Lise Meitner's story

Lise Meitner (1878-1968), an Austrian physicist known for her work on radioactivity and nuclear physics, was a twentieth-century female scientist who will be remembered for her role in the discovery of nuclear fission and also for her resilience. On 27th October, DiscovHER traced the journey of this exceptional woman who Einstein called the “German Marie Curie”.

Higher education at a time when girls left school aged 14

The progressive and intellectual family background from which Lise Meitner and her four sisters came, gave them access to higher education. To apply to the University of Vienna, which was open to women in 1897, Lise Meitner took her baccalaureat as an external candidate and studied at the same level as men. In 1901, at just twenty-three years old, she entered the University of Vienna. She left in 1906 when she was only the second woman to have received a doctoral degree in physics.

A female scientist braving the ban on university careers for women

Lise Meitner continued her studies despite the ban on women following university careers. From 1907, her specialism in radioactivity took her to Berlin, where she attended lectures by Max Planck, the father of quantum physics, which were usually forbidden to women, as were all the laboratories in Prussia.

In the Kaiser Wilhelm Company for the Advancement of Science (KWG), her meeting with the young Otto Hahn marked the beginning of a rich collaboration and a long friendship. Yet, the conditions in which research in the area of nuclear physics had to be carried out were restrictive. To be able to enter the Chemical Lab in Berlin, Lise Meitner had to accept work in the basement, in premises converted into a laboratory, away from the men. She worked there for a long time without pay. She expressed the importance of science to her during the First World War when Lise Meitner, working as a nurse-technician in radiology for the Austrian army, declared: 

Science is my heritage

Her discoveries given late recognition

In 1917, Lise Meitner was named Director of the KWG Physics Department. Her research was on how to interact with the nuclei of atoms, which would lead to the discovery of nuclear fission. She also worked on artificial nuclear reactions and non-radiative transition, measuring the neutron mass and beginning the construction of a particle accelerator. Meitner and Hahn discovered protactinium, a new radioactive element, in 1918.

Her research would be slowed down in 1933, when the Nazi movement forbade access to universities to Jewish researchers. She escaped to Sweden in 1938 where she continued to work with Otto Hahn via correspondence. When Roosevelt launched the Manhattan programme to build an atomic bomb using the work carried out by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner, Meitner refused to participate on ethical grounds.

In 1944, Otto Hahn received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work with Meitner, but Meitner was not recognised. She had to wait until 1945 when she was finally awarded “Woman of the Year” by the US Women's Press Club.

Among her other late acknowledgements, were the Award of the City of Vienna for Science in 1947, in 1960 the Austrian Association for Commerce awarded her the Wilhelm Exner Medal and in 1967 she received the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art.

Lise Meitner, although overlooked by the Nobel Prize Committee, remains an influential scientific figure for the whole of society. Her name will be used for various schools, roads and even for naming two craters on the Moon and on Venus.

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