Skip to main content

The myth of the 'Jewish mother of the bomb'

By Priyamvada Natarajan, Special to CNN
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Fri August 9, 2013
People pray in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima on the 68th anniversary, August 6, of the day the atom bomb hit.
People pray in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima on the 68th anniversary, August 6, of the day the atom bomb hit.
  • Priyamvada Natarajan: Atom bombs obliterated Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945
  • Natarajan: Afterward, fission pioneer Lise Meinter falsely dubbed "Mother of the Bomb"
  • Her work laid the foundation, but she was firmly opposed to it being used for destruction
  • Press gave Meitner a major role in the bomb, but she was overlooked for a Nobel

Editor's note: Priyamvada Natarajan is a cosmologist and professor in the Departments of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University. Her scientific research focuses on exotica in the universe: dark matter, dark energy and black holes.

(CNN) -- Witnessing the gruesome devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945--68 years ago this week-- the physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project were aghast at the scale of damage their work had wrought. Both cities were obliterated and several tens of thousands of people died instantly.

Soon after those atom bombs were dropped, the press, with information scarce, chased after an Austrian physicist who was instrumental in discovering nuclear fission, then working as an exile in Sweden.

She was Lise Meitner, and they anointed her the "Jewish mother of the bomb."

This was far from the truth. She was so opposed to using fission to create an atom bomb that when offered the opportunity to work on the Manhattan Project, she flatly refused. Her refusal arose from a strong revulsion: "I will have nothing to do with a bomb."

Prescient, as she was, she foresaw the power of fission to unleash untold damage and suffering. Still, the myth persisted.

Priyamvada Natarajan
Priyamvada Natarajan

Meitner was born into an enlightened Viennese Jewish family. Unusually for the time, her father strongly supported her education and interest in physics. With a doctorate in physics from the University of Vienna in 1906, she studied under Ludwig Boltzmann and went on to work with Max Planck in Berlin.

In May 1938, working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin, Meitner, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered that the uranium atom could be split when bombarded by neutrons. They expected this to produce new elements heavier than uranium.

At this critical juncture in their work, Meitner had to flee Hitler's Germany, and her participation in the scientific collaboration was cut short. She ended up in Sweden.

Later that year, Hahn and Strassman found a puzzling development and shared it with her -- instead of finding a heavier nucleus as one of the byproducts of fission, they detected a lighter one: barium. Meitner and her physicist nephew, Otto Frisch, solved the puzzle by figuring out that the radioactive decay of one of the unstable products of fission had produced stable barium.

Meitner's work, along with that of Hahn and Strassman, laid the groundwork for the nuclear bomb. But it was Enrico Fermi and his research group in Chicago in 1942 that made the bomb a reality, by setting up a self-sustaining chain reaction.

Last Enola Gay member recalls Hiroshima

But soon after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were flattened, the international media hounded Meitner with questions. The newspaper Stockholm Expressen ran an article headlined "Fleeing Jewess," which described her escape from Germany with the secret of the bomb and its handover to the Allies.

According to Meitner's recent biographer, Ruth Lewin Sime, the Fleeing Jewess myth started with an article written in 1940 for the Saturday Evening Post by William L. Laurence, the official chronicler of the Manhattan project.

His dramatic piece read like a juicy spy novel--from the genesis of the idea of fission, to Meitner's escape from Germany, to her sharing her work with her nephew Frisch, in Copenhagen. Frisch supposedly cabled it to Niels Bohr, who in turn passed it on to scientists in America. Suddenly, the unverified 1940 story turned Lise Meitner into the "Jewish mother of the bomb." Not only did she not work on the bomb, she had converted in 1906 to Protestantism.

The stories upset her greatly, and she set the record straight during her visit to the United States in 1946. Speaking to Jay Walz of The New York Times, she stressed her support for the peaceful uses of atomic energy.

While journalists gave her a starring role in the bomb, she was not credited with the scientific discovery of fission by the Nobel Committee, which awarded the prize to Hahn alone, in chemistry. Debate has continued on whether she was yet another of those invisible women who should have won a Nobel.

She finally received recognition when President Lyndon Johnson awarded her, Hahn and Strassman the Enrico Fermi Award in 1966, and the element with atomic number 109 was named Meitnerium in her honor in 1997.

When I met the wife of her nephew Otto Frisch at a dinner in Trinity College Cambridge 10 years ago, she talked lovingly of Lise the person and told me that her epitaph read, appropriately, "Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Priyamvada Natarajan.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.