15 June 2024

Lise Meitner - a great female scientist .. guest post

Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was the Vienna-born daughter of a large Jew­ish family. Because girls weren’t allowed tertiary education, the family gave Lise a private tutor at 14. She entered the Uni of Vienna in 1901, study­ing physics under Ludwig Boltzmann. Later she received her doct­or­ate in 1906, only the second woman to receive one from Vienna Uni.

She left for Berlin in 1907 with family support, to attend Dr Max Planck’s lectures and to do rad­io-activity research with chemist Dr Otto Hahn. After a year, she became his Hahn’s as­s­istant and worked with him, wanted to discover isotopes. In 1913 phys­ic­ist Meitner and chemist Hahn collaborated at Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry in Berlin.   

Drs Meitner and Hahn in their laboratory, 1913
German History Intersections
Meitner supported the Austrian army as a medical X-ray technician ­in WWI, returning to Berlin in 1917 when she and Hahn disc­ov­ered the radioactive chemical el­em­ent pro­tact­in­ium. Meitner was awarded the 1917 Leibniz Medal.

Having isolated the is­o­t­ope prot­ac­t­inium, Meitner and Hahn stud­ied nuclear is­omerism and beta decay. In 1926 she became the fir­st female Professor of Physics in Ger­many, heading up the Phys­ics Dept at Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. Research at the time was theoretical, but many scientists knew about the honour of the Nobel Prize waiting for the winner who dis­covered it. She worked with Hahn for 30 years, collaborating cl­osely, st­udying radio­activity, with her physics skills and his chemistry skills.

In the 1930s with the German physical chemist Dr Fritz Strass­mann, she inv­estigated neutron bombardment of uranium. Strassmann was not Jewish but he refused to join the Nazi Party, so both their res­earch efforts were interr­upt­ed as the Nazis gained power. She stayed in Germany longer than most because of her Austrian citizen­ship, but because she was Jew­ish, her physicist friends had to help sneak her over the border when Austria was annexed by Germ­any in 1938. Then she worked in Sweden at the Nob­el Institute for Exper­imental Physics, then continued her laborat­ory work at Stock­holm’s Manne Siegbahn Instit­ute, developing a working relationship with Niels Bohr.

Physicist Dr Otto Frisch (1904–79) was the Austrian-born first cousin of Lise Meit­ner. He first measured the magnetic moment of the proton and together they advanced the first theoretical explanation of nuclear fis­sion and first detected the fission by-products.

While working together, Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner received the news that Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann had discovered that the collision of a neutron with a uranium nucleus produced the element barium as one of its by-products. Frisch and Meitner both hypothesised that the uranium nucleus had split in two, coining the term nuc­l­ear fission to describe the proc­ess. After Hahn and Strassmann showed that barium appeared in neutron-bombarded uran­ium, it was Meitner and Frisch who explain­ed the ph­ys­ical charact­eristics of this division.

L->R Niels Bohr, Werner Heisen­berg, Wolfgang Pauli, Otto Stern, Meitner, Rudolf Ladenburg and ?
conference in 1937, Wiki

In Feb 1939, Meit­ner published the physical expl­an­ation for the ob­serv­ations. Meitner, Frisch and colleag­ues found that uranium atoms split when bombarded with neutrons, rel­easing a large amount of energy. Nuc­l­ear fission process was later used in nuclear power plants and bombs.

Hahn had isol­ated evidence for nuclear fission, but Meitner and Frisch were the first to clarify how the process occ­urred. Yet in 1944 Hahn al­one re­ceived the Chemistry Nobel Prize regarding nuc­lear fis­sion, giv­en that he ignored Meitner’s research af­ter she left Ger­many. He should have argued that Meitner merited the Nobel Prize as well.

After WW2 Meitner continued working in Sweden, then travelled and lect­ured across the USA. Her recognition of the explosive potent­ial of the process was what motivated Dr Albert Eins­tein to cont­act Pres Roosevelt, lead­ing to the establishment of the Manhattan Project. She was then in­vited to work on the Project at Los Alamo but Meitner opp­os­ed the atomic bomb and refused to work there at all.

On a visit to the U.S in 1946 she was welcomed by her siblings, and given total Americ­an press celeb­rity treatment, including being named Woman of the Year by the Women's National Press Club, DC. She had dinner with Pres Harry Truman who mistak­en­ly thought that she worked on the atomic bomb but Lise Meitner refused to work on a bomb.

Her Swedish colleagues planned to get her a proper position. In 1947, Meitner moved to Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology to establish a new facility for atomic research, with plenty of researchers to help. Appropriately she received in the Max Planck Medal, honouring her old mentor in Berlin.

Lise Meitner, Life in Physics,
(California Studies in the History of Science,
by Ruth Lewin Sime, 1997, Amazon

But the Nobel nastiness wasn’t even partly rect­if­ied until 1966, when Hahn, Meitner and Strassman won the En­rico Fermi Award, for their joint re­search that led to the discovery of uran­ium fis­sion. What a long wait!

The physicist who never lost her human­ity died in Camb­ridge in Oct 1968. In 1992, element 109 was named Meitnerium in her honour. Like many others, I believe she was the most significant woman scientist of the 20th century!

By Dr Joe


Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

What an amazing woman, born during the time that many people still thought the female brain unable to handle advanced learning let alone stuff like physics.

A cousin said...

For a scientist who never won a Nobel Prize, it is interesting that Meitner worked in Sweden at the Nob­el Institute for Exper­imental Physics. I looked up how many women have won the Nobel Prize for Physics - 5.... 3 of them very recently.

Margaret D said...

She certainly achieved a lot and apparently a clever woman who used her skills in the right way.

My name is Erika. said...

I'm adding this book to my reading list. Years ago I took a summer "course" type of thing where she was mentioned a lot in the study, This is a really interesting post, and she was a very accomplished woman, especially in a time when science didn't encourage woman. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Hels said...


correct... females were largely not allowed to enter universities back then. I asked my mother what clever high school girls applied for, if and when they finished Matriculation, and her response was "the very clever girls were sent to Teachers' College and the average girls enrolled in Secretarial Training. University Physics must have been out of the question.

Hels said...


quite right! Since first Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded in 1901 to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, only five women have won one: Marie Curie (1903) and Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1963). Then there was a rush on for female winners: Donna Strickland (2018), Andrea Ghez (2020) and Anne L'Huillier (2023).

Hels said...


Correct. Dr Meitner was not just a very clever and hard working scientist; she had strong moral values that directed her behaviour. I wonder if not marrying and not having babies freed her up to travel, study and retain her moral values as she wanted to.

Hels said...


Lise Meitner, A Life in Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime is well worth reading, if you have any scientific ideas in your head. I have none, so I gave the book to Dr Joe and he found it wonderful.

River said...

"because girls weren't allowed tertiary education"
In the 1960s my dad still didn't believe girls needed education, since they would just get married and stay home keeping house while having babies, so I stayed at school until leaving age (15 back then) only because the law said I had to. Then I had work for a few years, got married and did the whole stay home, keep house and have babies thing. I actually enjoyed all that, but eventually had to go back to work. I did encourage my kids to stay in school, though all of them quit somewhere in their fianl year and got jobs instead.
I wonder how my life might have been different if my parents had thought as Dr. Meitner's parents did. She certainly did very well.

Hels said...


so many of my friends said the same thing as you did even after WW2, let alone in 1900 when Dr Meitner had to deal with expectations then. My own parents, on the other hand, were very keen that ALL their children got a university education! But they warmly encouraged the boys to do engineering, applied science or architecture while I was expected to do literature, English and foreign languages, psychology or history.

I suppose Lise was very fortunate that her father was a lawyer and expected his family to be educated. Her sister Gisela was a practising doctor. Her sister Gusti was a composer and concert pianist.

Joe said...

In 1908 on a visit to Vienna Lise formally withdrew from the Jewish community and was baptized at the Evangelical Congregation, aged 30.

Adolf Hitler’s racist decrees in April 1933 stripped Jewish academics of their professorial positions. However Meitner held her paid position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry until the Third Reich’s invasion of Austria in 1938. In 1938 the National Socialists issued an order forbidding famous scientists to travel abroad. Dutch physicist Prof Dirk Coster secretly accompanied Meitner by train across Nazi borders into the Netherlands. With the assistance of Bohr, she departed for Copenhagen.

Jewish Women's Archive

Clearly conversion to Christianity in 1908 did not protect the brilliant physicist.

Hels said...


thanks for the reference. Clearly conversion to Christianity in 1908 did not protect Dr Meitner, no matter how famous she was and how essential she and her colleagues were to the German scientific world and economy.