Ruth Lewin Sime

Fellow: Awarded 2008

Field of Study: History of Science and Technology

Competition: US & Canada


Ruth Lewin Sime is Professor Emerita in the Department of Chemistry at Sacramento City College (SCC).  After receiving her Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard University in 1964, Ms. Sime served as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at California State University, Long Beach (1964-65), California State University, Sacramento (1965-67), and Hunter College of the City University of New York (1967-68) before joining the faculty of SCC in 1968.

During her tenure at SCC, she has been an NEH Fellow (1981-82, 1984-85), an NSF Fellow (1984-85, 2000-02), an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow (1992), and a guest scholar at the Max Planck Society in Berlin (2003).

In addition to her teaching and scientific research, Ms. Sime had also been exploring the history of science. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (U of California Press, 1996) is perhaps her best-known work in this field.  It received the Silver Medal for Nonfiction from the Commonwealth Club of California and the History of Science Society’s Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis Prize, and was selected as a Library Journal best book; it has been translated into Chinese, German, and Japanese. She also wrote, with Elisabeth Crawford and Mark Walker, “A Nobel Tale of Wartime Injustice,” which was published in Nature, 382 (1996), and “A Nobel Tale of Postwar Injustice,” which appeared in Physics Today, 50, No. 9 (1997).

Ms. Sime had for years been interested in the German physicist Otto Hahn (1879-1968), who, despite his sanitized image as the pure scientist unsullied by wartime activities, secretly directed an institute during World War II that was dedicated to the development of a nuclear weapon.  In fact, Lise Meitner had been his assistant and friend till she fled Germany in 1938, so Ms. Sime had already touched upon Hahn’s history in her work on Meitner. 

In “The Politics of Memory: Otto Hahn and the Third Reich,” which was published in Physics in Perspective, 8 (2006), and in “ ‘Die Uranspaltung hat da die ganze Situation gerettet’: Otto Hahn und das Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut fürChemie während des Zweiten Weltkriegs,” which was included in Gemeinschaftsforschung, Bevollmächtigte und der Wissenstransfer. Die rolle der Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft im system kriegsrelevanter Forschung des Nationalsozialismus, edited by Helmut Maier (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2007), she examined Hahn directly, helping to debunk the traditional image of him as a person above political concerns, an acolyte of Science only.  

At the same time that he was connected to the German government and in fact working for it, Hahn was very much opposed to the anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime, and intervened successfully to save two Jewish scientists. After the war, like many of his compatriots he never wrote or spoke publicly about the Jewish colleagues who had been killed or driven away, nor did he ever mention the War Service Cross awarded to him by the Führer. During her Guggenheim Fellowship term, Ms. Sime undertook a full biography of Otto Hahn, to flesh out this complex man, address these seeming contradictions, and to place him in the context of his time.