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Lise Meitner: A Noble Scientist

Due to anti-Semitism and sexism, the nuclear physicist Lise Meitner was never recognized for her ground-breaking research in the 20th century—she should have been.

Olivia Fraser Barsby is a biology and anthropology student at McGill University, specializing in conservation, ecology, evolution and behaviour. 

Imagine dedicating your life to the pursuit of knowledge, making tons of huge scientific discoveries, asking questions that that none of your predecessors ever had, becoming one of the world’s foremost experts on an extremely complicated topic—and watching your collaborator receive the Nobel Prize for research that would have been impossible without you. Unfortunately, this became reality for Lise Meitner in 1944 when Otto Hahn won the Nobel Prize for Physics after the pair discovered the phenomenon of nuclear fission. Meitner was a woman of Jewish ancestry—and thus, was rarely lauded for her critical contributions to physics and chemistry at the time of their novelty.

Born in 1878 in Vienna during a time of extreme sociopolitical upheaval in Europe, Meitner was admitted to the University of Vienna and graduated with a doctorate in physics in 1906, only the second woman to ever do so. This had only become possible in Austria a few years before she was born. Needless to say, women were certainly not encouraged to devote themselves to research and academia. Luckily for Lise, her family was relatively well off—her father was a lawyer and eager to have his daughters in school—and could afford for Lise and her seven siblings to be privately tutored. Three of her sisters would also earn their PhDs.

The only jobs available to Meitner in Austria after her graduation were in teaching, and though she would later lecture at the University of Berlin, it didn’t hold the same appeal as research. Meitner lived her life in pursuit of scientific knowledge—teaching would not satisfy her passion for learning. She moved to Germany and took up an unpaid research position at the Berlin Institute for Chemistry before moving to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in 1912 to conduct work in nuclear physics—it was here that she would meet Hahn, a chemist and her collaborator for the next thirty years.

Meitner’s research was ground-breaking—and hey, nuclear physics isn’t exactly easy work! She studied the radioactive isotopes of elements like radium, barium and uranium, and considered how these isotopes lost energy. Each chemical element has a certain number of neutrons, protons and electrons to its name—tiny subatomic particles that make up atoms, aka the building blocks of all matter on Earth. Isotopes of an element have the same number of protons and electrons, but a different number of neutrons— like the casts on each season of a tv show: mostly the same returning characters, but with a few different faces.

Meitner had worked as an x-ray nurse for the Austrian army during World War I but became increasingly concerned with the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s. Though she had been baptized into Protestantism and later converted to Evangelism in 1908, her parents both came from Jewish families. She was stripped of her teaching position at the University of Berlin in 1933. In a letter to Hahn in the same year, she speaks of instructions to fly the “swastika flag” next to the German one at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Thankfully, Meitner was able to flee the Nazi occupation of the city in July 1938. In fact, her escape into Sweden was largely coordinated by her mentor and friend Niels Bohr.

Soon after arriving in Stockholm and settling into work at the Nobel Institute for Physics, Meitner received a curious letter from Hahn. He had been bombarding uranium with neutrons but kept getting a barium isotope as one of his products—a peculiar result at the time. What did Lise think, he wondered? In Stockholm, Meitner attacked the problem on a walk in the woods with her nephew Otto Frisch, also a physicist. They concurred that the uranium nucleus must split into two, giving rise to both barium and uranium isotopes—and thus, nuclear fission was born, named for the binary fission of one biological cell into two.

Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1944 for the discovery of nuclear fission; neither Meitner nor Fritz Strassmann, their assistant, were recognized. Meitner’s name wasn’t even included on the paper Hahn published (which didn’t even explain how fission worked; Meitner and Frisch did that in a letter in Nature in 1939 which, ironically enough, made mention of Hahn’s contribution): he thought it wouldn’t be accepted if it had a Jewish co-author. Meitner was a 48-time Nobel nominee (for the Prizes in both Chemistry and Physics) but would never become a Laureate herself. Many of her nominations were put forth by contemporaries and mentors such as Bohr and Max Planck—not exactly small names in the world of science.

At the time of the discovery, the Third Reich had taken over Germany and Nazism had infiltrated daily life; Meitner’s hometown of Vienna had been occupied by Nazi troops in the Anschluss and World War II was less than a year away. Meitner was a woman of Jewish descent and faced persecution, anti-Semitism and sexism that most of her colleagues did not: this contributed greatly to her exclusion from the Nobel. Almost fifty nominations and no wins—all because of her sex and religion. A cruel injustice for a magnificent scientist who did not deserve any of the discrimination or prejudice levelled her way.

Though her work would prove essential for the creation of nuclear weapons, Meitner refused to contribute to weaponry research (unlike many of her colleagues), abhorring the devastating violence and use of science in it. In another letter to Hahn, dated 1948, she declined a research position in Mainz, citing the derogatory attitudes of scientists in the country towards women and the Jewish population. She would never really return to Germany but instead furthered her work in Sweden, becoming a superstar in the scientific community and travelling Europe and North America—finally—receiving awards for her research. Meitner died at the age of 89 in Cambridge, where she lived with her nephew. The Institute of Physics has awarded the Lise Meitner Medal and Prize for distinguished contributions to public engagement within physics since 2017—and three of the four winners have been women.

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