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Lise Meitner

1878 – 1968

by Patricia Rife

The dramatic splitting of the atom—“nuclear fission”—was a discovery which changed our world. Yet few know that it was a woman physicist who discovered the power of nuclear energy just after her dramatic escape from Nazi Germany. The irony of the story of Lise Meitner is that her laboratory partner of thirty years, Otto Hahn, who remained in Berlin throughout the Third Reich, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944. Meitner’s exclusion from sharing the Nobel Prize was thus integrally related to her escape from Nazi Germany to Sweden and the consequent social ‘marginalization’ of her important physics research and discoveries. Albert Einstein called the respected Viennese pioneer in nuclear physics “our Madame Curie.”

Lise’s parents were assimilated Viennese Jews, who did not practice Judaism. Her father Philipp was a lawyer whose family stemmed from Moravia. In 1873 he married Hedwig Skovran whose family had emigrated from Russia to Slovakia. They had eight children. Lise was born on November 7, 1878.

When Lise showed an early propensity for mathematics, she was privately tutored, her father insisting that each of his daughters receive the same education as his sons. (Three of Lise’s sisters later also earned their Ph.D. degrees). Lise focused her talents upon passing the difficult entrance examination to the University of Vienna, since girls in Austria were not permitted to attend the normal boys’ high school. At age 23, she was the first woman admitted to the university’s physics lectures and laboratories. From 1901–1906 she studied with experimentalist Anton Lampa, Stefan Meyer and, later, the famous theoretician Ludwig Boltzmann.

Lise Meitner was the second woman to receive a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Vienna and it was there that she was introduced to Max Planck, father of the quantum theory, who traveled to Vienna after the tragic suicide of Boltzmann. In 1907 Planck invited Lise Meitner to Berlin for post-doctoral study and research—a move that was to change her career and life path. For several years she was not permitted access to the laboratories of the Berlin Institute for Chemistry where she worked as an unpaid research scientist (1907–1912), since patriarchal attitudes prohibited women’s entry “lest their hair catch fire.” In 1907, she was introduced to radio-chemist Otto Hahn, who became a thirty-year research partner in experimental work discovering new radioactive elements and unraveling their complex physical properties.

Meitner’s pioneering research on radioactive processes led her into an interdisciplinary field in which chemists collaborated with physicists in primitive laboratories, often tracing the “tracks” of decaying particles by eye long into the night. During the same year (1907) in which she arrived in Berlin, a young contemporary, Albert Einstein, was also invited to the University by Max Planck. Einstein, Paul Ehrenfest, Meitner and others would often gather at Planck’s home for long evenings of music and conversation. She worked as Planck’s Physics Department assistant for nearly seven years, publishing on radioactive properties of newly-discovered elements and particles in conjunction with Otto Hahn, Otto von Baeyer, Max von Laue and many others.

In 1908 on a visit to Vienna Lise formally withdrew from the Jewish community and was baptized at the Evangelical Congregation.

After the traumas in Germany related to World War I (during which Meitner served as an X-ray technician on the Austrian front from 1915–1917), Otto Hahn was named the Administrative Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, while Meitner supervised the first-floor Physics Section, which she led for over twenty years until forced to flee Berlin under the Third Reich. At first she was an unpaid “guest” under Hahn, but most people knew they were equals in their research team. From 1924 to 1934, the team gained international prestige and were nominated for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for ten consecutive years. Later, under Nazi stormclouds, the team was nominated for the 1936 Nobel Prize in Physics by Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Bohr and von Laue, and Meitner was nominated for the Physics Prize three times by Niels Bohr after WWII.

Meitner became an official University Lecturer in 1922, but even in liberalizing Berlin the press jokingly reported the topic of her inaugural speech as “Cosmetic Physics” instead of cosmic physics. She led several courses in quantum physics with her outstanding graduate students (such as Leo Szilard and Max Delbrueck) as assistants, until Adolf Hitler’s racist decrees in April, 1933 stripped Jewish academics of their professorial positions. Einstein, safely out of Hitler’s range in America on a lecture tour in 1933, spoke out against Hitler. The Nazis retaliated by having his life savings confiscated, his books burned and other atrocities committed against his work on relativity. Meitner recorded many of these atrocities in detailed letters to her colleagues throughout the 1930s. However, she held her paid position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry until the Third Reich’s invasion of Austria in 1938 (the Anschluss) brought Austrians under German law.

Dangers grew after 1938 when the National Socialists issued an order forbidding “famous scientists” to “travel abroad.” Throughout the 1930s Meitner and Hahn had been competing with the Paris team of the Irene Joliot-Curies and Rome’s Enrico Fermi to unravel the complexities of the mysterious “transuranic” elements. Unknown to Lise Meitner, her escape route from Berlin was orchestrated by the international physics community and Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Her close partner Otto Hahn was not even notified of secret plans by Nobel-laureate Bohr until days before her departure in July 1938. Dirk Coster, a Dutch physicist, secretly accompanied Meitner through the stressful train journey across Nazi borders into the Netherlands. With the assistance of Bohr, she departed for Copenhagen and then Sweden.

Meitner barely had time to unpack her small suitcases in a hotel room “home” when winter began to descend upon Stockholm. Lonely, she lived on a meager research assistant’s salary, working at the new Nobel Research Institute of Physics for the rest of the war years. Many of the Swedish scientists, including Nobel Prize committee member Manne Siegbahn, ignored her while they focused on top-secret defense work. Hence, by the holiday season, she decided to cross Sweden by train to visit her 29-year-old nephew Otto Robert Frisch, whose father had been arrested and sent to Dachau. Her correspondence with Hahn during December 1938 demonstrates that she continued to urge him and their assistant Fritz Strassman in Berlin to continue research she had instigated on uranium.. On December 24, she received a troubled letter from Hahn recounting a strange “bursting” he described as occurring to uranium, forming barium. Hahn begged his trusted colleague to interpret this process: “What would physics say about such bursting?” He had written up their findings and submitted them to Die Naturwissenschaften on December 21 without crediting her contributions, and this act would literally eclipse Lise Meitner’s contributions to the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938.

Meitner and her nephew Frisch took a hike in the snowy Swedish woods, animatedly discussing the puzzling “bursting” process. Then they realized: if E=mc2, that mass could not be lost, but the nucleus would be “split in two.” (Frisch later dubbed this process “fission”, a term used by biologists to describe the elongated splitting of a cell.) Meitner did the calculations: such “bursting” would yield tremendous energy! The insight was so dramatic that Meitner excitedly scribbled out the formulas on a scrap of paper there in the woods, urging Frisch to return to Copenhagen’s laboratories and replicate the experiments. She returned to Sweden and there, in January–March 1939, wrote a series of articles to be published in Nature with O.R. Frisch on the nuclear fission of uranium.

Niels Bohr was also travelling when he received the news of fission from Frisch. Hence, while crossing the Atlantic to America, Bohr confirmed fission; later, he and young John Archibald Wheeler at Princeton authored the definitive paper “The Mechanism of Fission,” based on Meitner’s insight and published research.

Ironically, through Bohr, by early 1939 the news of fission had spread across America. Fermi, Ernest O. Lawrence and others confirmed fission before Meitner and Frisch’s paper was circulated by Nature. Yet it was also Bohr’s tireless efforts which assured Meitner prominence in the international physics community, although Hahn later took “credit” for the “discovery.”

Set against the backdrop of war, intrigue, and prejudices against women in gaining acceptance/admission to a scientific career (Meitner, like her French colleague Madame Curie, was often the only woman in many famous physics circles throughout the early twentieth-century), Meitner’s story becomes all the more ironic. Lise Meitner and Albert Einstein were among the few scientists who did not work on weapons research during World War II.

In 1945, when she was recognized in America for her accomplishments, she dined with President Harry Truman, who at a dinner for the Women’s Press Club honoring Meitner’s accomplishments remarked, “So you’re the little lady who got us into all of this!” Yet despite misleading press reports in Sweden and President Truman’s misperceptions, Meitner never worked on the atomic bomb research itself. In Sweden she encountered concentration camp victims released due to Count Folke Bernadotte’s efforts, and it was this grim reality which convinced her never to return to Germany or her former life there, although in 1947 Hahn and Strassmann invited her to re-join them at the rebuilt Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, West Germany. She wrote to Otto Hahn that it was the reaction of her younger colleagues she was most worried about: “[T]hose who remained in Germany during the war will say ‘She didn’t really EARN her place here’.” Hence, she declined his invitation to form a new Max Planck Institute for Chemistry named after their mentor, and instead retired in Sweden on a small pension negotiated through the President, Tage Erlander.

Racial and gender prejudice are dramatic backdrops to our modern era. Eleanor Roosevelt aptly stated in an NBC Radio interview with Lise Meitner immediately after Hiroshima in August 1945, that “we are proud of your contributions as a woman in science.” She was awarded numerous honorary doctorates by universities in the United States and Europe as well as the Enrico Fermi Prize, Atomic Energy Commission (U.S.) with Hahn and Strassmann in 1966. Meitner spent most of her 70s and 80s traveling, encouraging women students to “remember that science can bring both joy and satisfaction to your life.” During her final years she lived close to her nephew Otto Robert Frisch, in Cambridge, England, where she died on October 27, 1968.

WORKS BY LISE MEITNER

For a complete bibliography of works by Lise Meitner see Rife, Patricia. Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age. Boston: 1999.

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How to cite this page

Rife, Patricia. "Lise Meitner." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 30, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/meitner-lise>.

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