Blog post

Otto Hahn

Meet an icon of 20th Century Science History

Bust of Otto Hahn seen from two different angles.
Matti Stöhr (TIB - German National Library of Science and Technology)
Britta Beutnagel (TIB)

If you have read our blog about Werner Heisenberg, you have already met one important German natural scientist and Nobel Prize laureate. Today, we introduce another one: Otto Hahn, the so-called father of nuclear chemistry and godfather of nuclear fission. Let’s look into Hahn’s professional biography and lifetime achievements.

Road to the Nobel Prize

Otto Hahn (8 March 1879 – 28 July 1968) was a German scientist and a pioneer in radiochemistry. Hahn studied chemistry in Marburg and Munich and received his doctorate in 1901.

After one year of military service, he returned to the University of Marburg in order to work as an assistant for his former doctoral supervisor, Theodor Zincke. From 1904 to 1906 Hahn pursued his research in the field of radiochemistry in various cities, including London, Montreal and Berlin. During that time Hahn discovered a new radioactive chemical element: “Radiothorium”. In 1912 he was appointed director at the newly founded Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin-Dahlem.

Together with his research partner Lise Meitner, he discovered element 91, which was the key to clarifying the decay phenomena of radioactive elements. Hahn, Meitner and Otto Robert Frisch conducted an experiment together that both recognized nuclear fission as such and explained it theoretically.

Their discovery was later used for the production of nuclear weapons, which Hahn had never intended and which would lead to him protesting against nuclear weaponry for the rest of his life. During World War II, Otto Hahn’s work focused on the isolation and identification of new unknown types of atoms, produced as radioactive “fission products” during uranium nuclear fission.

Otto Hahn on Radiochemistry and the Fission of Uranium at the Lindau Nobel Prize Winners meeting, 1952
TIB - German National Library of Science and Technology. CC BY-NC-ND

Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his 1944 discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei. Since the committee decided “that none of the year's nominations met the criteria as outlined in the will of Alfred Nobel”, he received his prize one year later.

A legacy for eternity

After World War II, Hahn became one of the most respected scientists in Europe. This was due to his political engagement against nuclear weapons, especially after catastrophes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. In 1948 he became the founding president of the "Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science", the successor organization to the "Kaiser Wilhelm Institute". Hahn took a political position that advocated the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Just like Heisenberg, Hahn opposed the military use of nuclear energy and stood against the planned nuclear armament by signing the Göttingen Manifesto in 1957. Because of his active pacifism from 1957 onwards, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times and received the Order “Pour le Mérite”, more precisely the “Great Federal Cross of Merit with Star and Shoulder Ribbon”.

Hahn was invited to the Lindau Nobel Meeting regularly, where he spoke about nuclear fission and sometimes even about work that did not go exactly as planned. Even if you're not a scientist, the following lecture is an interesting and entertaining example of his talks at Lindau.

Otto Hahn about Memories of Works that Went Differently than Planned, Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting of 1964 TIB - German National Library of Science and Technology. CC BY-NC-ND

Otto Hahn’s private legacy is owned and curated by the Ernst Max von Grunelius-Society located in his city of birth, Frankfurt (Main). His scientific legacy is owned and curated by the Archive of the Max Planck Society in Berlin-Dahlem.

This blog is part of the Europeana XX. A Century of Change project which focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.

Discover more sources from and about Otto Hahn in Europeana or take a look at the chapter “Fission & Friction” of the Europeana exhibition “A century of technology”, where you can find out more about the development of nuclear power and its controversies. For more inspiring stories about Nobel Prize winners: try the Century of Change podcast series!