From Nazi-Occupied Denmark to the Labs of 4 Nobel LaureatesJanuary 08, 2014
Just days before the Nazis invaded Denmark, Hilde Levi escaped in a rowboat to Sweden. Her fellowship file in the AAUW archives tells the astonishing story of her escape. “My life went on rather undisturbed until summer 1943,” Levi described, “when rumors about assaults against the Jews became more consistent and it appeared advisable to ‘disappear from home’ on critical days.” After she escaped safely to Sweden Levi explained, “My Danish friends have taken care of my home, using my flat as a place of rescue for people of the underground movement.”
As I read through Levi’s file, her story began to take shape. Not only did she escape Nazi persecution, she was also an accomplished physicist who won a 1947–48 AAUW International Fellowship. And just when I thought her story couldn’t get any more interesting, I found letters. Three letters tucked away in an old folder of the AAUW archives, written by Nobel Prize-winning scientists Niels Bohr, George de Hevesy, and James Franck.
But more on that in a minute.
As a Jewish woman born and educated in Germany, Levi was restricted from academic positions when the Nazis gained power. Fortunately, the Danish branch of the International Federation of University Women assisted Levi in obtaining a position at the Niels Bohr Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen. This is where Levi worked with Bohr, de Hevesy, and Franck. Bohr is famous for developing his model of the atom in 1913, for which he received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1922. He also helped support refugee academics like Levi by creating a fund and temporary positions at his institute in Copenhagen.
In his letter, Bohr recommends Levi for an AAUW fellowship and praises her for her “scientific qualifications.” The second letter, written by chemist George de Hevesy, recognizes Levi’s achievements in radiochemistry as his assistant from 1934 to 1940 — leading up to de Hevesy’s 1943 Nobel Prize for his work with radioactive isotopes. The third letter, written by James Franck, also recommends Levi for the fellowship. Franck earned the Nobel Prize in physics in 1925 for his work with the Franck-Hertz experiment, which supported the Bohr atom model. He later became involved with the Manhattan Project while teaching at the University of Chicago.
The AAUW fellowship gave Levi the opportunity to study at the University of Chicago with yet another future Nobel laureate, Willard Libby. Libby developed radiocarbon dating — an immensely beneficial tool in the field of archaeology — which earned him the 1960 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
It is a thrill to uncover records like Levi’s in the AAUW archives. Hers joins a rich collection of stories about hardship, determination, and achievement in the face of great obstacles. The letters also show the invaluable experience Levi gained while working alongside four history-making scientists — whose successes she no doubt had a hand in. And it’s gratifying to see, in light of all the women scientists whom history has overlooked or undervalued, male Nobel laureates who in turn supported an emerging woman scientist’s career.
This post was written by AAUW archives intern Justine Rothbart.
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