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Otto Hahn

  Otto Hahn (March 8, 1879, Frankfurt am Main – July 28, 1968, Göttingen) was a German chemist who received the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering nuclear fission. He is considered a pioneer of radioactivity and radiochemistry. Glenn T Seaborg deemed Hahn "the father of nuclear chemistry". Hahn was also called the "founder of the atomic age" by his contemporaries and, officially, by the senate and the members of the Max Planck Society.



Hahn was the youngest son of Heinrich Hahn (1845-1922), a prosperous glazier and entrepreneur ("Glasbau Hahn"), and Charlotte Hahn, née Giese (1845-1905). Together with his brothers Karl, Heiner and Julius, Otto enjoyed a sheltered childhood. At the age of 15, he began to take a special interest in chemistry and carried out simple experiments in the laundry room of the family home. His father wanted Otto to study architecture, as he had built or acquired several residential and business properties. But Otto persuaded him that his ambition was to become an industrial chemist.


In 1897, after taking his Abitur at the Klinger Oberrealschule in Frankfurt, Hahn begun to study chemistry and mineralogy at the University of Marburg. His subsidiary subjects were physics and philosophy. Hahn joined the Students' Association of Natural Sciences and Medicine, a student fraternity and a forerunner of today's Nibelungia Fraternity. He spent his third and fourth semester studying under Adolf von Baeyer at the University of Munich. In 1901, Hahn received his doctorate in Marburg for a dissertation entitled On Bromine Derivates of Isoeugenol, a topic in classical organic chemistry. After completing his one year military service, the young chemist returned to the University of Marburg, where for two years he worked as assistant to his doctoral supervisor, Geheimrat Professor Theodor Zincke.

Early research

Hahn's intention had been to work in industry. With this in mind, and also to improve his knowledge of English, he took up a post at University College London in 1904, working under Sir William Ramsay, known for having discovered the inert gases. Here Hahn worked on radiochemistry, at that time a very new field. In 1905, in the course of his work with salts of radium, Hahn discovered a substance he called radiothorium (thorium 228), which at that time was believed to be a new radioactive element. (In fact, it was a still undiscovered isotope of the known element thorium. The terms "isotopy" and "isotope" were only coined in 1913, by the British chemist Frederick Soddy). In the autumn of 1905, Hahn transferred to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, in order to pursue further research under Sir Ernest Rutherford. It was here that Hahn discovered the new radioactive elements thorium C, radium D and radioactinium (as he termed them).

In the summer of 1906 Hahn returned to Germany, where he collaborated with Emil Fischer at the University of Berlin. Fischer placed at his disposal a former woodworking shop in the Chemical Institute to use as his own laboratory ("Holzwerkstatt"). There, in the space of a few months, using extremely primitive apparatus, Hahn discovered mesothorium I, mesothorium II and - independently from Boltwood - the mother substance of radium, ionium. In subsequent years, mesothorium I (radium 228) assumed great importance because, like radium 226 (discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie), it was ideally suited for use in medical radiation treatment, while costing only half as much to manufacture. (In 1914, for the discovery of mesothorium I, Otto Hahn was first nominated for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry by Adolf von Baeyer). In June 1907, by means of the traditional habilitation thesis, Hahn qualified to teach at the University of Berlin. On September 28, 1907 - something of a historic date in the history of atomic research - he made the acquaintance of the young Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, who had transferred from Vienna to Berlin. So began the thirty-year collaboration and lifelong close friendship between the two scientists.

After the physicist Harriet Brooks had observed a radioactive recoil in 1904, but interpreted it wrongly, Otto Hahn succeeded, in the winter of 1908/09, in demonstrating the radioactive recoil in the alpha transformation and interpreting it correctly. "...a profoundly significant discovery in physics with far-reaching consequences", as the physicist Walther Gerlach put it.

In 1910 Hahn was appointed professor, and in 1912 he became head of the Radioactivity Department of the newly founded "Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry" in Berlin-Dahlem (since 1956 "Otto Hahn Building of the Free University", Berlin, Thielallee 63). Succeeding Alfred Stock, Hahn was Director of the Institute from 1928 to 1946. As early as 1924, Hahn was elected to full membership of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin (proposed by Einstein, Planck, Fritz Haber, Schlenk and von Laue).

In June 1911, while attending a conference in Stettin (today: Szczecin, Poland) Otto Hahn met Edith Junghans (1887-1968), an art student. On March 22, 1913 the couple married in Edith's native city of Stettin, where her father, Paul Ferdinand Junghans, was a high-ranking law officer and President of the City Parliament until his 1915 death. Their only child, Hanno, born in 1922, became a distinguished art historian and architectural researcher (at the Hertziana in Rome). In 1960, while on a study trip in France, Dr Hanno Hahn was involved in a fatal car accident, together with his wife and assistant Ilse Hahn, née Pletz. They left a fourteen-year-old son, Dietrich. In 1990, the "Hanno and Ilse Hahn Prize for Outstanding Contributions to Italian Art History" was established to support talented young art historians and in memory of Hanno and Ilse Hahn. It is awarded biennally by the Bibliotheca Hertziana, Max Planck Institute for Art History, in Rome.

During the First World War, Hahn was conscripted into the army, where he was assigned, together with James Franck and Gustav Hertz, to the special unit for chemical warfare under the direction of Fritz Haber. The unit developed, tested and produced poison gas for military purposes, and was sent to both the western and eastern front lines. In December 1916, Hahn was transferred to the "Headquarter of His Majesty" in Berlin, and was able to resume his radiochemical research in his institute. In 1917/18 Hahn and Lise Meitner isolated a long-lived activity, which they named "proto-actinium". Already in 1913, Fajans and Göhring had isolated a short-lived activity from uranium X2 and called the substance "brevium". The two activities were different isotopes of the same undiscovered element no. 91. Finally in 1949, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) named this new element protactinium and confirmed Hahn and Meitner as discoverers.

In February 1921, Otto Hahn published the first report on his discovery of uranium Z, the first example of nuclear isomerism. "...a discovery that was not understood at the time but later became highly significant for nuclear physics", as Walther Gerlach remarked. And, indeed, it was not until 1936 that the young physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker succeeded in providing a theoretical explanation of the phenomenon of nuclear isomerism. For this discovery, whose full significance was recognized by very few, Hahn was again proposed, in 1923, for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, this time by Max Planck, among others.

In the early 1920s, Otto Hahn created a new field of work. Using the "emanation method", which he had recently developed, and the "emanation ability", he founded what became known as "Applied Radiochemistry" for the researching of general chemical and physical-chemical questions. In 1933 he published a book in English (and later in Russian) entitled "Applied Radiochemistry". It contains the lectures given by Hahn when he was a visiting professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York in 1933. In 1966, Glenn T. Seaborg, President of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, wrote about this book as follows:

"As a young graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley in the mid-1930s and in connection with our work with plutonium a few years later, I used his book "Applied Radiochemistry" as my bible. This book was based on a series of lectures which Professor Hahn had given at Cornell in 1933; it set forth the "laws" for the co-precipitation of minute quantities of radioactive materials when insoluble substances were precipitated from aqueous solutions. I recall reading and rereading every word in these laws of co-precipitation many times, attempting to derive every possible bit of guidance for our work, and perhaps in my zealousness reading into them more than the master himself had intended. I doubt that I have read sections in any other book more carefully or more frequently than those in Hahn's Applied Radiochemistry. In fact, I read the entire volume repeatedly and I recall that my chief disappointment with it was its length. It was too short."

The discovery of nuclear fission

Jointly with Lise Meitner and his pupil and assistant Fritz Strassmann (1902-1980), Otto Hahn furthered the research begun by Enrico Fermi and his team in 1934 when they bombarded uranium with neutrons. Until 1938, it was believed that the elements with atomic numbers greater than 92 (known as transuranium elements) arise when uranium atoms are bombarded with neutrons. The German chemist Ida Noddack proposed an exception. She anticipated the paradigm shift of 1938/39 in her article published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, Nr. 47, 1934, in which she speculated:

"It is conceivable that when heavy nuclei are bombarded with neutrons these nuclei could break down into several fairly large fragments, which are certainly isotopes of known elements, but not neighbours of the irradiated elements."

But no physicist or chemist really took Noddack's speculation seriously or tested them, not even Ida Noddack. The idea that heavy atomic nuclei could break down into lighter elements was regarded as a totally inadmissible theory and impossible to test experimentally.

On July 13, 1938, with the help and support of Hahn, Lise Meitner, who was at great risk as she was of Jewish ancestry and had lost her Austrian citizenship after the 1938 annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany, emigrated to Stockholm, Sweden by crossing German-Dutch border illegally.

Hahn continued to work with Strassmann on elucidating the outcome of the bombardment of uranium with thermal neutrons. When in December 1938 Hahn and Strassmann looked for transuranium elements in a uranium sample that had been bombarded with neutrons, they found traces of barium. The barium was detected by the use of an organic barium salt constructed by Wilhelm Traube, a Jewish chemist who was later arrested and murdered despite Hahn's efforts to save him.

On the evidence of the decisive experiment on December 17, 1938 (the celebrated "radium-barium-mesothorium-fractionation"), Otto Hahn concluded that the uranium nucleus had "burst" into atomic nuclei of medium weight. This was the discovery of nuclear fission.

Hahn's and Strassmann's radiochemical findings were published on January 6, 1939, in the scientific journal Die Naturwissenschaften, and were irrefutable proof that the uranium nucleus had been split into fragments consisting of lighter elements. On February 10, 1939, Hahn's and Strassmann's second paper on the discovery of the so called "uranium fission" was published in the same journal. One day later, February 11, 1939 (Otto Hahn having previously informed his colleague and friend of the chemical experiments by letter) Lise Meitner and her nephew, the physicist Otto Robert Frisch, who had also emigrated to Sweden, published the first physical explanation of "uranium fission" in the English journal Nature in an article titled "A new type of nuclear reaction." This article contained the first appearance of the term nuclear fission.

In a later appreciation, Meitner wrote:

"The discovery of nuclear fission by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann opened up a new era in human history. It seems to me that what makes the science behind this discovery so remarkable is that it was achieved by purely chemical means."

In an interview on German television (ARD, March 8, 1959), Meitner said:

"Hahn and Strassmann were able to do this by exceptionally good chemistry, fantastically good chemistry, which was way ahead of what anyone else was capable of at that time. The Americans learned to do it later. But at that time, Hahn and Strassmann were really the only ones who could do it. And that was because they were such good chemists. Somehow they really succeeded in using chemistry to demonstrate and prove a physical process."

Fritz Strassmann responded with this clarification:

"Professor Meitner stated that the success could be attributed to chemistry. I have to make a slight correction. Chemistry merely isolated the individual substances, it did not precisely identify them. It took Professor Hahn's method to do this. This is where his achievement lies."

During the war, Otto Hahn - together with his pupils Hans Joachim Born, Siegfried Flügge, Hans Götte, Walter Seelmann-Eggebert and Fritz Strassmann - worked on uranium fission reactions. By 1945 he had drawn up a list of 25 elements and about 100 isotopes whose existence he had demonstrated.

Thanks to his determined intervention, Hahn, who had always been an opponent of the Nazi dictatorship, was able to support numerous members of his institute whose lives were in danger or were suffering persecution, and prevent them from being sent to the front line or deported. In this, he was assisted by his courageous wife Edith, who had for years collected food for Jews hiding in Berlin. As early as 1934, Hahn resigned from the University of Berlin to protest the dismissal of Jewish colleagues, notably Lise Meitner, Fritz Haber, and James Franck.

At the end of World War II in 1945 Hahn was suspected of working on the German nuclear energy project to develop an atomic reactor or an atomic bomb. But his only connection was the discovery of fission, he did not work on the program. Hahn and nine German physicists (including Max von Laue, Werner Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker) were interned at Farm Hall, Godmanchester, near Cambridge, England. While they were there, the German scientists learned of the dropping of the American atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9. Hahn was on the brink of despair, as he felt that because he had discovered nuclear fission he shared responsibility for the death and suffering of hundreds of thousands of Japanese people. Early in January 1946, the group was allowed to return to Germany.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry

On November 15, 1945 the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that Hahn had been awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry[1] "for his discovery of the fission of heavy atomic nuclei".[2][3] Hahn was still being detained at Farm Hall when the announcement was made, thus, his whereabouts were a secret and it was impossible for the Nobel committee to send him a congratulatory telegram. Instead, he learned about his award through the Daily Telegraph newspaper.[4] His fellow interned German scientists celebrated his award on November 18 by giving speeches, making jokes, and composing songs.[5] On December 4, Hahn was persuaded by two of his captors to write a letter to the Nobel committee accepting the prize but also stating that he would not be able to attend the award ceremony.[6] He could not participate in the Nobel festivities on December 10 since his captors would not allow him to leave Farm Hall.

"There is no doubt at all that Hahn fully deserves the Nobel Prize in Chemistry" wrote Lise Meitner to her friend Eva von Bahr-Bergius in November 1945.[citation needed] Meitner's former assistant Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker later added, "He certainly did deserve this Nobel Prize. He would have deserved it even if he had not made this discovery. But everyone recognized that the splitting of the atomic nucleus merited a Nobel Prize."[citation needed]

Hahn attended the Nobel festivities the year after he was awarded the prize. On December 13, 1946, King Gustav V of Sweden finally presented him with his Nobel Prize medal and diploma.[3]

Founder of the Max Planck Society

From 1948 to 1960 Otto Hahn was the founding President of the newly formed Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, which through his tireless activity and his worldwide respected personality succeeded in regaining the renown once enjoyed by the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. Immediately after the Second World War, Hahn reacted to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by coming out strongly against the use of nuclear energy for military purposes. He saw the application of his scientific discoveries to such ends as a misuse, or even a crime. Consequently, among other things, he initiated the Mainau Declaration of 1955, in which a large number of Nobel Prize-winners called attention to the dangers of atomic weapons and warned the nations of the world urgently against the use of "force as a final resort". He was also instrumental and one of the authors of the Göttingen Declaration of 1957, in which, together with 17 leading German atomic scientists, he protested against the nuclear arming of the new German armed forces (Bundeswehr). In January 1958, Otto Hahn signed the Pauling Appeal to the United Nations for the "immediate conclusion of an international agreement to stop the testing of nuclear weapons", and in October he signed the international Agreement to call a meeting to draw up a world constitution. Right up to his death, he never tired of warning urgently of the dangers of the nuclear arms race between the great powers and of the radioactive contamination of the planet. From 1957, Hahn was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a number of organizations, including the largest French trade union, the Compagnie Generale du Travail. Linus Pauling, the 1962 Nobel Peace laureate, once described Otto Hahn as "an inspiration to me."

Acknowledgments and Awards

Hahn received many governmental honours and academic awards from all over the world. He was elected member or honorary member in 45 Academies and scientific societies (among them the Royal Society in London and the Academies in Allahabad (India), Bangalore (India), Boston (USA), Bucharest, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Lisbon, Madrid, Rome, Stockholm, Vienna) and received 37 of the highest national and international orders and medals (among them the Golden Paracelsus Medal from the Swiss Chemical Society and the Faraday Medal from the British Chemical Society). In 1959 President Charles de Gaulle of France made him an Officer of the Légion d'Honneur, he was made a knight of the Peace Class of the Order Pour le Mérite, received the Distinguished Service Order and the Grand Cross of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1961 Pope John XXIII awarded him the Gold Medal of the Papal Academy. (In 1957 Hahn was elected a honorary citizen of the city of Magdeburg, German Democratic Republic, and in 1958 a honorary member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He declined both honours).

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson of the USA, and the USA Atomic Energy Commission awarded Hahn (together with Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann) the Enrico Fermi Prize. This was the only time the Fermi Prize has been awarded to non-Americans.

Hahn was made an honorary citizen of the cities of Frankfurt am Main and Göttingen, and of the land and the city of Berlin. The day after his death, the Max Planck Society published the following obituary notice in all the major newspapers:

"On July 28, in his 90th year, our Honorary President Otto Hahn passed away. His name will be recorded in the history of humanity as the founder of the atomic age. In him Germany and the world have lost a scholar who was distinguished in equal measure by his integrity and personal humility. The Max Planck Society mourns its founder, who continued the tasks and traditions of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society after the war, and mourns also a good and much loved human being, who will live in the memories of all who had the chance to meet him. His work will continue. We remember him with deep gratitude and admiration."



Proposals were made at different times, first in 1971 by American chemists, that the newly syntheticized element no. 105 should be named Hahnium in Hahn's honour, although in 1997 the IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) finally named it Dubnium, after the Russian research center in Dubna (see Element naming controversy). The intention is, however, that element no. 108, Hassium should be renamed Hahnium in the future. In addition, in 1964 the only European and one of the world's three nuclear-powered civilian ships, the freighter NS Otto Hahn, was named in his honour. In 1959 there were the opening ceremonies of the "Otto Hahn Institute" in Mainz and the "Hahn Meitner Institute for Nuclear Research (HMI)" in Berlin. There are craters on mars and moon, and the asteroid No. 19126 "Ottohahn" named in his honour, as well as the "Otto Hahn Prize" of both the German Chemical and Physical Societies, the "Otto Hahn Medal" of the Max Planck Society and the "Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold" of the United Nations Association of Germany (DGVN) in Berlin.

A great many cities and districts in the German speaking countries have named secondary schools of all types after him, and countless streets, squares and bridges throughout Europe bear his name. Several states have honoured Otto Hahn by issuing coins, medals and stamps (among them the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic, Austria, Romania, Angola, Cuba, the Commonwealth of Dominica, Madagascar, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Chad, Guinea and Bissau). An island in the Antarctic (near Mt. Discovery) was also named after him, as were two Intercity trains of the German Federal Railways in 1971, running between Hamburg and Basel SBB, and the "Otto Hahn Library" in Göttingen. In 1974, in appreciation of the special contribution of Otto Hahn to German-Israeli relations, a wing of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, was given the name "Otto Hahn Wing". In several cities and districts busts, monuments and memorial plaques were unveiled, including Berlin (East and West), Boston (USA), Frankfurt am Main, Göttingen, Gundersheim, Mainz, Marburg, Munich (in the hall of honour in the Deutsches Museum), Rehovot (Israel), San Vigilio (Lake Garda) and Vienna (in the foyer of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA). A special honour in 1997 was conferred on Hahn in the Netherlands: after an azalea already bore his name (rhododendrum luteum Otto Hahn), Dutch rose growers named a new variety of rose "Otto Hahn".

At the end of 1999 the German newsmagazine FOCUS published an inquiry of 500 leading natural scientists, engineers and physicians about the most important scientists of the 20th century. In this poll the experimental chemist Otto Hahn - after the theoretical physicists Albert Einstein and Max Planck - was elected third (with 81 points) and thus the most significant empiric researcher of his time. (FOCUS, No. 52, 1999, p. 103-108).


- A selection -

  • 1936. Applied Radiochemistry. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York 1936. Humphrey Milford, London 1936. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1936.
  • 1950. New Atoms - Progress and some memories. Edited by W. Gaade. Elsevier Inc., New York-Amsterdam-London-Brussels.
  • 1967. A Scientific Autobiography. Introduction by Glenn T. Seaborg. Translated and edited by Willy Ley. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. British edition: McGibbon and Kee, London 1967.
  • 1970. My Life. Preface by Sir James Chadwick. Translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. Macdonald & Co., London. American edition: Herder and Herder, New York 1970.


  1. ^ Bernstein 2001, p. 281
  2. ^ The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1944. Nobel Foundation. Retrieved on 2007-12-17.
  3. ^ a b The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1944: Presentation Speech. Nobel Foundation. Retrieved on 2008-01-03.
  4. ^ Bernstein 2001, pp. 283, 323
  5. ^ Bernstein 2001, pp. 286, 323-235
  6. ^ Bernstein 2001, pp. 311, 325


  • Bernstein, Jeremy (2001), (2nd ed.), New York, NY: Springer-Verlag, ISBN 0-387-95089-3.

Further reading

A selection of books in English:

  • Ernst H. Berninger: Otto Hahn 1879-1968. (English edition) Inter Nationes, Bonn 1970.
  • Alan D. Beyerchen: Scientists under Hitler. Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1977.
  • Ronald W. Clark: The Greatest Power on Earth. Sidgwick & Jackson, London 1980.
  • Anthony Feldman, Peter Ford: Otto Hahn - in: Scientists and Inventors. Aldus Books, London 1979.
  • Laura Fermi, 1962. The Story of Atomic Energy. Random House, New York.
  • Hans D. Graetzer, David L. Anderson, 1971. The Discovery of Nuclear Fission. A documentary history. Van Nostrand-Reinhold, New York.
  • Alwyn McKay, 1984. The Making of the Atomic Age. Oxford University Press.
  • Klaus Hoffmann, 2001. Otto Hahn - Achievement and Responsibility. Springer Verlag.
  • Horst Kant, 2002. Otto Hahn and the Declarations of Mainau and Göttingen. Berlin.
  • Lise Meitner, 2005. Recollections of Otto Hahn. S. Hirzel. Stuttgart.
  • David Nachmansohn, 1979. German-Jewish Pioneers in Science 1900-1933. Highlights in Atomic Physics, Chemistry and Biochemistry. Springer Verlag.
  • R. W. Reid, 1969. Tongues of Conscience. Constable & Co., London.
  • J.A. Revill, Sir Charles Frank, eds., 1993. Operation Epsilon. The Farmhall Transcripts. IOP Publishing, Bristol-Philadelphia.
  • Richard Rhodes, 1988. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Simon and Schuster.
  • Glenn T. Seaborg, 1972. Nuclear Milestones. San Francisco.
  • William R. Shea, ed., 1983. Otto Hahn and the Rise of Nuclear Physics. Reidel, Dordrecht-Boston-Lancaster.
  • Robert Spence, 1970. Otto Hahn - Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 16.
  • Jim Whiting, 2004. Otto Hahn and the Discovery of Nuclear Fission. Mitchell Lane, Hockessin.

See also

  • Hahn Meitner Institute (HMI), Berlin
  • Otto Hahn Prize
  • Otto Hahn Medal
  • Otto Hahn Peace Medal
  • Annotated bibliography for Otto Hahn from the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues
  • (German) Biography of Otto Hahn
  • (German) Biography of Otto Hahn
  • Hahn is a German noun meaning "Rooster".
  • R. Spence (1970). "Otto Hahn. 1879-1968". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 16 (1): 279-313.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Otto_Hahn". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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