, Acyclovir makes the virus commit suicide.”

This is a quote from Sharon Bertsch McGrayne’s excellent book Nobel Prize Women in Science, which explains not only how one of the many compounds developed by Gertrude Belle Elion works, but also exemplifies her approach to research. She wanted to understand how the compounds were metabolized in the body and how they fought disease. Together with Dr. George Hitchings and a team of researchers at Burroughs Wellcome, she developed drugs that would change the lives of many people for the better, reducing suffering and extending lives.

Gertrude Belle Elion was born in New York City on January 23, 1918 to a Jewish immigrant family. Her father, Robert Elion, immigrated to the US from Lithuania when he was 12 and worked hard to graduate from New York University School of Dentistry in 1914. He was very successful, opening several dental offices, and investing in stocks and real estate. Her mother, Bertha Cohen, immigrated alone at the age of 14 to come live with older sisters who were already established. Bertha was 19 when she and Robert married, and although she never pursued higher education, she was a voracious reader who frequently read the books her children brought home from school. She came from an intellectual Russian Jewish family that valued education and knew how important it would be to her children’s futures.

When Gertrude, Trudy to the family, was six years old her brother Herbert was born. Shortly afterward, the family moved to the Bronx where they had a happy childhood. Before the move another person joined the family, her grandfather from Russia. His failing eyesight prevented him from continuing his profession as watchmaker, so after Herbert was born, he spent a great deal of time with Trudy forming a close bond. He was a Biblical scholar and spoke several languages; together they spoke Yiddish, and shared time in the park, the Bronx zoo, and music.

Trudy’s father was also a music lover, specifically the opera. He and Trudy often went to the Metropolitan Opera, a habit that Trudy would maintain for the rest of her life, flying to New York on weekends from North Carolina. Robert influenced her in another way. He was always planning imaginary trips using maps, train and bus schedules. After Trudy became successful, she began to travel, visiting many places in the world before her death in 1999.

Trudy was a successful student in high school, and when she graduated she entered Hunter College in 1933. She was a sponge for knowledge and enjoyed learning just about anything, but her decision to study science was made when she was 15 and watched her grandfather die painfully from stomach cancer. Trudy decided that no one should have to suffer as her grandfather had, so she wanted, if possible, to do something about it. Inspired as a girl by the life of Marie Curie and the book The Microbe Hunters by Paul DeKruif, she knew that she needed to study biology or chemistry, so she chose chemistry and graduated summa cum laude in 1937.

Robert Elion had lost most of his wealth in the crash of 1929, and although he still had his dental practice and loyal customers, there wasn’t much money for college. Hunter College, the women’s section of City College of New York, was free for those who could beat the fierce competition, but graduate school was a different story. Hunter was also an all-girl’s school, and Trudy had never really faced discrimination because of her gender. She placed many applications for fellowships and assistantships, but nothing came through. It was the Depression and there weren’t many jobs available, but there were none for women in fields that were dominated by men. In one eye-opening interview, she was told that she was qualified, but that they had never had a woman in the lab and they thought she would be a distraction!

Trudy’s mother had always encouraged her to have a career of some type, so she finally enrolled in secretarial school, but when she got the opportunity to teach biochemistry at the New York Hospital School of Nursing, she dropped out and took the job, even though it only lasted for 3 months. Finally, she met a chemist at a party and asked him if she could work in his lab as an assistant. He agreed, but couldn’t pay her anything to start. She was willing because it allowed her to continue learning and after a year and a half, she was making $20 a week and had saved enough living at home for one year of graduate school.

In the fall of 1939, Trudy entered New York University with money for one year’s tuition. She worked part-time as a receptionist and took education classes that allowed her to substitute teach in the public schools. In 1941, Trudy completed her Master’s Degree in Chemistry and began the task of looking for the perfect job. Her focus was always to look for jobs that would allow her to learn and get closer to her goal of working in medical research.

When WWII began, the demand for women increased in laboratories across the country. Trudy got a job in a laboratory doing quality control work for the A&P grocery chain. Always concerned with learning new things, when she felt she had learned as much as she could, she applied to an employment agency for research jobs. For about six months, she worked for a Johnson & Johnson lab until it was disbanded. Having gained the experience she needed, she then had a number of jobs to choose from, but was most intrigued by a job as an assistant to George Hitchings working for Burroughs Wellcome.

She found out about the job when her father asked her what she knew about the company after they sent some sample painkillers to his dental office. She decided to call and ask if they had a research lab and a job opening. She and Hitchings were a good match. He explained that he didn’t like the traditional trial and error method of drug research. He was also content to let her learn at her own pace and move from one area to another to satisfy her thirst for knowledge. While she had moved on from other jobs because she felt she had learned all she could, she never moved on from Burroughs Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline.) There was always something new to learn and she had the freedom to do it there. But more importantly, they began to make a difference in people’s lives.

Although Trudy started as Dr. Hitchings assistant, within two years she was publishing her own papers under his guidance and by the mid 1960s she had developed a reputation apart from Hitchings. This was in spite of not having a Ph.D. For two years, she worked on a Ph.D. at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute until the dean told her that she would have to quit her job and work full time on her degree. She wasn’t willing to quit her job, so she quit school. It was an agonizing choice to make, but she knew that she had the potential to make a difference where she was, so she stayed.

Her faith in the job paid off. In 1950, Elion synthesized two cancer treatments for leukemia. Both of these drugs are still used today and when combined with other drugs result in close to an 80% cure rate. One of these drugs, referred to as 6-MP, was found to suppress the immune system in rabbits. Reading about the rabbits, a British surgeon tried 6-MP in dogs with kidney transplants and found that it extended their lives. He contacted Elion and asked if they had similar compounds that he could try which might be more effective. One of these, later marketed as Imuran, proved to be very effective in suppressing the immune system and since 1962 has been given to most of the kidney transplant patients in the US.

But what Elion called her “final jewel” was Acyclovir. Prior to its unveiling in 1978, there hadn’t been much research done on viruses. It was assumed that any compound toxic enough to kill a virus would also be extremely toxic to normal cells. Because Acyclovir was so selective to the herpes virus, it was very nontoxic to normal cells. Not only was it a break through in treating herpes, but it was a break through in virus research, opening the doors to many new possibilities including treatments for AIDS.

The intervening years had brought life changes for Trudy as well. In 1941, she had been planning to get married to a brilliant young statistician named Leonard. He fell ill with a strep infection, bacterial endocarditis, and died, just a few years before penicillin became available. Her mother also died of cervical cancer in 1956. Both of these losses served to intensify Trudy’s drive to continue in her research.

In 1970, the company moved its research facility to the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. For a life long NYC resident this was quite a change. She adjusted well however, and it was here that she received the call in 1988 from a reporter telling her she had received the Nobel Prize together with Dr. Hitchings, and Sir James W. Black. She had already retired in 1983, but had remained in a consulting position. Winning the prize gave her a visibility that she had not had along with opportunities to contribute in many other ways.

In spite of the accolades that eventually came her way, what always meant the most to Trudy were the letters and handshakes she got from people who wanted to tell her how her discoveries had changed their lives. Although she never met anyone that could take Leonard’s place and never married, she loved her work, opera, traveling, and had loving relationships with her brother and his family. Gertrude Belle Elion lived a full and rewarding life and died in her sleep at her home in North Carolina on February 21, 1999, with a folder full of letters from people whose lives she had touched and whose lives she had helped save.

Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
Academy of Achievement – A Museum of Living History
First Woman elected to the national inventor’s hall of fame 1991 (New York Times)

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Gerty Radnitz Cori – Nobel Prize Winning Biochemist

Gerty Radnitz Cori c. 1947, National Institutes of Health (source)

Gerty Radnitz Cori c. 1947, National Institutes of Health (source)

In the late 19th century after universities began admitting women, there were still challenges to overcome. Most secondary schools for girls focused on social graces and being a good conversationalist but didn’t prepare them for entrance to the university. When Gerty Radnitz at 16 decided that she wanted to go to medical school, she was completely unprepared. She overcame this disadvantage to become the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine and the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Gerty Theresa Radnitz was born August 15, 1896, in Prague which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her family was Jewish and moderately well off. Her father, Otto Radnitz, was a chemist who invented a method for refining sugar and managed several beet sugar refineries. The oldest of three girls, Gerty was tutored at home until the age of ten when she went to finishing school. Recognizing her talent, her uncle who was a physician encouraged her to go to medical school. With the help of family and tutors, over the next two years she accumulated the equivalent of 5 – 6 years study in Latin, mathematics, physics, and chemistry in preparation to take her entrance exams. She passed and at 18 enrolled at the German branch of the Charles Ferdinand University at Prague.

During her first year of university, Gerty discovered two things that changed her life: biochemistry and Carl Cori. Carl was the son of Carl Cori, a physician, and Martha Lippich. His father went on to get a doctorate in zoology and do research at the Marine Biological Station in Trieste where he was the director. He often took the younger Carl with him on field expeditions to do research and gather specimens. Trieste, in what is now northern Italy, was a diverse area where Carl was exposed to people of different backgrounds and developed what he called “immunity to racial propaganda.” The fact that Gerty was Jewish and he was Catholic didn’t bother him at all, but it would play a role later in their lives.

For two years they studied together and enjoyed taking trips for hiking or skiing, until in 1916, Carl was drafted into the Austrian army. In 1918, assigned to a field hospital for infectious disease, he saw first hand the effect of disease on the troops, as well as the impact of the Influenza pandemic sweeping the world. The Cori family had a history of scholarship, with a number of professors on both sides of the family. This combined with his sense of helplessness in the face of disease contributed to his desire to do research. Once the war was over, Carl and Gerty were reunited and received their medical degrees in 1920. They also published their first joint paper, beginning a collaboration that would last for their entire careers.

After receiving their degrees, they traveled to Vienna where they were married, and Carl and Gerty were both able to obtain positions doing post-doctoral research. The post war years were difficult. Research was a low priority and supplies were hard to obtain. Carl was one of the few able to do research, because his father sent him a bag of frogs. Gerty worked in pediatrics doing research on thyroid and blood disorders. The conditions were poor, however. She worked only for meals which were not very nutritious, causing her to develop a vitamin A deficiency. The fact that Gerty was a woman and Jewish, even though she had converted to Catholicism when she married made finding a position very difficult. Carl became even more uneasy about the situation in Europe when he was required to prove his Aryan ancestry for a position at Graz. They began considering moving to the United States.

Photo from the Smithsonian Institution Archives via Wikimedia Commons

After working in different cities, Carl in Graz and Gerty in Vienna, any position would only be acceptable to Carl if he could obtain a position for Gerty as well. Carl and Gerty Cori were ideally suited as research partners. William Daughaday of Washington University School of Medicine said “Carl was the visionary. Gerty was the lab genius.” In personality, they were the reverse of Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie. Carl was somewhat shy, relaxed, and a slower more contemplative thinker. Gerty was outgoing, vivacious, and a brilliant quick thinker. She was also more ambitious than Carl and more demanding in the lab.

Finally, in 1922, Carl obtained a position at the Institute for the Study of Malignant Disease (later renamed the Roswell Park Memorial Institute), in Buffalo, New York. Gerty was given a position as an assistant pathologist. Although they worked in different labs, they continued the practice of publishing papers together, even though Gerty was told more than once to stay out of Carl’s lab. Eventually, the benefit of allowing them to work together was acknowledged and the breach in protocol was overlooked. During their time in Buffalo from 1922 to 1931, Carl and Gerty established their reputations and became US citizens.

Gerty and Carl were primarily interested in studying insulin and the production of energy in the body. If you remember your high school biology, the Cori cycle explains how the body breaks down glycogen into glucose for use in muscles and converts lactic acid back into glycogen for storage in the liver. The discovery and explanation of this process in 1929 would be the basis for their Nobel Prize in 1947. This research, however, wasn’t a good fit for the work being done at the Institute, which was primarily focused on cancer research, so together the Cori’s began looking for other positions.

In spite of the fact that Gerty had published frequently, individually in addition to jointly with Carl, he began to receive job offers, not Gerty. Most of these offers, including those from Cornell and the University of Toronto, did not include a possibility for positions for her. At the University of Rochester, Carl was offered a position under the condition that he stop collaborating with his wife. Gerty was even taken aside and told that she was hindering his career because it was “un-American” for a husband and wife to work together. In fact it was very common for women to work in conjunction with their husbands during this time, although it was usually as low or unpaid “assistants” meaning that the wife rarely received recognition for her contribution. This was unacceptable to both Carl and Gerty.

Finally in 1931, they received job offers from the Washington University medical school in St. Louis. Even though Carl became the chairman of the pharmacology department, Gerty was only offered a position as a research associate at one-fifth the pay. Still they were able to collaborate and would remain at Washington University for the remainder of their careers doing groundbreaking research in glycogen utilization and with enzymes. During World War II, the demand for women scientists increased due to the reduced work force and Gerty finally became a full professor.

From left to right Dr. Carl F. Cori, Dr. Joseph Erlanger, Dr. Gerty T. Cori, and Chancellor Arthur H. Compton. Photo taken in 1947.
Copyright © Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine

Gerty and Carl were supportive of other scientists as well, hiring women and Jews when other universities and even other departments at Washington refused to do so. Eventually, the work done in their lab resulted in eight Nobel Prizes, including a joint prize for Carl and Gerty in Physiology and Medicine. Over time, Carl became more involved in writing, directing research of students, and administration, and running the lab became exclusively Gerty’s domain. As with many passionate people, she was not always liked or easy to work for. She demanded precision. The work and the results demanded it.

Both of the Coris impressed others with their depth of knowledge about a wide range of topics. For most of her time at Washington, Gerty had 5 – 7 books delivered weekly to her from a local lending library. Every Friday she would prepare her list for the next week. She loved history and biography, while Carl was a poet and read archeology and art. She was the one who constantly read journal articles and kept people in the lab up-to-date on new findings in biology and related fields.

The Coris worked hard, but also tried to leave work at the lab. They entertained, kept a garden, and continued enjoying the outdoors. It was on a mountain climbing trip in 1947 that Gerty first fell ill and they discovered she had a disease that would eventually take her life. Her bone marrow was no longer producing red blood cells. She worked almost to the end. Her only concessions to the disease were taking time out for the blood transfusions that were necessary, and setting up a cot in her office where she would lie down to do her reading. Gerty Cori died at her home on October 26, 1957.

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American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmark

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Irène Joliot-Curie – For the Joy of Science

In 1925, Irène Curie walked into an auditorium of 1000 people to defend her dissertation. This was big news because she was the daughter of two time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie. The pressure could have been enormous, but as usual Irène was calm, confident, and dressed unfashionably! From an early age, Irène had dealt with her parent’s fame both positive, such as when at the age of six she calmly told the reporter who came to the house that her Nobel Prize winning parents were at the laboratory, and negative when a classmate handed her a newspaper article about her mother’s affair with Paul Langevin. She had come to see fame as something external and of no real importance. She didn’t pursue her research for fame, but for the sheer joy of the science itself.

At first glance, Irène was a quiet, shy child, some might even say somber, but as time would show, she just had little energy or attention for things that in her mind didn’t matter or that bored her. Born in September of 1897, her parents Pierre and Marie Curie were in the midst of their most intense period of research. In spite of this, she was a wanted and welcome addition to the family. Limited time and resources, however, did mean that the young parents needed help, and this came in the form of Pierre’s father, Eugene Curie. Pierre’s mother died shortly after Irène was born, so Eugene moved into the house to take care of her.

Eugene was a more openly affectionate person than either Marie or Pierre, and gave Irène, and later her sister Eve, born in Paris in 1904, much of their emotional foundation. Irène later said that many of her values and beliefs about religion and politics came from her grandfather rather than her mother. When Pierre died in 1906, Marie was so distraught that she wouldn’t let his name be spoken around her. Eugene helped the girls by talking to them and teaching them about their father. After Eugene died in 1910, Marie, Irène, and Eve became much closer and remained close for their entire lives.

Irene Curie as a child with her mother and sister Copyright © Association Curie Joliot-Curie

In spite of a more reticent personality, Marie and Eugene agreed on many things. Because of his unique personality and abilities, Pierre’s parents had home-schooled him, and Marie felt that the same approach would be better for Irène. To supplement the public school, she organized a cooperative among other scientists and academics to provide classes in their homes for their children. The subjects ranged from mathematics and science, to literature and art. Emphasis was put on creativity, play, and self-expression. Other physical and practical activities weren’t neglected either. Marie made sure the girls learned to cook, knit, and sew, as well as to swim, bicycle, and ride horseback. Irène was especially athletic. She took long backpacking trips during the summer, frequently swam the Australian crawl in the Seine, and could dance until early in the morning. It didn’t phase her that backpacking and the Australian crawl were considered men’s sports.

From an early age it was clear that Irène was very much like her father. Among her friends she was calm and relaxed, but she was less comfortable with strangers, rarely smiling in public. Her thought process was much like his as well, not as quick as Eve, but a deep analytical thinker. It was also clear that Irène would be good at science. After the cooperative ended, Marie continued to teach Irène mathematics to give her the foundation she needed, even sending problems back and forth in the mail when Marie was away at conferences. After a couple more years in public school, Irène finally entered the Sorbonne to study science.

In 1914, World War I interrupted Irène’s studies. Marie had written to Irène saying that she hoped they could both be of service, so when her mother developed a mobile x-ray unit, she went into the field to help operate and maintain them. But to say that she helped her mother is to greatly understate the situation. The need was so great that they worked independently of each other. Irène went to the front to set up, repair, and operate the units. Often they were used during surgery to help locate shrapnel in the body. When she wasn’t at the front trying to convince experienced military surgeons that a teenaged girl knew more about x-rays and geometry than they did, she was training other technicians. In spite of spending her eighteenth birthday alone at the front, she seems to have handled this time with composure and a confidence that is rare, although her mother never doubted her. Irène later said, “My mother had no more doubts about me than she had about herself.”

Irene and her mother Marie Curie working at a hospital in Belgium in 1915 Copyright © Association Curie Joliot-Curie

Once the war was over, Irène returned to the Radium Institute, run by Marie, to continue her research and study. Here in 1924, just before receiving her doctorate, Irène met Frédéric Joliot. Two years her junior, Frédéric was outgoing and charming. According to their daughter Hélène, they were “opposites in everything.” He was from a big family, had a wide variety of interests, and was much more sociable than Irène, but they shared some very important things. They loved outdoor sports, had similar political views, and loved science. When they were married in October of 1926, they had lunch at Marie’s apartment and went back to work.

Irène and Frédéric worked together for the rest of their lives and collaborated on their most important work. As with other creative teams, their approaches were very different. He moved quickly from one idea to the next, taking creative leaps, while Irène was slower in her thought process, but moved steadily toward logical conclusions. Several times they made important discoveries, but didn’t interpret the information correctly. One of these experiments was similar to that done by Otto Hahn which was interpreted by Lise Meitner leading to Hahn’s Nobel Prize. Finally, in 1935, Irène and Frédéric Joliet-Curie received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of artificial radioactivity.

In the intervening years, Irène had given birth to a daughter, Hélène in 1927, and to a son Pierre in 1932. She loved being a mother and in many ways was traditional, but she maintained her career. Although Marie died in 1934, she had lived long enough to see the experimental results that she knew would ensure her daughter a Nobel Prize. So in 1935, their lives were marred by only one thing – the growing Fascist threat in Europe.

After 1935, Irène and Frédéric no longer collaborated directly in their work. Frédéric took a position at the Collège de France where he worked in nuclear physics, building a cyclotron and raising funds for scientific research. In this position he became very powerful and contributed greatly to France’s ability to produce nuclear energy. Irène became a professor at the University of Paris, but continued as the research director at the Radium Institute. She also got involved in politics and joined several women’s rights organizations.

Irene and Frederic Joliot in 1934 photo by GFHund for Wikipedia

When the Popular Front, an anti-Fascist coalition, was elected in 1936, Irène was offered and accepted the position of under-secretary of scientific research, making her one of the first women cabinet members in France. As the war progressed, Frédéric joined the resistance and eventually, the Communist party because it was the most active anti-Fascist group in the country. Irène’s activity, however, declined. For almost twenty years she had suffered from tuberculosis and was having to take more and more time away from work and in the Alps on the “rest” cure. Finally, Frédéric, as head of his resistance organization, was forced to go underground and arranged to have Irène and the children smuggled into Switzerland, on June 6, 1944.

After the war, Frédéric was considered a hero, and appointed head of France’s Atomic Energy Commission with Irène as a commissioner. Irène was able to obtain streptomycin to cure her tuberculosis and continue her work for women’s rights and as director of the Radium Institute. For a while things were good, but by 1950, the Cold War was gaining ground and anti-communist sentiments were growing. Both Irène and Frédéric found themselves out of favor and for the first time outside the scientific community. Frédéric was fired from the Commission, and unable to obtain other scientific work, began to work for peace organizations. Irène was at least able to continue her work at the Institute, but the years of work had taken another toll.

Like Pierre and Marie before them, Irène and Frédéric were both suffering from the effects of prolonged exposure to radiation. Their health declined steadily in the 1950s. Even though Marie continued to work and worry about Frédéric’s health, she was finally unable to ignore the effects. On a trip to the Alps, Irène became ill. Returning to Paris, she checked in to the hospital and on March 17, 1856, Irène died of leukemia. Frédéric was too ill to see her for more than a few minutes. He died two years later. By this time the worst of the red scare was past and they were both honored with national funerals. They had spent their lives doing what they loved.

“I discovered in this girl whom other people regarded somewhat as a block of ice, an extraordinary person, sensitive and poetic, who in many ways gave the impression of being a living replica of what her father had been. I had read much about Pierre Curie. I had heard teachers who had known him talking about him and I rediscovered in his daughter the same purity, his good sense, his humility.” ~ Frédéric Joliot-Curie about Irène

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Lise Meitner – Nobel Prize Denied

Lise Meitner in 1906

Lise Meitner in 1906 (source)

In December of 1938, Lise Meitner received a letter from colleagues in Germany explaining their latest experimental results and questioning what these results could mean. For almost 30 years Lise had worked with Otto Hahn, and later Fritz Strassman, performing experiments related to radioactivity. Although she had begun as Hahn’s assistant without pay, their relationship had evolved to the point where she was the recognized expert in matters related to physics; Hahn was a chemist.

Lise’s nephew Otto Frisch was visiting for the holidays and together they discussed the letter she received. Researchers working on radioactivity had known for some time that one element could change into another, such as radium to polonium in Marie Curie’s experiments. But recently several researchers, when bombarding uranium with neutrons, had been finding elements with smaller atomic weights, almost half the atomic weight of uranium. At the time no one believed that the nucleus of an atom could be split. Hahn and Strassman’s research repeated this result. Meitner realized that this was exactly what was happening and that the power that would result from a chain reaction would be immense. Together she and Frisch worked out the mathematics and she conveyed the information to Neils Bohr who was on his way to the United States for a conference. And the rest as they say is history.

I knew this basic scenario when I began to read about Lise Meitner, but as usual there is more to the story. Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878, the third of eight children born to Philipp and Hedwig Meitner. Philipp, a freethinker and humanist, was one of the first to become a lawyer in Vienna after the professions were opened up to Jews. Hedwig was an accomplished pianist. Their home was filled with music and interesting people. When asked about her childhood Lise remembered all “the unusual goodness of my parents, and the extraordinarily stimulating intellectual atmosphere in which my brothers and sisters and I grew up.”

The educational opportunities available to Lise were similar to those available to Emmy Noether in Germany; they consisted primarily of training that would enable a girl to become a good wife and mother. Public education ended for girls at age 14 and they were not admitted to the universities, so there were no secondary preparatory schools for girls. Lise wanted to study physics and her father agreed to pay for tutors if she would complete a teacher training course first. There were few employment opportunities for men or women in physics, and since Lise had shown little interest in marrying this would give her a way to support herself.

Lise studied constantly and by 1901 when Vienna allowed women to enter the university she was able to pass the entrance examinations at the age of 23. Over the next six years, she completed her doctorate in physics and published several papers related primarily to radioactivity. She also spent a year practice teaching French in a girl’s school to ensure a backup means of support. She was fortunate to study under Ludwig Boltzmann in Vienna. He was an inspiring lecturer and a proponent of atomic theory when it was still controversial. Unfortunately, he died in 1906, but he had inspired Lise to continue studying physics if at all possible.

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn at the laboratory (source)

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn at the laboratory (source)

Looking for a direction to go in her study, Lise applied to work with Marie Curie, but was rejected. In 1907, Max Planck in Berlin agreed to allow her to audit his lectures. Although Planck’s experiences with women in the sciences had been good, he wasn’t really in favor of it. He did, however, welcome Lise into his home where he had twin daughters her age. Here she would find friendship and music during her stay in Germany. One of the friends she made through Planck was Otto Hahn. Hahn was a chemist working on radiochemistry at Emil Fischer’s Chemistry Institute. He needed a physicist to work with and proposed this idea to Lise; she accepted and they began what would be a very productive working relationship.

Under conditions that will sound familiar if you’ve read my previous posts, Lise began working without pay as Hahn’s assistant at the Fischer Institute. The catch – Fischer didn’t allow women in his facility. (One reason was that he had the idea that women’s hair styles were a fire hazard.) He did “compromise” and let her work in a basement room which had been a carpentry shop and had an outside entrance; she was not allowed upstairs and had to use a toilet down the street. This meant that she couldn’t attend lectures or observe Hahn’s experiments. In spite of this, they published several papers together. In 1908, German universities were opened to women and she was finally allowed to enter the building (and they installed a toilet for women!)

Hahn and Meitner worked well together. At first she was deferential to him, but over time she became the recognized leader of their partnership, in the area of physics. In 1912, they moved to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, a facility funded by German industrialists. She was still unpaid, but Planck was able to get her an assistant position grading papers at the University with a small salary. Because she was developing a good reputation, the University of Prague offered her a position of associate professor with the possibility for advancement. As a result the Institute finally decided to give her a salary, although at the time still less than Hahn, so she decided to remain in Germany. Finally in 1917, Meitner became the head of her own department of radiophysics at the Institute.

The 1920s and 30s were a “golden era” in physics and Meitner was a prominent part of that. Einstein referred to her as “our Madame Curie” and Wolfgang Paul, a 1989 Nobel Prize winner considered her “a really great scientist” and the superior of Hahn. During this time she and Hahn primarily worked apart, but in 1934, she began experiments that required the expertise of a chemist and Hahn agreed to collaborate again. A number of scientists, including Meitner and Hahn, Enrico Fermi, and Irene Joliot-Curie, began their experimentation with uranium.

Solvay Conference in 1933. Lise Meitner is the second from the right, seated. The other two women in the photo are Irene Joliot-Curie, seated second from the left, and Marie Curie, seated in the center. (source)

Unfortunately, Lise wasn’t competing only with other physicists. In 1933, Jews such as Emmy Noether were expelled from university positions. Although Jewish, Meitner had been baptized a protestant and had an Austrian passport. This, and the fact that the Wilhelm Institute was not a government facility, gave her some protection. This ended however, when Hitler invaded Austria and the Institute was under increasing pressure even from within by Nazi-sympathizers. She now found herself with an invalid passport and a tenuous job. Friends abroad worked feverishly to find her a position and finally in 1938, she slipped over the border into the Netherlands with only a few possessions and moved on to take a position in Sweden.

Hahn and Meitner continued consulting via letter with one secret meeting in Copenhagen in November to plan experiments. These experiments resulted in the letter of December 1938, which she discussed with Otto Frisch. In the letter, Hahn does not draw conclusions and in fact questions the results. Meitner trusted Hahn’s results, he was an excellent chemist, and accepted the obvious conclusion, and that the atom had split. Hahn published his experimental results without drawing conclusions and without crediting Meitner, a move which she understood; he couldn’t officially collaborate with a Jew. She and Frisch published their conclusions soon after along with corroborating experimental results by Frisch. In their paper they coined the term fission to describe what had happened.

Meitner’s recognition of the principle of fission was momentous. When Frisch described the theory to Bohr, he slapped his head and said “Oh what idiots we’ve been.” Understanding the experimental results and knowing that the German’s had the information prompted action within the physics community and then the Allied governments. Meitner was eventually offered a position with the Manhattan Project, which she refused having no desire to work on a bomb.

Everyone in the physics community recognized what Lise had done. Although she wasn’t there for the final experimental results, she had originated the project, gathered the team, worked on it for almost 4 years, and interpreted the final results. Nevertheless, only months after publication Hahn began denying that Meitner had been an important part of the discovery at all. Then in 1944, the Nobel Committee voted secretly to give the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Hahn, and Hahn alone, for the discovery of nuclear fission. No one disputed that Hahn deserved it, but everyone in the physics community knew that Meitner deserved a Nobel Prize as well.

Lise Meitner with students at Bryn Mawr in 1959 (source)

Lise Meitner with students at Bryn Mawr in 1959 (source)

Lise Meitner continued to work in Sweden until her retirement, when she moved to England to be near her relatives. In spite of the hurt of Hahn’s betrayal, and Lise’s intense criticism of the scientists who had collaborated with the Nazis, they remained friends. Her family didn’t inform her of Otto Hahn’s death in July of 1968 because of her frail condition, and she died later that year in October. Although denied the Nobel Prize, she led a very fruitful life with recognition from her peers and the love of family and friends. Her nephew Otto Frisch had her tombstone inscribed with the statement, “Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.”

Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime
Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking by William H. Cropper

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.