“Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity; it teaches people to accept reality with wonder and admiration, not to mention the deep awe and joy that the natural order of things brings to the true scientist.”
- Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner, like Marie Curie, was a pioneering scientist studying in a climate often hostile to women. However, she persevered, and went on to contribute to the discovery of nuclear fission with colleague Otto Hahn, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery.
Meitner was born in Vienna, Austria on November 7th, 1878. Her father Philipp was one of the first Jewish lawyers in Austria, and both he and his wife Hedwig encouraged all of their 8 children to gain an education. Despite the fact that women weren’t allowed to pursue higher education in Vienna during Meitner’s time, her family paid for her to acquire an education from private teachers. She was eligible to study physics at The University of Vienna in 1901 after passing her exams at the Akademisches Gymnasium, and in 1905, she was awarded a Ph.D.
After graduation, Meitner became the first woman to study with Max Planck, an Austrian physicist and founder of quantum theory who had — until Meitner walked into his life — denied all women the opportunity to attend his lectures. Meitner became Planck’s assistant after studying with him for one year, and met Otto Hahn as a result. The two formed a research group, and after working together for 5 years, they moved to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut in Berlin, where Meitner worked without pay until 1913 until she threatened to take a paid assistant professor’s position at a university in Prague.
In 1917, Meitner and Hahn discovered an isotope of protactinium. After the finding, she was given her own place at the KWI, and she went on to teach, work on a variety of projects with her colleagues, and to discover the cause of the Auger Effect, which was later credited to a French scientist in an independent study in 1925.
By 1933, Lise Meitner was a respected scientist in Germany and abroad, but her life changed dramatically for the worse when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Despite the fact that other Jewish friends and relatives working in Germany in the sciences had either been asked to leave or had resigned on their own, Lise continued her work at the KWI. It wasn’t until 1938 that she fled, aided by Dutch physicists Dirk Coster and Adriaan Fokker, and ended up in The Netherlands. Otto Hahn gave her a diamond ring he had inherited from his mother, and it was the only thing — aside from 10 German marks — that Meitner took with her on her journey.
After fleeing, she was offered a position in the laboratory of Manne Siegbahn. She continued corresponding with scientists in Germany, and on occasion, she met with them secretly to discuss scientific ideas. It was during this time that the discovery of nuclear fission became known. Because Hahn and a third colleague were worried about jeapordizing their reputations (the year was 1938), they did not include Lise Meitner on reports of their findings at the time. However, her discovery that the formulas they worked on could create a bomb persuaded her to come out of hiding long enough to seek the counsel of Alfred Einstein, whom she convinced to write to American President Franklin Roosevelt. Meitner was then offered employment in the US for the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, but she turned it down, as she had no interest in building bombs.
In 1947, after working for The Nobel Institute for Physics and the Swedish Defense Research Establishment, Lise Meitner was awarded a position (which was created especially for her) at the University College of Stokholm in Sweden. Her funding came directly from The Council for Atomic Research. After the end of WW2, Meitner’s accomplishments became more widely known, and she was awarded several prizes, including the Max Planck Medal, the Enrico Fermi Award, and a National Press Club Award.
Meitner spent the remainder of her years in Stockholm, and passed away in 1968.