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Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, and Jeanette Rankin

In recognition of the hysterical—-um, historic–election in the US tomorrow, I thought I’d talk about a few ladies who made history with connections to 7 November: two were born and a third set a precedent in the US Congress.  Oh, sure, there was Tsingtao and Yarmouth in 1914, and there was Tippecanoe in 1811, and Belmont in 1861, but today is Ladies’ Day here.  For what it’s worth…

Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in Warsaw in what was then the Kingdom of Poland, which was a part of Russia, on 7 November 1867.  She got some of her initial schooling at the clandestine Flying (or Floating) University in Warsaw before she moved to Paris in 1891 where she met and married Pierre Curie. Between teaching and writing the Curies put together enough of a living to scrape by until 1903, when the Curies and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie Curie (as she was known in France) was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.  In 1906 Pierre was killed in a road accident, but in 1911 she was awarded a second Nobel Prize in Physics for her isolation of radium and polonium.  She was the first person to win two Nobels, and the only woman to win two.

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Liese (originally Elise) Meitner was born in Vienna, in what was then Austria-Hungary, on 7 November 1878.  Unlike Marie Curie, Meitner was unable to obtain much of a formal early education, but instead got her early training externally, through tutors and testing…what today would be deemed “homeschooling.” She was the second woman to earn a PhD from the University of Vienna, gaining that distinction in 1905.  Listening to lectures by Max Planck at the Friedrichs-Wilhelms-Universitat in Berlin, she was drawn to the work of Otto Hahn as one of Planck’s assistants.  Together they discovered radioactive recoil, a key concept in nuclear fission. By 1938, Meitner had lost her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because she was a Jew, and had fled to Sweden. She was there in 1939 when fission was announced by Hahn and Fritz Strassman: her considerable contribution to fission work before 1936 was not mentioned in Hahn’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944.  Subsequent historical research has concluded that Meitner was, indeed, wrongly deprived of the honor she was due.

By 1938, Meitner had lost her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because she was a Jew, and had fled to Sweden.

With World War One raging in Europe, the American elections of 1916 were still fairly closely contested.  As Woodrow Wilson was reelected in part based on the slogan “he kept us out of the war,” the President-re-elect knew that it was only a matter of time before America would have to choose a side.  But on the same day, Jeannette Pickering Rankin, a suffragette/social worker and influential lecturer, was elected to represent Montana’s 1st Congressional district, the first woman to ever hold federal elective office in the United States.  Rankin took her seat on 4 March 1917.  The day before, the German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmerman acknowledged the authenticity of the telegram he sent to the Carranza government of Mexico that January, offering the return of Texas and Arizona if Mexico would go to war with the US.  The Zimmerman Telegram was a media sensation when it was released to the media on 18 February, 1917.  Combined with Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February, Wilson believed he had no choice but to ask Congress for a declaration of war on 2 April. After intense debate, Rankin was one of fifty members of the House to vote “no” on 4 April.  She later stated: “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.” After losing her bid for reelection in 1920, Rankin finally re-entered Congress in 1940, and in December 1941 cast the only dissenting vote after FDR’s request to declare war on Japan.  “As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said to her detractors, “and I refuse to send anyone else.” She didn’t run for reelection in 1942, and was a peace activist until her death in 1973.

She later stated: “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.”

As ironic as 7 November seems to be–two nuclear physicists born, one dyed-in-the-wool pacifist elected–as I write this the results of tomorrow’s election are unknown to me, but by the time you read this maybe we’ll know…or not, depending on how close it really is.  We shall see…

 

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