Marietta Blau

* 29.04.1894 (Wien) 27.01.1970 (Wien) Austria
Fields of activity: Physikerin
Author: Ulrike Rahmatian

„Marietta Blau is the most tragic figure in the history around cosmic rays. Her life and her work were characterised by adversity and backlashes, yet her achievements and the results of her work excel those of many others, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in context with cosmic rays.“ (Georg Federmann).

She was a pioneer in the field of photographic methods to prove nuclear processes and still often had to work unpaid in order to be able to do research at all.
Marietta Blau originated from an upper middle class Jewish family. Her father, a court lawyer and actively engaged in the cultural circles of fin-de-siècle Vienna, promoted her education.
From both high school and Vienna University she graduated with distinction. 1918 she received her university diploma in Physics and Mathematics.

During the following years Marietta worked in several industrial and scientific research institutes in Germany, 1924 she joined the Vienna Institute for Radium Research as an unpaid scientific staff member. But her application to become a regular employee was declined – „You know, you are a woman and a Jew, and the two together are simply too much.” Therefore she depended on her family for financial support.
1933 she had the opportunity to spend a semester in Paris at Marie Curie’s research facility, whose kind reception she mentioned in a letter to Stefan Meyer.
Together with her pupil Hertha Wambacher she developed a technique to deploy photographic emulsions to study cosmic rays. 1937 she received the Ignaz-L.-Lieben award by the Vienna Academy of Sciences for her discovery of “disintegration stars" – the split-off of several particles from an atom by cosmic rays, as observed in 2500 m height.
Immediately after the annexation to Hitler Germany in 1938, Marietta was forced to emigrate and reached Mexico with the help of Albert Einstein. However, she hardly had any possibilities there to continue her research.

I am taking the liberty of drawing your attention to a case close to my heart. Since three years my colleague, the physicist Dr. Marietta Blau, lives in Mexico City…I know Miss Blau as a very capable experimental physicist who could render valuable service to your country.“ Albert Einstein wrote to the Mexican Minister of Education in 1941.
In 1944 she succeeded to move to the USA, where she worked for the Atomic Energy Commission and later on for the University of Miami.
Generally Marietta was described as a withdrawn and extremely modest person, who did not look for acclaim and avoided publicity. Only in scientific discussions and speeches she lost her shyness.
Erwin Schrödinger (even twice) and Hans Thirring nominated her in vain for the Nobel Prize. In 1947 it was awarded to Cecil Powell, whose work was based on Marietta’s research. Therefore she should have been included as well, but her name was not even mentioned.
The necessity for an eye operation, which she could not afford in the USA, brought Marietta back to Vienna in 1960, where she – again unpaid – headed a research team at the Institute for Radium Research.
Despite her precarious financial situation she refused to accept a pension offered by Ilford and Agfa, who wanted to reciprocate for her contribution to the development of photographic emulsions.
1962 she was awarded the Erwin Schrödinger prize by the Academy of Sciences, however, at the same time they rejected to admit her as correspondent member.

Severely ill, supposedly caused by frequent exposure to radioactivity, Marietta Blau died 1970 in a hospital in Vienna. As a contact person she had nominated the concierge in her apartment building.
No scientific publication released an obituary after her death.

Sources i.a.:
Rentetzi, Maria. "Marietta Blau." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 5, 2013) <>.
Brigitte Bischof: ‚...junge Wienerinnen zertrümmern Atome...’
Robert Rosner: ‚Marietta Blau – Sterne der Zertrümmerung’