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“More than Just a Name Change”

Freie Universität Renames Otto Hahn Building as Hahn-Meitner Building

№ 326/2010 from Oct 28, 2010

Beinahe enthüllt: Hahn-Meitner-Bau, ein neuer Name für ein ehrwürdiges Haus.

Hahn-Meitner Building – a new name for a venerable building.
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher

On Wednesday, October 27, a ceremony was held in honor of the physicist Lise Meitner to change the name of Freie Universität’s Otto Hahn Building to Hahn-Meitner Building. With the name change Freie Universität acknowledges the long years of work and groundbreaking research achievements made by Lise Meitner in Berlin-Dahlem.

Beginning in 1912 Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner worked together for more than 20 years in the building on Thiel Avenue that is now part of the Institute of Chemistry and Biochemistry of Freie Universität. The experimental physicist, Lise Meitner, was instrumental in the discovery of nuclear fission made in this building in 1938 by Hahn and his colleague, the chemist Fritz Straßmann, just months after Meitner was forced to flee abroad from the National Socialists. Despite her significant scientific contribution – Meitner provided the physical and theoretical explanation of the phenomenon – the daughter of a Jewish lawyer was not given public recognition for her academic performance. Otto Hahn was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission.

“Changing the name of the building was about more than just adding a second name,” said Prof. Dr. Peter-André Alt, president of Freie Universität, in his speech. “It is the correction of a historical injustice manifested over the decades in the underestimation of the contributions made by Lise Meitner to nuclear research. Freie Universität is committed to taking institutional responsibility for a fair and objective history of science, which includes revising previously made one-sided decisions as well as periodically taking stock and reexamining value judgments and methods.”

The awards ceremony was also attended by the Lise Meitner biographer Ruth Lewin Sime, who is a professor at Sacramento City College in California. Sime described the partnership between the physicist Lise Meitner and the chemist Otto Hahn as unusual in its interdisciplinary approach and very successful. In her flight from Germany, Lise Meitner had to leave behind her work, her colleagues, and her friends. “She lost everything she had built up in Berlin. And then she lost even more: the scientific recognition that she deserved,” said Sime. Accordingly, renaming the Otto Hahn Building as Hahn-Meitner Building was therefore not only appropriate, but also historically necessary.

About Lise Meitner:

The physicist Lise Meitner was born in 1878 in Vienna. In 1907 she came to Berlin to continue her research on radioactivity with Max Planck. There she also began working with Otto Hahn. As of 1912 Meitner was Max Planck’s assistant at the newly established Institute of Chemistry of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in Dahlem, although at first her status was unofficial. Beginning in 1918 she headed the physical-radioactive department there, and from 1928 to 1933 she was also a professor at the University of Berlin. In 1938 Lise Meitner emigrated to Holland and then Sweden, as she lost her Austrian citizenship through the annexation of Austria by Germany in March 1938 and as a Jew was particularly threatened in Germany. Through correspondence Meitner remained in contact with Otto Hahn and involved in the research. Otto Hahn was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission, while Lise Meitner was given little public recognition, despite her significant scientific contribution. In 1957 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Faculty of Mathematics and Sciences at Freie Universität Berlin. Meitner died in 1968 in Cambridge.

Further Information

  • Viola Neukam, Research Communication, Freie Universität Berlin
    Tel.: +49 (0)30 / 838-73662, Email: viola.neukam@fu-berlin.de