Her Story Thursdays: Lise Meitner


This week's Her Story Thursdays post is about a woman whose work on nuclear fission helped make the end of World War II possible. Lise Meitner was born on November 7th, 1878 in Vienna to one of the first Jewish lawyers in Austria. Women were not allowed to attend high educations institutions in Vienna around the 1900's, but thanks to supportive parents, she was able to achieve a private education in  physics and graduate with a degree in 1901. She then went on to become the second women to achieve a doctoral degree in physics at the University of Vienna.

Meitner then went to Berlin to attend lectures by Max Planck and after a year became his assistant. She then joined forces with Otto Hahn and worked with him for a while as an unpaid volunteer until 1913, when she achieved her first paid position with the university.

During World War I, she worked as an X-Ray technician and in 1916, resumed her work in physics at the university. In 1917, she was awarded the Leibniz Medal by the Berlin Academy of Sciences for her work with Hahn in discovering the isotope of the element protactinium. In 1926 she became the first women in Germany to achieve full professorship in physics at the University of Berlin.

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Meitner was still able to work at the university even though she was Jewish, and she did nothing about other jewish peoples being forced to resign or leave their posts. In 1938, her position became precarious and she left Germany forever and eventually settled in Stockholm for work. She then spent many years studying nuclear fission and was instrumental in helping the allied nations create the nuclear bomb, though Hahn got the credit.

In her later years, Meitner deeply regretted her decision not to leave Nazi Germany in 1933 and was also critical of Otto Hahn's and several other scientists compliance in during this time period. Her criticism did nothing to harm her relationship with Otto Hahn however, and they remained lifelong friends until their deaths in 1968. images

Lise Meitner won many awards over her lifetime and was nominated for a few Nobel Prizes as well. She received the "Women of the Year" award in the U.S in 1946 and received 21 scientific honors and awards for her work. She even has an element named after her - Meitnerium. Lise Meitner spent most of her life studying physics, and her contributions to the field continue to be felt years after her death.