Jennifer Mondfrans

Thematic Painter


Lise Meitner



acrylic on canvas

776 × 1024

Dear You,

I honestly have no ill will. It’s true that I was with my cousin and he was on skis and I was on foot. I didn’t even feel the cold snow that was up to my knees. He asked what they should do.

It had been months since I was stolen out of Germany. I was head of the physics department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry, but it did not matter. I was a Jew. And so I had to leave in the night and remain in Stockholm, in my summer clothes, with my bank account as frozen in Berlin and I was in Sweden.

I knew no one. I did not speak the language. And I had no lab to continue my work. Otto Hahn, my collaborator for over 30 years, stayed in Germany and we kept in touch through letters. When I walked with my cousin, I realized the impossible.

I knew Hahn, the great chemist, would not make a mistake. Yet the results did not make sense. We sat down on a tree trunk and started to calculate on scraps of paper. I remembered how to compute the masses of nuclei from the so-called packing fraction formula and worked out that indeed the uranium was splitting. At the nucleus! Using my apparatus that was still on my desk in Berlin, my colleagues were performing fission.

I don’t know why Otto refused to credit me. It was my understanding that led them out of confusion. I did not get the Nobel Prize, but I did get the 109th element in the periodic table named after me: Meitnerium.

Even through all the years I was not paid, or the fact that my department did not have a woman’s bathroom and I walked seven blocks to use one, and my partner in science did not acknowledge my greatest contribution, it was all worth it for the science. How could one find a higher calling?