Otto Hahn

Photo: Basch, […] / Opdracht Anefo / CC BY-SA 3.0 NL (

Nationality: German

Born: March 8, 1879

Born Place: Frankfurt, Germany

Died: July 28, 1968

Death Place: Göttingen, Germany

Gender: Male

Spouse: Edith Junghans [de] (1887–1968) (Married: 1913–1968)

Known for:

Discovery of radioactive elements (1905–1921)
Radiothorium (228Th, 1905)
Radioactinium (227Th, 1906)
Mesothorium (228Ra, 1907)
Ionium (230Th, 1907)
Radioactive recoil (1909)
Fajans–Paneth–Hahn Law
Protactinium (Pa, 1917)
Nuclear isomerism (1921)
Applied Radiochemistry (1936)
Rubidium-strontium dating (1938)
Discovery of nuclear fission (1938)


Otto Hahn (8 March 1879 – 28 July 1968) was a German chemist and pioneer in the fields of radioactivity and radiochemistry. Hahn is referred to as the father of nuclear chemistry. He discovered radioactive isotopes of radium, thorium, protactinium and uranium. He also discovered the phenomena of radioactive recoil and nuclear isomerism. In 1938, Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered nuclear fission, for which Hahn received the 1944 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Nuclear fission was the basis for nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons that were developed by the Manhattan Project during World War II.

Hahn was an opponent of national socialism and the persecution of Jews by the Nazi Party that caused Meitner to flee Germany. During World War II, he worked on the German nuclear weapons program, and as a consequence was incarcerated by the Allied forces in Farm Hall with nine other scientists.

Hahn served as the last president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Science in 1946 and as the founding president of its successor, the Max Planck Society from 1948 to 1960. Considered by many to be a model for scholarly excellence and personal integrity, he became one of the most influential and respected citizens of the postwar West Germany.


Otto Hahn was born in Frankfurt am Main on 8 March 1879, the youngest son of Heinrich Hahn (1845–1922), a prosperous glazier (and founder of the Glasbau Hahn company), and Charlotte Hahn née Giese (1845–1905). He had an older half-brother Karl, his mother’s son from her previous marriage, and two older brothers, Heiner and Julius. The family lived above his father’s workshop. The younger three boys were educated at Klinger Oberrealschule in Frankfurt. 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 , Hahn began to study chemistry at the University of Marburg. His subsidiary subjects were mathematics, physics, mineralogy and philosophy. Hahn joined the Students’ Association of Natural Sciences and Medicine, a student fraternity and a forerunner of today’s Landsmannschaft Nibelungi (Coburger Convent der akademischen Landsmannschaften und Turnerschaften). He spent his third and fourth semesters at the University of Munich, studying organic chemistry under Adolf von Baeyer, phyisical chmistry under Friedrich Wilhelm Muthmann, and inorganic chemistry under Karl Andreas Hofmann. In 1901, Hahn received his doctorate in Marburg for a dissertation entitled On Bromine Derivates of Isoeugenol, a topic in classical organic chemistry. He completed his one-year military service (instead of the usual two because he had a doctorate) in the 81st Infantry Regiment, but unlike his brothers,m did not apply for a commission. He then returned to the University of Marburg, where he worked for two years as assistant to his doctoral supervisor, Geheimrat Professor Theodor Zincke.


During his lifetime Hahn was awarded orders, medals, scientific prizes, and fellowships of Academies, Societies, and Institutions from all over the world.

As well as the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1944), Hahn was awarded:

  • the Emil Fischer Medal of the Society of German Chemists (1922),
  • the Cannizaro Prize of the Royal Academy of Science in Rome (1938),
  • the Copernicus Prize of the University of Konigsberg (1941),
  • the Gothenius Medal of the Akademie der Naturforscher (1943),
  • the Max Planck Medal of the German Physical Society, with Lise Meitner (1949),
  • the Goethe Medal of the city of Frankfurt-on-the-Main (1949),
  • the Golden Paracelsus Medal of the Swiss Chemical Society (1953),
  • the Faraday Lectureship Prize with Medal from the Royal Society of Chemistry (1956),
  • the Grotius Medal of the Hugo Grotius Foundation (1956), 
  • Wilhelm Exner Medal of the Austrian Industry Association (1958), 
  • the Helmholtz Medal of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (1959),
  • and the Harnack medal in Gold from the Max Planck Society (1959).

Hahn became the honorary president of the Max Planck Society in 1962.

  • He was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (1957).
  • His honorary memberships of foreign academies and scientific societies included:
    • the Romanian Physical Society in Bucharest,
    • the Royal Spanish Society for Chemistry and Physics and the Spanish National Research Council,
    • and the Academies in Allahabad, Bangalore, Berlin, Boston, Bucharest, Copenhagen, Göttingen, Halle, Helsinki, Lisbon, Madrid, Mainz, Munich, Rome, Stockholm, Vatican, and Vienna.

He was an honorary fellow of University College London,

  • and an honorary citizen of the cities of Frankfurt am Main and Göttingen in 1959,
  • and of Berlin (1968).
  • Hahn was made an Officer of the Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur of France (1959),
  • and was awarded the Grand Cross First Class of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1959).
  • In 1966, US President Lyndon B. Johnson and the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) awarded Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann the Enrico Fermi Award. The diploma for Hahn bore the words: “For pioneering research in the naturally occurring radioactivities and extensive experimental studies culminating in the discovery of fission.”
  • He received honorary doctorates from
    • the University of Gottingen,
    • the Technische Universität Darmstadt,
    • the University of Frankfurt in 1949,
    • and the University of Cambridge in 1957.

Objects named after Hahn include:

  • NS Otto Hahn, the only European nuclear-powered civilian ship (1964),
  • a crater on the Moon (shared with his namesake Friedrich von Hahn),
  • and the asteroid 19126 Ottohahn,
  • the Otto Hahn Prize of both the German Chemical and Physical Societies and the city of Frankfurt/Main,
  • the Otto Hahn Medal and the Otto Hahn Award of the Max Planck Society,
  • and the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold of the United Nations Association of Germany (DGVN) in Berlin (1988).


Hahn was shot in the back by a disgruntled inventor in October 1951, injured in a motor vehicle accident in 1952, and had a minor heart attack in 1953. In 1962, he published a book, Vom Radiothor zur Uranspaltung. It was released in English in 1966 in 1966 with the title Otto Hahn: A Scientific Autobiography, with an introduction by Glenn Seaborg. The success of this book may have prompted him to write another, fuller autobiography, Otto Hahn. Mein Leben, but before it could be published, he fractured one of the vertebrae in his neck while getting out of a car. He gradually became weaker and weaker, and died in Göttingen on 28 July 1968. His wife Edith only survived him by a fortnight. He was buried in the Stadtfriedhof in Göttingen.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 4 July 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

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