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Rediscover STEAM

Lise Meitner, Austrian-Swedish Physicist

Known as the father of nuclear chemistry, Otto Hahn (1879–1968) was a German chemist and the winner of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but his work would have been incomplete without his longtime friend and fellow researcher–Lise Meitner.

Meitner was born on November 7, 1878 in Vienna Austria-Hungary (now Austria) to Philipp and Hedwig Skovran Meitner. Her father was a lawyer while her mother was a musician, and Lise was the third of eight children in her Jewish household. As a child, Lise was academically-oriented and had specific interest in mathematics, so her father hired private tutors for her. Meitner’s parents encouraged their children to explore the world around them; she recalls “the extraordinarily stimulating intellectual atmosphere in which [her] brothers and sisters and [she] grew up.”

Unfortunately, for Austrian girls, education ended at age 14, and so, Meitner was prevented from attending grammar school alongside her brothers. Despite this systemic obstacle, she, with the advice and assistance of her father, began to prepare for the University of Vienna’s entrance exam, planning to obtain a science degree. In the summer of 1901, Meitner passed the entrance exam and was matriculated at the University of Vienna in October 1901.

Now 22 years old, Meitner decided to major in physics, studying under Ludwig Boltzmann. She revered Boltzmann and his lessons, claiming that she “left every lecture with the feeling that a completely new and wonderful world had been revealed.” In December 1905, Meitner successfully completed her doctoral exam summa cum laude, and a few months later in February 1906, she graduated with a Ph.D. in physics.

Unsure about her next steps as a physicist, she initially wrote to Marie Curie, requesting to research in her Paris laboratory but was turned down. After Boltzmann’s suicide in September 1906, Meitner spent her days teaching physics at a high school and researching the emerging concept of radioactivity in the University of Vienna’s physics laboratory. With no offers or opportunities for research positions, Meitner turned to another academic prospect at the University of Berlin. She asked German physicist Max Planck if she could attend his lectures, a request which he kindly agreed to.

In September 1907, Meitner arrived in Berlin, and although introverted and humble, she was easily able to integrate herself with the physics and chemistry faculty at the university. She soon began researching alongside a passionate chemist named Otto Hahn, who was of the same age and had also recently joined the university’s faculty. Unfortunately, Meitner was prohibited from the university’s main laboratories and lectures as an Austrian Jewish woman. Thus, at a small carpenter’s workshop within the University of Berlin’s Chemical Institute, she and Hahn began a research partnership that would last for three decades. Despite their hours of experiments and inquiry together, their relationship remained formal. In 1909, Meitner and Hahn discovered the phenomenon of radioactive recoil as well as a new radioisotope of the element actinium.

Finally, in 1912, Planck offered Meitner a paid position as his lab assistant. However, later that same year, a new facility, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, opened in Berlin, and both Hahn and Meitner continued their work there. In 1913, the Institute began to pay Meitner, and at 34 years old, she finally gained financial independence.

In the following year, Germany entered World War I, during which Meitner operated x-rays on the front lines to care for wounded soldiers. In 1916, before the end of the war, she returned to her passion–her research.

Not long after Meitner’s return, she and Hahn discovered the isotope protactinium-231 in 1917. Meitner soon began to receive her long-deserved professional recognition; she was awarded the Berlin Academy’s Leibniz medal for her discovery. She was also appointed the Director of Radiation Physics at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1918. Four years later, Meitner became a physics lecturer at the Institute, and four years after that, she became the first female professor of physics in Germany at the University of Berlin.

In 1938, however, Meitner left Nazi Germany for Sweden in order to avoid persecution as a Jewish individual. Despite this, she continued her work in physics; in fact, she was invited to work on the notorious Manhattan Project in the United States. However, Meitner opposed the atomic bomb, believing that nuclear energy should solely be used for peaceful purposes. She eventually earned the Enrico Fermi Award in 1966 along with Hahn as well as German chemist Fritz Strassmann.

Meitner retired to Cambridge, England in 1960, and she later passed away on October 27, 1968. In 1992, the 109th element on the periodic table was named Meitnerium in honor of Meitner.

Since her childhood, the odds were against Lise Meitner. As a young girl, she was barred from receiving a complete education. As a recent college graduate, she was unable to find research opportunities. As a researcher, she was prohibited from using certain laboratories. As a Jew, she faced prejudice in Germany. Still, she persevered, making extraordinary contributions to the field of physics, especially radioactivity and nuclear physics. As Meitner once expounded, “Life need not be easy, provided only that it is not empty.”

References

“Lise Meitner.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 3 Nov. 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/Lise-Meitner

“Lise Meitner.” Famous Scientists, www.famousscientists.org/lise-meitner/.

“Lise Meitner.” Atomic Archive, AJ Software & Multimedia, www.atomicarchive.com/resources/biographies/meitner.html.

“Lise Meitner: A Battle for Ultimate Truth.” San Diego Supercomputer Center, www2.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/meitner.html.

“Otto Hahn — Biographical.” NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB, 2020, www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1944/hahn/biographical/.

Bradford, Alina. “Lise Meitner: Life, Findings and Legacy.” Live Science, Future US Inc., 29 March 2018, www.livescience.com/62162-lise-meitner-biography.html#:~:text=Lise%20Meitner%20was%20a%20pioneering%20physicist%20who%20studied%20radioactivity%20and,the%20Nobel%20Prize%20in%20Chemistry.

Zielinski, Sarah. “Ten Historic Female Scientists You Should Know.” Smithsonian Magazine, 19 Sept. 2011, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/ten-historic-female-scientists-you-should-know-84028788/?page=6.

“Lise Meitner.” Atomic Heritage Foundation, www.atomicheritage.org/profile/lise-meitner.

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Rediscover STEAM sheds light on the stories of underrepresented women throughout history and aims to empower the next generation of female change-makers.

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