Wandering the Halls of History – On a Personal Note

Christine de Pizan lecturing men!

Christine de Pizan lecturing men!

I’m not a historian and don’t pretend to be. That may not be a wise statement to make on a history blog, but it’s the truth and I don’t necessarily believe it’s a disadvantage here. While the occasional author has popped in to comment about a woman she has written about, I think most of you are interested amateurs like I am. We know women have played a significant role throughout history, but for various reasons they haven’t gotten the recognition that they deserve. So this intrigues us, or angers us, and we seek out information or at least take note of it when we see it.

The Beginning

While I’ve always loved history, this venture began when I started collecting materials for a class I wanted to teach on the history of science and mathematics. Not long after that, health problems forced me to stop teaching and I never got to teach the class, but ended up with all these resources.

Also as a result of the end of my teaching career (at least in public schools), I ventured into the world of internet marketing. Well that didn’t last long. The people who make money that way are, as a rule, the people teaching others how to make money on the internet or affiliate marketers who sell other peoples products. Neither of which I could put my heart into. However, I learned a lot about websites, blogging, and especially WordPress that has helped me. (Although, wordpress.com has made blogging so easy now that you shouldn’t let lack of knowledge keep you from starting one if you want. Shoot me an email if I can help.)

So one day I decided to combine the two and start a blog about women in history. Actually, there were a couple of other blog attempts, but this is where I ended up about a year and a half ago.

Restored Stoa in Athens. (Photo: Adam Carr, Wikipedia)

Restored Stoa in Athens. (Photo: Adam Carr, Wikimedia Commons)

Wandering the Halls

To be honest, I’ve struggled with the idea that I needed to be an expert to write about this topic. There are many blogs and Facebook pages run by people who are experts and it can sometimes be a little intimidating. I’ll begin to get a handle on a particular subject, for example women’s suffrage, and something else will grab my attention which I just have to read about. So I’m off on a tangent pursuing my latest interest.

I was happily maintaining the Facebook page for “Saints, Sisters, and Sluts” and I kept coming across great posts about ancient Egypt, so I started the “Ancient History Lovers” page. Then I was watching a documentary with Bettany Hughes about the ancient Minoans when she mentioned a female archaeologist named Harriet Boyd, so of course I had to read about her. You get the idea. In fact, finding interesting posts for Facebook has sometimes caused my frustration, because there just isn’t enough time to read about all the fascinating subjects and people that I encounter.

I’ve decided to call this “Wandering the Halls” syndrome. Smile It’s like wandering the halls of a great museum and learning little bits and pieces about ancient peoples or great artists, and never seeing the “whole picture.” But all those little pieces, I believe, enrich our lives.

Some halls are more complete than others. (Photo: Adam Carr, Wikimedia Commons)

Some halls are more complete than others. (Photo: Adam Carr, Wikimedia Commons)

Where to From Here?

Is this a problem? It could be, but I don’t think it has to be. When I was teaching I always considered myself more of a facilitator than a teacher. It’s an approach that isn’t always appreciated in public schools, but I started in adult education. As a rule, adults learn better the more control they have over the learning environment. Providing resources, motivation and a little guidance can lead to some of the best results.

I love to see someone discover things themselves. And if they go on to become an expert, that’s great! But, if they are also afflicted with “Wandering the Hall” syndrome, then I’ve found a kindred spirit.

I decided that I’m comfortable being a “Jill of all trades, mistress of none.” Many of the most interesting women I’ve learned about were because someone else mentioned them to me. That is what I want this blog to be about; information that intrigues people and makes them want to learn more. I hope I’ve done that at least for some.

Please Comment

As I said, some of the most interesting people I’ve learned about were mentioned to me by others. I would love to have more dialogue on the blog. Which of these women interest you? Can you add interesting information about them? Do you like them, dislike them, etc.? Disagreement is welcome, politely of course.

If you’ve read this far into my little tangent, thank you. The next post will be about another interesting woman. I think I know which one, but you never know what hall I might turn down! Laughing

Any thoughts?

Any thoughts?


Three Women Painters of the Dutch Golden Age

Vase of Tulips, Rose, and Other Flowers with Insects  Maria van Ossterwijck, 1670

Vase of Tulips, Rose, and Other Flowers with Insects
Maria van Oosterwijck, 1670

The Dutch Golden Age, roughly the seventeenth century, was a time when many aspects of Dutch life and culture were the most acclaimed in the world. Art was one of those areas, particularly painting. Some aspects of Dutch painting during this time were similar to Baroque art in other parts of Europe, but the Dutch were leaders in the areas of still-life, genre painting, and portraiture. Some of the most well-known painters during this time were Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Frans Hals, but there were three women who were significant, well-known and popular during their time: Judith Jans Leyster (1609 – 1660), Maria van Oosterwijck (1630 – 1693), and Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750).

Judith Jans Leyster
Judith Leyster was primarily a painter of genre works. She painted a few portraits and only one known still-life. She was born in Haarlem on July 28, 1609, the eighth child of Jan Willemsz Leyster a local brewer. Details of her training are unknown, but she became a student of Frans Pietersz de Grebber at some point. He ran a respected workshop in Haarlem in the 1620s. Judith was also accomplished enough in her teens to be included in a book by Samuel Ampzing, originally written in 1621.

Judith Leyster self-portrait, 1630 National Gallery of Art, USA

Judith Leyster self-portrait, 1630
National Gallery of Art, USA

Because Leyster was not a member of an artistic family, she became a member of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke so that she could run her own workshop where she took on apprentices. She was the second woman registered through the Guild, the first was Sara van Baalbergen in 1631. Other women were working out of family workshops, but Judith and Sara needed to be members of the Guild in order to sign works and take on apprentices. Within two years, Leyster had three male apprentices.

A Game of Tric Trac  Judith Leyster, 1630

A Game of Tric Trac
Judith Leyster, 1630

Most of Leyster’s work dates from 1629 – 1635, before she had children. She married Jan Miense Molenaer, another artist, in 1636 and they had five children, although only 2 survived to adulthood. The number of works generally attributed to her range from a dozen to 35. Only two are dated after 1635, an illustration in a book about tulips and a portrait from 1643. She was largely forgotten until 1893 when the Louvre purchased a painting that they thought was by Frans Hals, only to find out it was painted by Leyster.

The Proposition Judith Leyster, 1631

The Proposition
Judith Leyster, 1631

Maria van Oosterwijck
Maria van Oosterwijck was a Dutch painter specializing in flowers with rich details. She was born on August 20, 1630 in Nootdorp, and  was a student of Jan Davidsz de Heem. Working in Delft, Utrecht, and later Amsterdam, Maria never married. She taught her servant, Geertgen Wyntges, to mix her paints. Wyntges later became a painter in her own right.

Maria van Oosterwijck, 1671 by Wallerant Vaillant

Maria van Oosterwijck, 1671
by Wallerant Vaillant

Oosterwijck was popular with European royalty including the King of Poland who acquired three of her pieces, Emperor Leopold, Louis XIV of France, and William III of England. In spite of her popularity, she was denied membership in the painters’ guild because she was a woman. She died on November 12, 1693 at the home of Jacobus van Assendelft, her nephew.

Flowers in a terracotta vase Maria van Oosterwijck, 1675

Flowers in a terracotta vase
Maria van Oosterwijck, 1675

Rachel Ruysch
Rachel Ruysch was born in 1664 to Frederik Ruysch and Maria Post. Frederik was a professor in Amsterdam and became famous as an anatomist and botanist. Maria was the daughter of Pieter Post a painter. The connections of both of Rachel’s parents meant that there were often people in the house to inspire Rachel. She helped her father decorate his specimens with flowers and lace and eventually began to paint them.

Portrait of Rachel Ruysch by Godfried Schalcken

Portrait of Rachel Ruysch by Godfried Schalcken

At fifteen, Rachel was apprenticed to Willem van Aelst, a pupil of Marseus van Schrieck. The family was very well-connected in the art world. In addition to her grandfather, Rachel, and two of her sisters married painters or dealers in art. Rachel married the portrait painter Juriaen Pool in 1693. Together they had 10 children.

Still-Life with Bouquet of Flowers and Plums Rachel Ruysch , 1704  Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Still-Life with Bouquet of Flowers and Plums
Rachel Ruysch , 1704
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Motherhood did not keep Rachel from painting however. In 1699, she became the first female offered membership in the Confrerie Pictura and a few years later was invited to paint for the court in Düsseldorf as a painter for Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine. She worked from her home and took occasional trips to court. Rachel lived a long life and her dated works show she painted from the age of 15 into her 80s. She died on August 12, 1750 at the age of 86.

Flowers on a stone slab Rachel Ruysch around 1700

Flowers on a stone slab
Rachel Ruysch around 1700

We Reached 5000 Views – Thank You!

We are very excited to have reached the 5000 views mark. It was slow going to begin with, as it probably is with most blogs, researching, reading, motivating myself to write, etc. But then, as you know if you’ve read our About Us page, I reconnected with a friend from years past, although I won’t say how many years 🙂 Susan Abernethy brought expertise in an area of history that I know little about, as well as encouragement for me to stay the course and keep writing. Over the last couple of months, our readership has grown and we have connected with many other readers and writers. Thank you!

In celebration, we want to highlight some of our favorite posts in case you missed anything, and perhaps add a few notes along the way. Please comment and feel free leave a link to your own blog if you like. Thanks so much for all the support.

European Women’s History
Having reconnected with Susan Ozmore after many years, she put out a message she was looking for someone to share in the writing of a blog on Women’s History. I had been a history buff since the age of fourteen, studied History in college and made it a hobby of mine for all these years. So I said to myself, why not? I had no clue if I could even write! Susan graciously added me to the blog and I began my first post on Emma of Normandy, a medieval queen of England. Well, people really liked Emma!

So began the time travel through medieval England. Not only has it been fun to write about these women but just researching them is a blast. One of the most popular posts has been about Edith of Wessex, the Queen of Edward the Confessor of England. She came from a powerful family, even more powerful than the King of England himself. She was an astronomer and spoke many languages. Edith seemed to capture people’s interest.

Edith of Wessex

Another popular woman was Empress Maud, The Lady of the English. She was the daughter of King Henry I, married the German King Henry V and was the mother of King Henry II. She was never crowned Queen of England but she fought long and hard to claim the crown, causing a period of civil war called The Anarchy. Her first husband was much older than she was and her second husband was eleven years younger. She was forced to escape from a castle during the civil war and walk across the frozen Thames River to get to safety. And another medieval queen, the wife of her opponent for the throne, raised an army and chased her away from London before she could be crowned.

My very personal favorite is a woman I found by doing research on other women.  She is Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians and the daughter of King Alfred the Great.  She was bold because she built and fortified towns in Mercia against attacks from Vikings.  She was extraordinarily courageous, leading armies against the Vikings, causing them to surrender in fear.  When her husband died, the Mercian Council trusted her so much, they named her their ruler without question.  I find her to be magnificent.

Aethelflaed – Lady of the Mercians

In a subject close to my heart, I wrote a series on the six wives of King Henry VIII of England called Divorced Beheaded Died, Divorced Beheaded Survived.  These six women are so varied and had such different stories.  Some were lucky and some weren’t.

King Henry VIII

I love the fascinating stories of all these women.  I’m looking forward to researching and writing about many more adventures from medieval times to the present day.

Mathematicians, Scientists, and Activists
While I tend to be a little less focused than Susan Abernethy, I’ve mainly written in two categories. My original intention was to write about women in science and math and two of my favorites are Lise Meitner and Emmy Noether. I like what I know of the character of both women. Lise Meitner really should have received a Nobel Prize for her work on nuclear fission, but because of politics was denied. In spite of this, she was able to remain friends with the primary person involved and go on and live a full life. Emmy Noether was brilliant. She worked with some of the most brilliant mathematicians and scientists of her day, including Einstein, but she was forced to flee Germany in 1933 because she was Jewish.

Lise Meitner

Women’s Rights and Suffrage
The other area that most of my posts fall into is women’s rights. I’ve written about the beginnings of the suffrage movement in the US, including some of the main players such as Susan B. Anthony, but I’ve also written about a couple of women who are not as well known, but definitely paved the way for women. One of these is Mary Ann Shadd, the first African American woman publisher in the US and the first woman publisher in Canada. Among other things, she was a staunch abolitionist who spoke out against slavery in her writings.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary

The other is Fanny Wright. Fanny endured a lot of harrassment and abuse when speaking in public for women’s rights during a time when mixed audiences were considered “promiscuous meetings.” She paved the way for women who would publicly speak out against slavery and for suffrage.

Fanny Wright

If you’ve read about these women, check under Series. We’ve grouped some posts together to make it easier to read on one subject.

We are enjoying the entire experience – learning, connecting with other bloggers and readers, but most of all sharing what we have learned, and there’s always more to learn.

Thanks for sharing the journey with us!

Bess Truman – Harry’s One True Love

Bess Truman - special photo taken just before Harry went to war in 1917

Bess Truman – special photo taken just before Harry went to war in 1917

I like Harry Truman. I might not agree with all the decisions he made as President, but I like the person he was. One thing I like about Harry is that once he set his mind to something, he did it, if at all possible. He never let discouragement derail him. He failed frequently, but didn’t let that keep him from trying something different. One thing that seemed impossible from the beginning was winning the heart and hand of Bess Wallace.

Elizabeth Virginia Wallace (Bessie to the family) was born in Independence, Missouri on February 13, 1885. Her parents, David Willock Wallace and Margaret Elizabeth Gates Wallace (Madge), were both well liked in the community, but were certainly not equal in social standing. Bessie’s maternal grandfather, George Porterfield Gates, owned a milling company that distributed flour throughout the Midwest. Her paternal grandfather, Benjamin Wallace, had been a politician serving as mayor of Independence and in the Missouri state legislature. Benjamin Wallace died eight years before Bess was born, and although the Wallace’s were a part of her life, their influence would fade in comparison to that of the Gate’s clan. George Porterfield Gates was against Madge marrying David, but gave in when they threatened to elope. He was afraid that David Wallace wouldn’t be able to support his daughter in the manner to which she was accustomed. He was right.

Bessie at age 5

When Bess was two years old, the family moved to a house on North Delaware St, a very fashionable address two blocks from the Gate’s family home. As the first grandchild, she was petted and spoiled by her Gates grandparents and aunts and uncles. Bess was easy to love and dote upon. She was a bright, pretty, and outgoing child with golden hair and blue eyes. Three brothers followed to compete for this attention: Frank Gates Wallace (1887), George Porterfield Wallace (1892), and David Frederick Wallace (1900).

Bess was a happy, active girl. She excelled in sports as the best tennis player in Independence, an ice skater, horsewoman, and the champion slugger on her brother’s baseball team. Madge Wallace tolerated her daughter’s athletic activities as long as Bess maintained the appropriate activities for a proper young lady, which she did. Bess attended dance classes and the entire round of social functions in Independence. She did well in school, but when it came time to go to college, as many of her friends made plans to go away, it became clear that Bess’ father couldn’t afford to send her.

Bess at age 13

Financial difficulties weren’t the only strains in the home. In the mid 1890s, another girl was born, but died within a few years. Madge had always been considered “delicate”, so by the time Bess was in high school, she was taking on more and more responsibility for her younger brothers. From the outside, things may have looked fine. David Wallace was outgoing and still involved in politics. He would play with the children and was always involved in celebrations, from setting up fireworks displays to riding at the head of parades on his black horse. Bess adored him, but his financial difficulties began to get the best of him and he started to drink. The final child, David Frederick born in 1900, only added to the strain.

David Wallace held on for another three years, but early on the morning of June 17, 1903, he got up, went into a bathroom at the back of the house and shot himself in the head. It’s hard to know exactly what went through his mind, but the years of struggling to keep up, of depending on his father-in-law to give him money, and of fulfilling Gates’ negative expectations, added to his increased drinking must have all contributed to his feelings that he couldn’t go on. The family was devastated. Mary Paxton, Bess’ best friend and next door neighbor, went over that morning to be with her. Together she walked with Bess in silence as she paced with clenched fists for several hours.

David Wallace’s death and subsequent funeral were agonizing for the family, especially for Madge. He had been the presiding officer of the Knight’s Templar, so his funeral was elaborate and well attended, but the local newspaper also wrote an article giving gruesome details of his death. Add to that the realization that he had left the family deep in debt, and Madge couldn’t handle it. She and the children moved in with her parents, but soon after the funeral left Independence to visit a relative and stayed away for over a year.

As you would expect, Bess’ father’s suicide changed her life in a number of ways. From a practical standpoint, she found herself, at age eighteen, the effective parent of her younger brothers. She also began to feel a sense of responsibility for her mother that would last for the rest of her life. On another level, although she never blamed her mother, she began to think about her parent’s relationship, what it lacked, and what she would want in a marriage, if she ever found anyone to marry.

Bess at high school graduation

After the family returned to Independence, although Madge remained basically a recluse, Bess began to become socially active again. She spent a year at the Barstow school, a finishing school for young women that prepared them for college, although many went there just to round out their high school education. Bess had suitors, but no one seemed to meet her requirements. Then in 1910, a young man knocked on the door to return a cake plate for his cousins, who were neighbors of the Wallace family. That young man was Harry S. Truman.

The way Harry told it, he had fallen in love with Bess when her first saw her in Sunday School, when she was five and he was six. Over the school years, he had never had the nerve to do more than carry her books home from school a few times, but there had never been another girl for him. In the intervening years, Harry had his own challenges and had changed quite a bit. In school he had never been athletic, probably in part to protect the eyeglasses he had to wear from the age of five; he played the piano; and he, according to his own account, “read every book in the Independence library.” His own ambitions to go to West Point were dashed partly because he would never have passed the eye exam, but also because his father lost all his money and Harry had to work to help support the family. After a time working in Kansas City, his father asked him to come home and help him run the farm that Harry’s mother had inherited with her brother. So the Harry that showed up at the Wallace home that night was suntanned and fit in a way that the younger Harry never was.

Their courtship began that night, but would last for quite a few years. After about a year, Harry proposed, in a letter. After 3 weeks of silence, Bess refused. Harry responded by thanking her for letting him down so easily, saying that he didn’t really think “that a girl like you could ever care for a fellow like me,” and continuing to write. Harry Truman didn’t discourage easily.

Bess had made it clear that she expected anyone she married to be able to support her, and Harry became focused on making money. He tried several schemes which didn’t pan out, and signed on as a partner to his father’s business, which eventually left him with more debt. In the meantime, Harry and Bess continued to write almost daily, and he had a standing invitation to her house on Sundays. In his characteristically honest way, he told her about life on the farm, but he also let her know that he was no country bumpkin, writing about operas, symphonies, and plays that he had seen when he lived in Kansas City. They discussed literature and exchanged book recommendations and criticisms.

Harry S. Truman around 1917

Finally, in the fall of 1913, Bess told Harry that if she married any man it would be him. He was elated and determined that he would be able to establish a home for her that she could be proud to live in. But everything seemed to work against him. On the farm it was the weather, then his investment in a zinc mine didn’t pan out. Then in 1917, it looked like everything might come together for them. They both invested money in an oil company and things were going very well, until the US entered WWI. The stock in the oil company immediately dropped causing them to lose almost all the money they had invested, but worse than that for Bess was that Harry felt he had to do his duty. He had re-enlisted in the National Guard, and in August he was admitted into the US Army and was scheduled to go to Europe.

Although, several of her friends got married before sending their beaux off to war, when Bess mentioned it, Harry now refused. He did not want her to be stuck with a “potential cripple.” They did however, after all these years, in spite of Madge’s objections, announce their engagement. Bess had a special photograph taken to give to Harry when he went to war. He carried it with him for the rest of his life, first into battle in his shirt pocket, and later it always had a prominent place on his desk. (This is the photo at the top of the post.)

Harry returned safely, and on June 28, 1919, at the ages of 35 and 36, Bess and Harry were finally married. They were faithful to each other throughout all the difficulties in the coming years: a failed business, taking care of Madge, and Harry’s unexpected presidency. Bess had found in Harry a man who would be open with her about all those difficulties, as well as a man who wouldn’t give up in the face of obstacles.

Harry and Bess Truman on their wedding day June 28,1919 (source)

Harry and Bess Truman on their wedding day June 28, 1919 (source)

One note of irony, however, after they were married they moved into Madge’s house “temporarily,” but lived there for the rest of their lives whenever they were in Independence.

Harry S. Truman painted by Greta Kempton (1903 – 1991)

Bess Truman painted by Greta Kempton (1903 – 1991)

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.