Lise Meitner was born into an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Austria, where her father was one of the first Jewish lawyers. Women were not allowed to attend public universities, but she was able to receive a private education in Physics and became the second woman to obtain a PhD in Physics at the University of Vienna. Upon graduation, she declined a factory job to go to university in Berlin, studying from and becoming the assistant to physicist Max Planck, who until then had rejected women being educated in the higher sciences. Her early research was published under her surname only.
Her subsequent partnership with chemist Otto Hahn resulted in the discovery of several new isotopes. Lise worked as an X-ray nurse during WW1, and then returned to her research, forever changed by witnessing the suffering of war. Her research with Hahn and others continued, and she made a number of important discoveries - including the discovery of nuclear fission in heavy nuclei in 1938. That year, Hitler’s rise to power put all Jewish scientists at risk; Meitner left all of her possessions and escaped German-annexed Austria to live and work in Sweden. She became a Swedish citizen in 1946 and continued her scientific work. Lise retired to the UK in 1960, and continued to lecture and travel until her death at the age of 89.
Lived: 1878 - 1968
Why She Matters
Lise Meitner’s research forged both new discoveries and confirmed the work of others (such as The Auger Effect and the existence of the neutrino) at a time when women were discouraged from higher education, excluded from publication and unrecognized for their contribution to the sciences.
Was the second woman PhD (Austria) and first female physics professor in Germany
Took unpaid “researcher” and “guest” positions until hired after nearly 10 years of proven work
Discovered Element 91, Protactinium, and several radioactive isotopes
Was the first to see that Einstein’s E-mc2 explained the tremendous releases of energy in atomic decay, by the conversion of the mass into energy
Worked on the team that discovered nuclear fission of uranium and thorium and coined the actual term “nuclear fission” with her nephew, Otto Frisch
Declined to work on the Manhattan Project, and had mixed feelings about the results of her scientific work being used to create nuclear armaments
Worked with leading scientists of her age: Max Planck, Otto Hahn, Otto Frisch, Niels Bohr, and Manne Siegbahn (among others). Many male scientists in this era were highly resistant to women's involvement in the sciences
Albert Einstein called her the “German Marie Curie”
Conducted atomic research into her late 80s, including work on R1, Sweden’s first nuclear reactor
Chemical Element 109 was renamed Meitnerium in her honor (1997)
There are craters on the moon, Venus, and an asteroid named for her
Numerous Honorary Doctorates, Medals, Society Memberships and Prizes, including the Enrico Fermi Prize (Atomic Energy Commission) and the Otto Hahn Prize
She did NOT share the Nobel Prize for Chemistry awarded to Otto Hahn for their shared discovery of Nuclear Fission. Meitner is often cited as one of the most glaring examples of women’s scientific achievement being overlooked by the Nobel committee
Her name was also submitted, by Hahn, to the Nobel Prize committee 10 times, but was never accepted
The European Physical Society awards the “Lise Meitner Prize” for excellent research in nuclear science, and Sweden’s “Gothenburg Lise Meitner Award” is awarded to scientist who has made a breakthrough in physics
Leaving a Legacy
Born into an era fraught with challenges for women (especially Jewish women) in the sciences, Lise Meitner discovered isotopes, generated ground-breaking research, and, in partnership with others, discovered and named the most important scientific discovery of the 20th Century - nuclear fission - which changed physics and the world in what has become known as the Nuclear Age.