The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry

Lise Meitner und Otto Hahn in ihrem Labor im Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Chemie, 1913.
Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their laboratory, 1913. Image Credit: Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

The Institute of Chemistry opened in 1912, as one of the first two Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in Dahlem. It had three self-contained departments. Its founding director, Ernst Beckmann, headed the Inorganic and Physical Chemistry Department, with Richard Willstätter heading the Organic Department. In 1915, Willstätter became the first scientist from the Kaiser Wilhelm Society to receive a Nobel Prize, awarded for his clarification of the structure of chlorophyll.

The third department, for radioactivity, was headed by Otto Hahn und Lise Meitner. It was subdivided into sections for chemistry and physics. In 1938 and 1939, chemical experiments were carried out by Hahn together with Fritz Strassmann which, along with their physical interpretation by Meitner, resulted in the most important discovery ever made at the institute: nuclear fission. During the Second World War, the institute, which had been under Hahn’s direction since 1928, devoted its efforts entirely to nuclear research and was part of the "Uranium Project" – a military program of research into the possible technical applications of nuclear fission as a source of energy and a weapon.

On taking over the former Institute of Chemistry building, Freie Universität's Institute of Biochemistry named it the "Otto Hahn Building." Three memorial plaques there remind us today of the discovery of nuclear fission. In 2010, the building was renamed "Hahn-Meitner Building."

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