Lise Meitner

The Incredible True Story of the Pioneering Woman Scientist the World Forgot

Andrew Gregory
Feb 12, 2017 · 3 min read

On a warm Monday evening in September 2013, eight parish councillors in Bramley, England, gathered at their village hall for a two-hour meeting. Most of the items on the agenda were mundane. But one of them — Item 4.0 — stood out.

A headstone erected 45 years earlier in the local burial ground had become unsafe. With no known relatives of the grave’s occupant to approach, it was proposed that the council cover the cost of repair. “The grave stone was for the late famous scientist Lise Meitner,” the minutes of the meeting said.

Meitner was one of the most influential scientists of the 20th Century. Yet most people — residents of Bramley excepted — do not recognise her name. “The name Lise Meitner has diminished to a footnote,” Marcia Bartusiak wrote in The Washington Post in March 1996. Now her headstone had become as insecure as her place in history.

Born 800 miles away from Bramley in Vienna, in 1878, Meitner had a lifelong love of physics. Her work helped usher in a new era of scientific discovery, namely nuclear fission, which led to the first atomic bomb.

For three decades, Meitner collaborated with one chemist: Otto Hahn. They studied radioactivity together; they examined nuclear isomerism together; they investigated uranium together. When Meitner was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938 — she was Jewish — the pair were quickly reunited abroad; and continued working together. Nothing could dissolve their partnership. Not even Adolf Hitler.

Meitner settled in Stockholm but secretly met up with Hahn in Copenhagen. There, the pair planned bold, new experiments. Performed in Berlin, the tests produced incredible results. With the help of her nephew, Otto Frisch, Meitner was the first person to explain to the world the significance of what Hahn and she had discovered. Meitner coined the term nuclear fission.

But when their research was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944, for the first time in their working lives Hahn and Meitner did not celebrate together. Hahn picked up the gong alone. Meitner had been snubbed by the judges; and was stunned.

“Hahn fully deserved the Nobel Prize…” Meitner wrote in a letter at the time. “But I believe that Otto Robert Frisch and I contributed something not insignificant to the clarification of the process of uranium fission…and that was something very remote to Hahn.”

Meitner, though frustrated, refused to dwell on the injustice. She retired in England, and died in 1968. Hahn, who she remained close to, passed away in the same year. Meitner was buried in Bramley next to her brother Walt.

In the 1990s, when the sealed 1944 Nobel records were opened for the first time, it became clear that the decision to exclude Meitner had been wrong.

In September 2013, the parish council motion proposing that Bramley cover the cost of repairing her headstone was carried. There were no objections. Yet in January 2017, puzzled parish council staff could find no record of the work ever having been carried out. Then they discovered why.

“I have done a bit of digging,” Maxta Thomas, clerk to Bramley Parish Council, explained in an email. “And it seems that the reason I could find no record of expenditure on the headstone is because the stonemasons actually did the work for free.”

Meitner may have been overlooked on the world stage. But the village of Bramley had not forgotten her.

Today, four-bedroom houses sit proudly on Meitner Close — a smart Bramley cul-de-sac named after her. And beyond the path meandering through nearby St James Church, Meitner’s headstone stands upright and secure.

Her epitaph, composed by Frisch, is just as clear to read as it was in 1968: “Lise Meitner: A physicist who never lost her humanity.”

Andrew Gregory

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