Unsung Heroines: Lise Meitner


With Holocaust Memorial Day having just passed, it is a unique time worth reflecting on the effect which WWII had on science and technology. The thousands of potential scientists who were killed during the Holocaust lost their opportunity to leave an impact on the world, while women such as Lise Meitner faced new difficulties in her already challenging field. Lise was an Austrian Jew who suffered greatly both due to her gender and religious upbringing. Nevertheless, Meitner allowed herself to create a lasting impact in the field of physics, with Albert Einstein himself praising her as “the German Marie Curie”.

Lise Meitner was born in Vienna, Austria in 1978 in a period where the education of women was particularly taboo, with formal education ending at 14-years-old. Despite this, her father, Philipp Meitner, encouraged her study and allowed her to pursue a higher education at the University of Vienna in the field of physics. Meitner was the second woman to ever receive a degree from the University of Vienna, earning a PhD in physics in 1905. She travelled to Berlin where Meitner encountered Max Planck, who reluctantly allowed her to attend his lectures.

Max Planck eventually introduced Meitner to the German chemist Otto Hahn, and Meitner became Hahn’s assistant. They worked together in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry where they published research on radiation and the Auger effect. In 1934, Ernico Fermi produced radioactive isotopes by neutron bombardment, an area which particularly puzzled Meitner, who subsequently put together a team with Hahn and Fritz Strassmann to research the products. Unfortunately, four years of research led to little development.

Meitner grew up in a Jewish family, although she herself was a practising protestant. After the Anschluss of Germany and Austria in March 1938, Meitner was forced to flee to Sweden. Despite being in a significantly safer location, Meitner was far from welcomed at the Manne Siegbahn’s Institute in Stockholm. Ruth Lewin Sime wrote about Meitner in ‘Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics’ where she describes that “Neither asked to join Siegbahn’s group nor given the resources to form her own, she had laboratory space but no collaborators, equipment, or technical support, not even her own set of keys to the workshops and laboratories”. This may have been due to Siegbahn’s general prejudice against female scientists and mathematicians.

Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner later secretly met in Copenhagen in 1938, where they confirmed that the product they had been testing was, in fact, barium, rather than radium, which was published in the journal Naturwissenschaften on January 6, 1939. Meanwhile, Meitner worked with her nephew, Otto Frisch, and they coined the term “fission” which was published in Nature on February 11, 1939.

After the end of WWII, Lise Meitner was dubbed the “mother of the atomic bomb” due to her research in fission, which was used in the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project. This title, however, is highly misleading, given that Meitner never desired her work to be used for destructive powers. In fact, she was offered a position on the Manhattan Project which she rejected. She instead spent her post-war years working with injured soldiers using X-ray technology.

Despite her ground-breaking research, Meitner was awarded very little acclaim. Otto Hahn received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1945, disregarding her very influential contributions to their discoveries. Perhaps her lack of recognition is one reason why Meitner never received the recognition she deserved. Her time did come, however, in 1966 when Hahn, Strassmann and Meitner were all awarded the U.S. Fermi Prize for their research.

Meitner died in Cambridge, England, on October 27, 1968 at the age of 90. She left behind her incredible developments in nuclear physics and a story worth inspiring many struggling female scientists and mathematicians. Her perseverance through sexism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia serve to prove that women like Meitner deserve acclaim, and in 1992, the element Meitnerium was named in her honour.