Lise Meitner: A Physicist Who Never Lost Her Humanity

Life need not be easy, provided only that it not be empty.”

The simple contradiction and mesmerizing colors present in a puddle of water with oil was enough to spark interest in Lise Meitner. This awed her and she knew hard work was needed to understand the laws of nature. Physics and music were her focus, influenced by her mother who lived for music and a father who besides being a lawyer always encouraged his children to pursue the scientific field.

Lise_Meitner12.jpgFrom 1892-1901 Lise Meitner was denied any form of higher education because the Viennese system of education only taught girls until they reached the age of 14. Meitner was provided a private tutor to prepare her for the university entrance exam because her father worried about how she would support herself since her marital status was looking lonely. In only two years Lise finished eight years of school, hand on laboratory practice along with theory fed her interest in math and physics. Austria in 1901 had just opened its doors to women, Meitner instantly enrolled after having passed the university entrance exam. The country may have allowed women in universities but, they were not completely accepted by male peers and many professors. In 1905 after receiving her physics doctorate in Vienna she taught at an all-girls high school for 1 year for financial stability. While teaching, she continued to study physics and geared her focus on radioactivity.

Her career as a nuclear physicist was a roller coaster of events. From hiding in opera rooms to hear the music’s, sitting in the back during all lectures, even working in forgotten damp cellars, are few of the struggles she encountered. Very little of her work was published and when it was a fellow lab mate’s name had to be put before hers. Meitner’s work consisted of ingenious methods which experimented with alpha particles naturally exiting radioactive materials and these particles were slightly deflected when traveling through matter. Although getting into her lab was a difficult obstacle she quickly rose from assistant to head of her own radio physics department. All her hard work and discoveries pushed her to compete against major physicist like Rutherford “the father of physics”.

Born in Germany with a Jewish background and having a degree denied her any chance of escaping to a neutral country. No university graduate could leave Germany in fear of them working against Germany. With the help of a fellow physicist she fled and continued her lab work with no pay and very little family. In 1938 she received a letter from Otto Hanh an important physicist who has always encouraged and worked with Meitner. The letter consisted of Hanh asking Meitner to review his findings and article before he published it a continued his work. His finding was puzzling to her as she questioned the results and how uranium changed into barium. Hanh and his lab crew were not completely sure nor confident since much of their work were still unclear. However, Lise wrote back and explained how the findings were not impossible, this was enough for him to publish his paper.

220px-Lise_Meitner_(1878-1968),_lecturing_at_Catholic_University,_Washington,_D.C.,_1946.jpgMeitner could not sleep with the blurry understanding of atoms and their particles. With her understanding of Nuclear theory and excellencey in experimentation she quickly calculated and discovered “that when uranium’s nucleus splits”, more energy was released. For the first time in science, more energy was exerted from an experiment than that put into it. Since she could not leave Sweden to conduct experiments to follow through with her fission theory, Hanh received all credit. In 1944 a Nobel Prize was awarded to Otto Hanh and only him as he never mentioned or acknowledge Meitner. This oversight is considered one of the most glaring examples of women’s scientific achievements overlooked by the Nobel committee. When the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was dropped, Hanh strongly denied Meitner’s discovery.

She received much publicity after the bomb drop and was distraught because her scientific work was used for destruction. After her death, she was honorably remembered by physicists who truly acknowledged her for the physical understanding of fission. This physicist fused two isotopes and made the heavy known element 109 Meitnerium.


Marcy Corona, Women’s Museum of California Intern
Learn about more amazing Women in STEM in our latest exhibit, To Observe and Wonder running from April 7 – May 28 in the Women’s Museum of California Gallery
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