Lise Meitner was an Austrian-Swedish scientist who worked in the fields of radioactivity and nuclear physics. Meitner, Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann and Otto Frisch collaborated on nuclear research that ultimately led to the discovery of nuclear fission. Meitner won a number of awards for her contributions to science. Although she was nominated 19 times for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry during 1924 and 1947, and 29 times for Nobel Prize in Physics during 1937 and 1965, she never won one. It is believed by many, that Meitner was overlooked and ignored by the Nobel Peace Price Committee in 1944 when Otto Hahn alone, won the Nobel Peace Price in Chemistry for the discovery of Nuclear fission. Many scientists including Nobel laureates like Neils Bohr vouched for Meitner and believed her contribution to the discovery of Nuclear Fission was enough for her to be awarded the Nobel Prize. Even though she wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize, Meitner was invited to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 1962.
Lise Meitner was born on November 7th 1978 to a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria.
Meitner was the 3rd of 8 children. Her birth name was Elise Meitner but she shortened Elise to Lise and henceforth she was known as Lise Meitner.
Meitner showed a keen interest in science since a young age. She was interested to learn Maths and Physics. Meitner was home-schooled because back then women were not allowed to attend institutions of higher education.
Meitner was able to get private classes of physics because her family was somewhat rich and her parents were quite supportive.
In 1901, she graduated with an ‘externe Matura’ examination at the Akademisches Gymnasium, a school in Vienna. In other words, she passed high school by giving an exam.
Meitner continued with her higher education and started studying physics at the University of Vienna in 1901.
She graduated in 1905 and got her PhD in physics from the University of Vienna. Her dissertation was “Heat Conduction in an Inhomogenous body”.
After getting her PhD she went to Berlin in 1907, where she studied under Max Planck. A year after taking Planck’s lectures she became his assistant. Meitner later started working with chemist Otto Hahn.
In 1908, Meitner and her family converted to Christianity.
Meitner published two papers on beta radiation in 1909.
Meitner and Otto Hahn worked together for the next 30 years discovering several new isotopes.
In 1917, Hahn and Meitner were among the first to isolate an isotope that they named protactinium-231.
Hahn and Meitner also discovered radioactive recoil, a phenomenon that occurs when a nucleus emits an alpha particle and recoils with a positive charge. The positively charged nucleus could then be attracted to a negatively charged electrode. The radioactive recoil method could be used to produce elements with high purity.
By the year 1912, Meitner had moved to the newly founded Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. She worked without pay in Hahn’s department of Radio-chemistry. In 1913, she got an offer to teach in Prague as an associate professor. This prompted the management at Kaiser Wilhelm Institute to offer her a permanent position so she wouldn’t leave them. Meitner accepted their counter-offer and decided to stay in Berlin. This was Meitner’s first paid job and also the first time that she became fully independent as until now her father was bearing all her expenses.
During World War I, Meitner volunteered as a nurse. Her job was to handle X-ray equipment. She returned to Germany in 1916 to continue her research, however she found it difficult and felt ashamed that she had to carry on her research while people were suffering and dying in the war. She felt that they were wounded in need of medical help, and that she should be there to help them.
In 1922, Meitner discovered the cause of the emission of electrons with signature energies from atomic surfaces. This effect later became known as the Auger effect named after French Scientist Pierre Auger who discovered the phenomenon two years after Meitner did.
By 1917, Meitner was given her own Physics department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and made director of this section.
In 1926, Meitner was appointed a full time professor in the physics department at the University of Berlin. Meitner was the first woman in Germany to be appointed as a professor. In 1935 Meitner and Hahn started the “Transuranium Research” program, which would almost a decade later result in the discovery of Nuclear Fission.
The research of fission at that time was purely theoretical and scientists were in a race to prove this theory with experiments, knowing that the one who discovered the secrets behind Nuclear Fission would surely win a Nobel Prize.
Until 1938, Meitner who had Jewish ancestry was protected by her Austrian citizenship. But, once Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany, her Austrian citizenship was no longer valid so Meitner no longer felt safe and decided to leave Germany. Otto Hahn helped to get her across the border into Netherlands. Hahn also gave Meitner his mother’s diamond ring to bribe the border guards with, if needed. However, it didn’t come to that and Meitner and Dutch border guards waiting on the other side were able to convince the Germans to let her cross. Meitner crossed the border on July 13, 1938 at the age of 60.
Meitner had left all her possessions behind, having only 10 Marks in her purse and the diamond ring Otto Hahn gave her to bribe the German border guards. However, the ring wasn’t used and she didn’t sell it. Eventually, Meitner’s nephew’s wife got to wear the ring.
After leaving Germany, Meitner spent sometime at physicist Derek Coster’s house in Netherlands before heading to Copenhagen and then to Stockholm, where she started working at Swedish physicist Manne Siegbahn’s Laboratory.
Since, Meitner left Germany, her transuranium research came to a stop for a while. Otto Hahn continued with the research in Berlin with his assistant, Fritz Strassmann. Hahn and Meitner continued to interact which each other through letters. Hahn would often share his research with Meitner in these letters. The two also met each other on November 10, 1938. Meitner continued with her research on the yet to be discovered nuclear fission that had stopped when she left Germany.
In December 1938, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann performed experiments by bombarding uranium with free neutrons. Hahn discovered that a each time they bombarded uranium with neutrons, uranium nuclei absorbed a neutron and then broke up into two smaller elements. Hahn found that the element barium, was consistently being created in his uranium experiments. Hahn didn’t tell any of his fellow scientists and only shared the results with Meitner in letters. Hahn wrote to Meitner that fission was the only explanation of the presence of barium.
In light of Hahn’s results, Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch came up with a new theory by the end of December, 1938. They discovered that during fission of uranium, the nuclei had to split up to form barium and krytpon and this process released a large amount of energy. The aunt and nephew discovered that no stable elements heavier than uranium existed naturally. Meitner and Frisch found out that Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2, explained the massive energy release during nuclear fission, by the conversion of rest mass into kinetic energy. The duo published these results in a scientific journal called “Nature”. They also informed Hahn and Niels Bohr of their results.
It was due to this discovery Meitner was given the title ‘The Mother of the Atomic Bomb’, which she disliked and never approved of. She believed nuclear energy should only be used for peaceful purposes.
As the news about nuclear fission spread, scientists realised that this knowledge could be weaponized. Albert Einstein warned U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Germans could make a lethal bomb now. This prompted the U.S. government to initiate the Manhattan project to develop nuclear weapons. Lies Meitner was invited to work on the Manhattan project but she refused to do so, saying, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb”. She was disappointed that the research was being misused.
In 1944, Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of Nuclear Fission. Lies Meitner who contributed significantly to the research was completely overlooked. Neils Bohr and other notable scientists were disappointed at her exclusion. Years later, sealed records of the Nobel Committee, showed that Lies Meitner’s exclusion from the prize was a result of incompetence and ignorance of the Nobel Committee.
In 1947, Meitner left the Sieghban Institute. She continued her research at a new laboratory at the Royal Institute of Technology. This laboratory was specifically built for her by the Swedish Atomic Energy Commission.
She became a Swedish citizen in 1949.
Meitner retired in 1960 at the age of 80. After retirement she moved to England to be with her nephew Frisch and other relatives. She continued working part-time and also gave lectures.
Meitner suffered from atherosclerosis. In 1964, Meitner suffered a heart attack, which left her in very bad health.
In 1967, after suffering from several small strokes and a broken hip, her condition became even more worse.
Meitner was honored throughout her life and afterwards. She received several awards and a few honorary doctorates as well. In total, she received 21 scientific honors and awards for her work which include 5 doctorates and membership of 12 scientific academies.
In 1946, while on a visit to the United States, Meitner was given the Woman of the Year title by the National Press Club. She also had dinner with American President Harry S. Truman. Meitner also gave guest lectures at Princeton, Harvard and a few other universities.
Meitner and Hahn received the Max Planck Medal of the German Physical Society in 1949 and in 1955 Meitner was awarded the first Otto Hahn Prize of the German Chemical Society.
In 1957, then German President, Theodor Heuss awarded her with the peace class of the Pour le Mérite, one of the highest honors conferred by the German state.
In 1966, Hahn,Meitner and Strassmann were jointly awarded the Enrico Fermi Award by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Meitner couldn’t attend the event due to her deteriorating health.
In 1997 the element 109 was named Meitnerium in her honor.
Meitner died on 27 October 1968. She died in her sleep at the age of 80. She was buried in the churchyard of St. James Church in a small village in Bramley, Hampshire, England.
Her nephew wrote her gravestone inscription that said, “Lise Meitner: A scientist who never lost her humanity”.