5 Women Scientists of AAUW’s War Relief Project

September 01, 2015

During World War II, AAUW offered scholarships and other services that helped Jewish scholars escape from Europe and parts of Asia. This project, called the War Relief Fund, connected women with teaching positions in safe countries, provided living expenses for students abroad, and offered other services after the war. Among those helped by the fund were a number of scientists who made major contributions to their fields at a time when few women were even allowed to attain higher education. Below are some of these marvelous women.

1. Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner, then a visiting professor of physics at Catholic University, met with finalists in the Science Talent Search competition in 1946.

Lise Meitner, then a visiting professor of physics at Catholic University, met with finalists in the Science Talent Search competition in 1946.

Lise Meitner is perhaps the best-known woman on this list, and for good reason. After completing her doctoral degree in physics in 1905, she became the first female full professor of physics at the University of Berlin in 1926 and worked with Otto Hahn on a transuranium research project that led to the discovery of nuclear fission. Though Hahn received a Nobel Prize for the research, Meitner’s name was not included on the nominated paper, so she did not receive a prize as well, even though she was acknowledged at the time as having done much of the work. She has not gone unrecognized, though: Element 109, Meitnerium, was named in her honor.

AAUW helped secure funds for Meitner to transition into her life in Sweden. While living in Stockholm, Meitner started a working relationship with Niels Bohr.

2. Hedwig Kohn

Hedwig Kohn

Hedwig Kohn. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Hedwig Kohn earned her doctor of physics in 1913 under Otto Lummer and continued to work as his assistant until 1933, when she was dismissed because she was Jewish. Her research centered around light, and her work helped further information about the intensity of light and emission line shapes.

AAUW helped connect Kohn with temporary teaching assignments, including one at the Woman’s College at the University of North Carolina that allowed her to obtain her visa in 1940.

3. Marietta Blau

Marietta Blau. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Marietta Blau earned her doctorate in 1919 from the University of Vienna, where she studied physics and mathematics. Her work focused on particle physics, specifically on the photographic detection of high-energy nuclear particles. She is a textbook example of the way women were treated in academia at that time, as she had to work without pay on occasion and received little credit in the field for her groundbreaking work. She was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1950, but Cecil Powell won instead — for a similar project. And despite winning the Erwin Schrödinger Prize from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, she was unable to obtain membership.

AAUW worked to connect Blau with teaching positions overseas, and she was eventually able to leave Austria once Albert Einstein secured a position for her at the University of Mexico City.

4. Herta Leng

Herta Leng. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Herta Leng. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Herta Leng was an Austrian-born physicist who came to the United States in 1940, where she studied radioactive tracers and helped Karl Lark-Horovitz develop the cyclotron. On top of receiving aid from the AAUW War Relief Fund, Leng was awarded an AAUW International Fellowship in 1940, which led to a career at Purdue University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She became Rensselaer’s first female full professor, and an annual lecture series takes place there in her memory.

5. Marie Wreschner

Marie Wreschner was a German chemist who obtained her doctorate from the University of Berlin in 1918. She taught at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, specifically in the Institute of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, where she was one of two women. She studied the way that elements uranium X and thorium behaved in solution and her work furthered the hypothesis that these two substances formed colloids.

This post was written by AAUW Archives intern Sheridan Sayles.


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AAUW Intern By:   |   September 01, 2015

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