Lise Meitner


Born: Nov 7, 1878 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary
Died: Oct 27, 1968 (at age 89) in Cambridge, England
Nationality: Austrian, Swedish
Field: Physics
Famous For: Nuclear fission
Awards: Enrico Fermi Award (1966), Max Planck Medal (1949), Lieben Prize (1925)

Lise Meitner was born an Austrian born physicist who conducted research on nuclear physics and radioactivity. She became one of the first to discover that a uranium atom would split when it was bombarded by neutrons. Many think of Meitner as the most important woman scientist of the twentieth century. Albert Einstein called her the “German Marie Curie.”

Early Years and Education

Meitner was born to Jewish parents and she was the third child out of eight. Her father was an attorney in Austria. Meitner excelled in science and math as a child. This was when most girls stopped attending school at the age of fourteen. Her parents, nevertheless, made certain that all of their daughters obtained the same level of education as their sons by employing private tutors.

In 1901, Meitner enrolled at the University of Vienna and studied physics under the renowned Ludwig Boltzmann. She received a doctorate in physics in 1906, the second woman to do so. She then went to Berlin to study under Otto Hahn and Max Planck in 1907.

Scientific Career

Meitner worked very closely with Hahn for nearly thirty years at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin. They both collaborated and studied radioactivity because of her physics knowledge and his chemistry expertise. Together, they discovered the protactinium isotope in 1918.

She discovered the Auger Effect, which is the emission process of electrons, in 1922. In 1926, she became a full physics professor at the University of Berlin, the first women to accomplish this in Germany. There, she commenced the nuclear physics research program which ultimately led to her co-discovery, in 1939, of nuclear fission. From 1924 to the mid 1930’s, Meitner and Hahn became very well-known across the world as highly rated scientific researchers. The duo was nominated ten consecutive years for the Nobel Prize during this time.

Following the annexation of Austria with Germany, she left Germany in 1938 and relocated to Sweden. Meitner took a position at Manne Siegbahn, and there she had a collaborative relationship with physicist Niels Bohr. During this time period she continued to keep in contact with Hahn and several other German scientists. In November, 1938, she met with Hahn in Copenhagen to prepare a set of experiments.

Nuclear Fission

Hahn and chemist Fritz Strassmann then executed the challenging experiments that isolated the data for nuclear fission at Hahn’s laboratory in Berlin. Hahn had written to Meitner and described the results of the experiments. When she visited Otto Frisch, her nephew, in Denmark, they proved that splitting the uranium atom was indeed energetically feasible.

This procedure was explained in a 1939 landmark letter to the Nature journal where they used the term fission. These important results were confirmed throughout the world. Hahn received the Physics Nobel Prize in 1944 for his scientific research into fission; however, Meitner’s contributions were ignored.

Later Years and Retirement

After World War II, Meitner stayed in Stockholm, refusing to move back home to Germany. She still enjoyed research well until her eighties. In 1949, she became a citizen of Sweden. In 1960, Meitner retired and then moved to the United Kingdom because many of her relatives lived there. She continued to work part-time and give lectures. In 1967, she broke her hip and suffered many small strokes. She passed away in October of 1968, when she was eighty-nine.

Honors and Awards

Meitner became a Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences foreign member in 1945. In 1949, Meitner was awarded the German Physics Society’s Max Planck Medal. She received twenty-one other scientific awards and honors in her life. In 1966 she was awarded the Enrico Fermi Award, along with Hahn and Strassmann. In 1997, meitnerium, element 109, was named after her.