In the days after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a mysterious figure began to emerge in the press. A “Third Rich Exile,” or more pointedly a Fleeing Jewess,” the public was told, had escaped from Nazi Germany with the nuclear secrets required to weaponize uranium. Overnight, nuclear physicist Dr. Lise Meitner achieved fleeting popular fame as the Jewish Mother of the Bomb, the Hero Refugee Scientist who stymied Nazi efforts to obtain nuclear capability.
In reality, Meitner had nothing to do with the bomb. However, as a pioneering Austrian physicist of Jewish descent, Meitner led the research that ultimately discovered nuclear fission. But after the brief flurry of media attention in the months following the end of World War II, Meitner’s name was largely forgotten, becoming little more than a footnote in the history of Nazi scientists and the birth of the Atomic age.
The name inscribed in the history books was Otto Hahn, Meitner’s colleague and professional partner for more than 30 years. In 1945, Hahn even received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, soon followed by academic accolades and renown as the discoverer of nuclear fission. Meitner, who directed Hahn’s most significant experiments and calculated the energy release resulting from fission, received a few essentialist headlines followed by decades of obscurity.
Born in 1878, Meitner was the the third of eight children in the erudite household of Philipp and Hedwig Meitner. Philipp, a lawyer, and Hedwig ran a progressive household in which both sons and daughters were encouraged to pursue higher education. While the family had Jewish origins and lived in a former Viennese ghetto, secularism and scholarship held sway in the Meitner home.
From girlhood, Lise had a gift with numbers. Sleeping with a math book under her pillow, she later recalled that her “very marked bent for mathematics and physics” was hobbled by the fact that girls could only be formally educated in Austria until the age of fourteen.
After being privately tutored to pass the admissions exams, she began studying mathematics, physics, and philosophy at Vienna University in 1901, ultimately publishing her doctoral thesis on thermodynamics in 1905.
Following a meeting with physicist Max Planck, who she believed had “no very high opinion of women students,” Meitner moved to Berlin in 1907 to attend university there. Women were not allowed to formally attend the university, but Planck had agreed to allow Meitner to audit his lectures.
An introduction led Meitner to collaborate with a young chemist studying radioactivity, Dr. Otto Hahn. As a mixed-gender research pair, however, they had to petition for lab space from Emil Fischer, the director of the university’s chemistry program who had entirely forbidden women from his department.
After pleading her case, Meitner recalls Fischer explaining that “his reluctance to accept women students stemmed from his constant worry with a Russian student lest her rather exotic hairstyle result in its catching fire on the Bunsen burner.”
Fischer finally relented, granting the duo permission to conduct research, but only on the condition that Meitner not set foot in the all-male chemistry department. She was required to use a separate entrance to access her and Hahn’s lab.
The team spent long hours in their primitive lab — originally designed as a carpenter’s shop — analyzing beta particles, a product of radioactive decay. On Wednesdays, Meitner attended a colloquium with the brightest minds in German physics at the time, including Albert Einstein, who referred to Meitner as “Our Madame Curie.”
The team moved to the newly opened Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1913, where Meitner was initially brought on as an unpaid “guest.” During World War I, Hahn worked on developing poison gas while Meitner served as a voluntary X-ray nurse on the Austrian front. Between imaging the broken bodies of soldiers, Meitner would steal back to the lab and conduct research.
In March 1918, as trenches crisscrossing the continent filled with Europe’s young men, Hahn and Meitner published a paper describing their discovery: a new radioactive element they named protactinium. Meitner’s biographer Ruth Sime notes that while Meitner had done the majority of the work, Hahn was listed as the senior author — an indication, perhaps, of the contention to come.
Throughout the 1920s, Meitner and Hahn conducted research independently but maintained a close collaboration. In 1934, the team partnered once again on a research project studying what happens when the nucleus of uranium, the heaviest known substance, is bombarded with neutrons.
After studying the process for years, Meitner’s status as a “non-Aryan” in Berlin became increasingly precarious. As a female scientist, too, she defied the National Socialist ideals for women, which centered primarily around childrearing. Teaching classrooms full of Nazi party members, Meitner was imperiled both professionally and personally.
In 1938, a few months before Kristallnacht, Meitner fled Berlin for Sweden, just as she and Hahn were unraveling uranium’s mysteries. Hahn continued work in the lab but kept a regular correspondence with Meitner — a fact they kept secret for political reasons.
Coached by Meitner from her exile in Sweden, Hahn and his colleague Fritz Strassman conducted experiments that appeared to show the presence of barium as one of the byproducts of uranium’s decay process.
Puzzled by the results, Hahn took sent them to Meitner, who understood the implications of the finding: the uranium nucleus had split in two — a process she and her physicist nephew Otto Frisch mathematically interpreted and coined as nuclear fission.
Hahn would go on to fame — including the Nobel Prize in 1944 — for the discovery, and became a prominent public figure, according to biographer Sime. Hahn did not mention Meitner in his paper, despite their years of collaboration, in which she was often the intellectual lead. He went so far as to suggest that Meitner’s presence had been a hindrance to his discovery.
Meitner was thrust briefly and unwillingly into the media spotlight following the bombing of Japan, which was made possible by harnessing nuclear fission.
The “fleeing Jewess,” however, was little more than a media blip and it drew Meitner’s ire. “I do not see why everybody is making such a fuss over me,” she said. “I have not designed any atomic bomb. I don’t even know what one looks like.”
When a film studio approached her with a tawdry and greatly exaggerated biopic, she threatened to sue, claiming that she’d “rather walk naked down Broadway” than see the Hollywood version of her life on screen.
Following the Nobel snub and the cold shoulder from Hahn, Meitner’s name faded from the record and the headlines. Appearing as a passing character in the history of the atomic age, she was described in captions as a “Woman Bomb Aide” or Hahn’s “assistant.”
In her lifetime, Meitner was stung by the lack of support and recognition from the scientific community following Hahn’s prize. “As much as the [Hahn-Strassman] discovery makes me happy for Hahn, both personally and scientifically, many people here must think I have contributed absolutely nothing to it — and I’m so discouraged,” she said.
Only recently has Meitner’s name been excavated from the marginalia of history, as dedicated biographers look more closely at how science has been recorded and remembered.
This story was produced by Timeline, a new publication that looks to the past to make sense of the present.