She was the first woman in Germany to become a full professor and later run a Physics department.
Albert Einstein called her “the German Marie Curie”
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, the committee overlooked her (because what does a Jewish woman have to do with a Physics breakthroughs, right?)
Lise Meitner: Early Life & Childhood
Lise Meitner was born to a wealthy secular Jewish family in Vienna in 1878, the third of eight children.
Her father, one of the first Jewish lawyers in Austria, insisted that his daughters receive the same education as his sons.
Even though Meitner showed a talent for mathematics from a young age, she couldn’t really pursuit it as women weren’t allowed to go to university at the time.
Read more stories of trailblazing female scientists
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.
Lise Meitner: Her Physics Career
Upon receiving her doctorate in physics, she moved to Berlin and began working at the Wilheim Kaiser Institute, along 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.
In 1913, when she was 34, the lab agreed to hire her as a full-time employee.
She was appointed head of the Department of Physics, making her the first woman in Germany to run a Physics laboratory.
When World War I broke out, she volunteered to help the war effort and served as a nurse in charge of giving soldiers X-Rays. After two years in the field, she decided to turn in her uniform and return to the lab in Berlin.
Quite a wise decision, because her and Hahn’s career began to flourish after the war.
In 1917, 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 1920s and 1930s were especially fruitful for Meitner and Hahn, and they kept reaching more groundbreaking feats in atomic physics.
Lise Meitner: The Discovery of Nuclear Fission & Hahn’s Betrayal
The climax was their discovery of nuclear fission in 1938.
What was particularly remarkable is that Hahn and Meitner achieved this feat 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’s training was 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.
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.
He omitted her from the list of authors, and claimed that the study was solely his own.
Lise Meitner: Being Snubbed By the Nobel Prize Committee
The discovery shook the scientific world, but some wondered how Hahn, a chemist, discovered these findings alone. Meitner sent a letter to Nature from Stockholm explaining the theoretical background to the experiments.
Despite all this, when Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944 – he won alone, without the committee’s acknowledgment of 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.
Lise Meitner: Death & Legacy
Even after World War II ended, Meitner vowed that she would never again lay foot in Germany.
In 1960, she moved to Cambridge for her retirement. She died there on October 27th, 1968.
Over the years, Meitner has won numerous awards, and many scholarships and awards have been established in her memory.
In 1992, scientists decided to name a new element, element 109, Meitnerium in her memory.
In 2006, the Department of Physics at University of Gothenburg established the Gothenburg Lise Meitner Award in her honor. The award is given annually to a physicist that made a groundbreaking contribution to physics.
Lise Meitner: How Did Lise Meitner Discover Nuclear Fission?
In the early 1930s, Lise Meitner was the first to discover nuclear fission – a process by which large atoms are split into smaller ones. Through her research, she discovered that when certain substances such as uranium were bombarded with neutrons, they would break apart and release vast amounts of energy.
The results of this groundbreaking scientific finding revolutionized nuclear power and propelled physics into an entirely different direction.
Meitner’s breakthrough came in 1923 when she correctly explained how unstable nuclei could be broken apart by neutrons to create powerful explosions we now call nuclear fission.
By 1932, her work had advanced sufficiently so that Hahn and their colleague Fritz Strassmann prepared to bombard uranium with neutrons in an effort to learn more about its structure.
It was only after extensive collaboration between Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch that they published a description of fission.
Their paper succinctly described for the first time what occurs during fission: the splitting of larger atoms into two or more lighter elements without any loss of mass; thus releasing vast amounts of energy – nuclear energy.
To Learn More
- Lise Meitner, BBC Great Lives Podcast
- Lise Meitner, Jewish Women’s Archive
- The Woman Who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner, by Marissa Moss
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