Marietta Blau

Marietta Blau
Marietta Blau
Vienna, Austria
Death date
Associated organizations
University of Vienna, Radiuminstitut of the Academy of Sciences in Vienna, Instituto Politécnico Nacional
Fields of study
Particle Physics, Nuclear Physics
1937 Lieben Prize, Nominated for the Noble Prize in 1950, Erwin Schrödinger prize by the Academy of Sciences


Marietta Blau was a physicist known for her research indeveloping photographic nuclear emissions that were able to measure high energy nuclear particles [1]. In 1937 Blau received the prestigious Lieben Prize, in 1950 she was nominated for the Nobel Prize, and in 1962 had won the Erwin Schrödinger prize by the Academy of Sciences [2].

Marietta Blau was born 1894 in Austria to a Jewish middle-class family. Her father was a well known lawyer who had interest in the cultural scene in Vienna, and was also noted to be a well known music publisher. Educated in the first Vienna High School that prepared women for university education, Blau showed her curiosity at an early stage with her heavy interest in mathematics and physics [3]. She eventually went on to graduate and obtained her Matura (school-leaving certificate) with distinction [4].

After Graduation, she attended the University of Vienna in 1914 where she began her career studying physics. In 1919 she graduated with distinction from the University of Vienna with a diploma in Physics and Mathematics under the direction of Stefan Meyer of the Institute for Radium Research and Franz Exner of the Second Physics Institute, concentrating on the still relatively novel phenomenon of radioactivity [5]. Additionally, she was also able to complete her thesis on the absorption of gamma rays in 1919 just after the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which inevitably lead to an increase in impoverishment, and particularly in Bau's case, an increase in antisemitism [6] .

Since the academic work opportunities for women were scarce, in 1921 she moved to Berlin to briefly work for a manufacturer of x-ray tubes. However, Blau returned to Vienna in 1924 to look after her sick mother and was fortunate enough to obtain a position at the distinguished Radiuminstitut of the Academy of Sciences in Vienna [7] . Despite earning the position, she entered as an unpaid scientific staff member, as her application to become a regular employee was declined. The reasoning for her declined application came from an response letter- "You know, you are a woman and a Jew, and the two together are simply too much. [8]." As a result, she depended on her family for financial support.

Despite antisemitism and sexist opinions from some of the community members, she had a friendly and professional relationship with Stefan Meyer, who acted as the team manager in Bau's research. Under Meyer's leadership, the institute proved a scientific home for Blau and several other women scientists . Eventually, she began collaboration with her student Hertha Wambacher, who eventually became her colleague, on the photographic method in experimental nuclear physics. By 1937, Blau and Wambacher made significant improvements to the method that enabled an analysis of particle properties, and made a spectacular discovery: stars of multiple particles given off in nuclear disintegration caused encounters between high-energy cosmic rays and nuclei in their emulsions. This discovery brought Blau and her work to the attention of figures such as Erwin Schrodinger, Werner Heisenberg, and eventually Albert Einstein [9]. As a result of her research, her and Wambacher received the distinguished Lieben Prize.

However, due to increasing tension between Jewish scientists and Nazi sympathizers who were widespread throughout the University and in Vienna, things began to take a toll for the worst. Stefan Meryer, the manager and professional friend of Blau, was forced to retire by the Nazis in 1938 following Hitler's annexation of Austria [10]. In addition, immediately following the Anschluss, Blau and her mother were forced to leave Vienna. But due to connections prior to the event of the Anschluss with Albert Einstein, who found her work as a physicist to be highly regarded, Einstein used various personal connections to find a more stable position for Blau outside of Europe in Mexico City [11].

Arriving to Mexico to teach as a Escuela Superior de Ingeniería Mecánica y Eléctrica at the newly established Instituto Politécnico Nacional (IPN), she became disappointed in seeing that the institution had no opportunity for her specific scientific work. In 1944, after the death of her mother, Blau immigrated to the U.S to start her work in various industrial companies, developing devices for which radioactive idotopes were used. Despite the opportunity to work in her field again, she partially did not like the position as she felt very isolated [12].

In 1950, following the liberation of Austria in 1945, many Nazi's who were removed from the Radiminstitut were reinstated, including Stetter who was appointed as full professor of physics. He wrote a false obituary for Wambacher, another known Nazi scientist who died in 1950 from cancer, instating that he was the major contributor to the development of the photographic method. Eventually Blau and Wambacher were nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1950 by Erwin Schrodinger for the discovery of disintegration, but lost to C.F. Powell who had discovered the pion with the help of Blau's method. In an autobiography, Powell had stated that he used the photographic method in his investigation only after he learned of Blau's and Wambacher's papers [13].

It was during this time period that in 1948 took a position in Columbia University as a scientific staff member. Two years later, she left the position and began to work in the Brookhaven National Laboratory, where produced particles in a fission reactor to in high energy machines for study. She eventually left in 1956 to teach in a private university in Miami, until in 1960 she decided to return to Vienna for health reasons. On returning, she was honored with the Schrodinger Prize of the Academy, but was disappointed to still see Stetter was still involved within the university. She guided some students with their dissertations in high energy physics until her death in January of 1970 [14].