Women You Missed in History Class: Lise Meitner

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Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

History is full of men getting credit for women’s accomplishments.  One of the most notable examples is the story of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which was awarded solely to Otto Hahn, leaving out his research partner, Lise Meitner.  Meitner is easily one of the most important scientists of the 20th century.  She was born on November 7, 1878 into an affluent Jewish family in Vienna.  Early on, she showed a gift for math and science, and conducted her first research when she was eight years old, studying the colors of an oil slick.  At the time, most girls ended their educations when they turned fourteen, but Meitner wanted to continue her study of math and science.  Her father hired a private tutor for her so she could study to attend university, and in 1905, she became the second woman to receive a doctorate in physics from the University of Vienna.

After graduating from the University of Vienna, she started attending German physicist Max Planck’s lectures in Berlin.  Planck had previously not allowed women to attend his lectures, but he made an exception for Meitner, and she eventually became his research assistant.  It was while she was working for Planck that she met Otto Hahn, who would become her research partner for much of her scientific career.  In 1912, Hahn and Meitner moved to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, where she became the first female physics professor in Germany.  It was at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute that she and Hahn began their work that would culminate in the discovery of nuclear fission.  When Hitler came to power in 1933, the situation in Berlin became very difficult for Meitner and other Jewish scientists, and in 1938, she fled to Sweden.

While in Sweden she continued to collaborate with Hahn, and in 1939, they published their work on the discovery of nuclear fission.  The discovery proved crucial to the development of the atomic bomb, but Meitner never meant for her work to be used as a weapon.  She refused an offer to join the Manhattan Project, saying, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!”  In 1945, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry to Otto Hahn for his work on nuclear fission.  They did not include Lise Meitner.  Hahn seems to have downplayed her role in the research after she left Germany.

In 1960, Meitner retired and moved to England, where she lived until her death in 1968.  In her later years, she came to resent the military use of nuclear fission, and absolutely hated the fact that she became known as “the mother of the atomic bomb.”  She was vocally critical of fellow German physicists who were willing to collaborate with the Nazis, and wrote, “You all worked for Nazi Germany. And you tried to offer only a passive resistance. Certainly, to buy off your conscience you helped here and there a persecuted person, but millions of innocent human beings were allowed to be murdered without any kind of protest being uttered.”  Though she was left out of the 1944 Nobel Prize, she received many posthumous honors, including having a chemical element, meitnerium, named after her.

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