Directors and research fellows since 1912
Ernst Otto Beckmann (1853-1923) was named President of the Imperial Institute of Chemistry (Verein Chemische Reichsanstalt) in Berlin in 1908. In 1912 he was appointed director of the newly established Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. In his department of inorganic and physical chemistry, he conducted studies on the determination of molecular weight and on spectral analysis, which he had commenced during his training in Leipzig.
Following the outbreak of war in 1914, he concentrated on producing protective masks, communication through secret light signals and on the development of replacement linings. He attempted to remove the poisonous and bitter compounds on lupines. He researched methods relating to the chemical indication of firedamp susceptibility in mining. During the war, he further developed the firedamp apparatus in order to detect escaping gases, for example, in airships. He improved molecular weight determination through the invention of the Beckmann thermometer which was named after him. The thermometer can measure very small temperature differences of 0.01°C.
In 1921, he retired for health reasons. He devoted his final years, among other things, to the so-called 'Beckmann rearrangement', an acid-catalyzed conversion of ketoximes or aldoximes to amides.
Richard Willstätter (1872-1942) studied chemistry at the Technical University of Munich and gained his PhD in 1894. He gained his professorship in 1896 and became Associate Professor six years later and Board Member for the Organic Department at the Baeyerschen Institute. After seven years as Professor of General Chemistry at the ETH Zürich, Richard Willstätter took up his role as Director of the Organic Department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) for Chemistry in Berlin-Dahlem in 1912 and became Scientific Member. In the same year, he received an honorary professorship at the Berlin University. In 1916, he left the KWI for Chemistry again and returned to the Technical University of Munich, where he succeeded Adolf von Baeyer. Between 1927 and 1937, Willstätter was an External Scientific Member of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Following the Hitler Putsch, there were an increasing number of antisemitic actions against him which, in 1924, led to him giving up his professorship in Munich. Willstätter eventually emigrated to Switzerland in 1939.
Richard Willstätter devoted his research primarily to the chemical pigments of chlorophyll, hemoglobin and anthocyanins (water soluble plant dyes which are present in almost all higher plants and which give flowers and fruits their red, violet, blue or blue-black coloring). In 1915, he received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his research into plant dyes, primarily chlorophyll. He discovered, among other things, that the structure of green dye exhibits significant similarity to the structure of the red blood pigment hemoglobin.
Lise Meitner (1878-1968) worked from 1912, on an honorary basis, as a scientific guest at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin and, in 1913, became the first female Scientific Member of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society.
In the early years, she worked with Otto Hahn in a small department for radioactivity. They continued the study, which had already begun, into the magnetic spectra of beta particles in different radioactive substances. World War One forced Hahn and Meitner to interrupt their research. In 1916, Meitner recommenced her work and, in 1917, she set up her own radiophysical department. Together with Hahn, she discovered the radioactive isotope protactinium that same year. In 1920, Hahn and Meitner's research into radioactivity became the research focus of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry.The collaboration between Otto Hahn, Fritz Straßmann and Lise Meitner led to the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938. Meitner made a decisive contribution with the physical and theoretical explanation.
In 1938, Meitner, who was Jewish by birth, fled into exile in Stockholm, Sweden, where she continued her work at the Nobel Institute in Stockholm. She remained in Sweden until 1960 and then moved to Cambridge in the UK to be with her nephew.
Otto Hahn (1879-1968) was a Scientific Member of the Kaiser Wilhelm and, subsequently, the Max Plank Institute for Chemistry from 1912 until 1960.
In 1912, he became director of the department for radioactive research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) for Chemistry in Berlin. World War One forced him to interrupt his research which he resumed, with Lise Meitner, in 1916. From 1918 onwards he was the director of the radiochemical department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. In this role, he devoted himself primarily to applied radiochemistry and to research into minimal 'weightless' quantities. Assisted by the so-called emanation method, he investigated the structure and surface changes of solid bodies using the radioactive noble gas radon. He was also concerned with geological age determination. In 1928, Otto Hahn was appointed the Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. The joint research by Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Straßmann into transuranic elements led to the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938. In 1945, he received the Noble Prize for this.
Following his internment in the UK in 1945, he returned to Germany in 1946. In the same year he became President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and of the newly established Max Planck Society as well. Hahn retired in 1960 but remained Honorary President of the Max Planck Society until 1968.