Lise Meitner: Women Weren’t Allowed to Go To University, So She Got Her Doctorate by Herself

She was the first woman in Germany to become a full professor; Albert Einstein called her “the German Marie Curie”, and after World World II the Allies called her “the Mother of the Atomic Bomb.” 

And yet, when Hahn, her research partner, was awarded the Nobel Peace price in Chemistry in 1944, she was overlooked (what does a Jewish woman have anything to do with Physics breakthroughs?)

Lise Meitner was born to a wealthy secular Jewish family in Vienna in 1878. Her father, one of the first Jewish lawyers in Austria, insisted that his daughters receive the same education as his sons. 

Meitner showed a talent for mathematics from a young age, but women weren’t allowed to go to university at the time. Her father hired private tutors with whom she could study at home, and at the age of 21 she was allowed to take the certification exams at the University of Vienna – which she passed with outstanding honors.

Upon receiving her doctorate in physics, she moved to Berlin and began working at the Wilheim Kaiser Institute, together with Max Planck. At the same time, she  converted from Judaism to Lutheran, and shortened her name from Elise, which had Jewish connotations, to Lise. She hoped that this would pave the way for her to assimilate into German society.

Her research partner was Otto Hahn, but because she was a woman, she started out working with him as a “guest” in the lab, for no pay. It was only in 1913, when she was 34, that the lab agreed to hire her as full-time employee. She was appointed head of the Department of Physics, making her the first woman in Germany to run a Physics laboratory.

Lise Meitner 1906
Meitner in 1906

When World War II broke out, she volunteered to help the war effort and served as a nurse in charge of solider X-Rays. After two years in the field, she decided to turn in her uniform and return to the lab in Berlin. 

And it was a good thing, because her and Hahn’s career began to flourish. In 1717, they discovered the isotope of the chemical element Protactinium, an achievement for which he was awarded the Leibniz Science Award. In 1926, she was the first woman in Germany to be appointed full professor of Physics.

The 1920’s and 1930’s were especially fruitful for Meitner and Hahn, and they kept reaching more groundbreaking feats in atomic physics. The climax was their discovery of nuclear fission in 1937. 

What was particularly remarkable about this achievement is that Hahn and Meitner acheived it through correspondence. Since Hitler came to power in 1933, Meitner watched her status erode, but she insisted on continuing her research. When Austria was conquered in 1938, she knew she couldn’t keep denying Germany’s situation, and she fled in the middle of the night to Sweden, with only two suitcases. She was hired at the Nobel Institute for Physics, but didn’t feel at home in Stockholm.

Hahn and Meitner kept working together through correspondence. Hahn was trained as an experimental chemist, and Meitner in theoretical Physics. She instructed him what experiments to perform, he reported the results to her and she gave them the theoretical framework.

Meitner and Hans in the lab
Meitner and Hahn in the lab during better times

 

Suddenly, in 1939, Hanh published the results of their research – which showed how fragmentation of uranium could lead to a great deal of energy release (the theoretical basis for the atomic bomb) – in the dead of night. Whether due to fear of the Nazi regime, or because he was suffering from a wounded male ego – he published the research without consulting Meitner, and omitted her from the list of authors and claimed that the research was solely his own. 

The scientific world was shaken by the discovery, but some wondered how Hahn the chemist came to this discovery by himself. Meitner sent a letter to Nature from Stockholm explaining the theoretical background to the experiments.

Despite all this, when Hahn was awarded the Noble Prize in Chemistry in 1944 – he won alone, without the committee acknowledging Meitner’s contribution. 

To date, the Meitner case is considered one of the most obvious cases of scientific disregard for women’s contribution to scientific breakthroughs by the Nobel Prize Committee.

After World War II, Meitner vowed that she would never step again in Germany, and after her retirement moved to the United Kingdom and died there in 1968.

Over the years, Meitner has won numerous awards, and many scholarships and awards have been established in her memory. In 1997, scientists decided to name a new element, element 109, meitnerium in her memory.

 

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