History of Chemistry

Lise Meitner: A Physicist & Chemist Whose Legacy Lives On

Background and Education

Lise Meitner is among the greatest physicists and chemists whose work has left a significant mark on the modern world of chemical physics. Born on November 7th, 1878 in Vienna as a non-Aryan Jewish female, the obstructions Meitner faced in her road to success were innumerable. Her father was among the first Jewish lawyers in Austria and her mother was a pianist. Though she was born Jewish, Meitner’s family had separated themselves from their Jewish heritage. As a result, Meitner later converted to Christianity, but still identified as Jewish throughout most of her academic career—something that would end up playing a major role in her academic recognition. 

Meitner’s family encouraged her to pursue an education, unlike most females at the time. In 1899, Meitner, despite her interest in physics, received her certificate to teach French. This was a result of her father’s wish for her to be financially independent, as well as because teaching was one of the few professions that were available to women at the time. However, other areas of study became available to women at the University of Vienna, where she enrolled to pursue a different career. She was inspired by her teacher, physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, to study physics and radioactivity. Meitner became the second woman to receive her doctorate degree from the university in 1905. After Boltzmann took his life the same year, he was replaced with Max Planck who was adamantly against the idea of women pursuing advanced education, as was most of society. Meitner, who was persistent and set her mind on attending Planck’s lectures, negotiated with Planck and arrived at a compromise that she would be allowed a postdoctoral position but would not be paid. In 1907, Meitner started her studies at the University of Berlin where she began a long-lasting friendship with young German chemist Otto Hahn.

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Early Occupational Life

Meitner secured her first paid position as Planck’s assistant in 1912. When Meitner and Hahn began studying the radioactive process, women were not allowed to use the laboratories. Meitner, however, again compromised with the university and was allowed to accompany Hahn but would not be paid. After a year, Meitner was promoted to the same position as Hahn yet again with a sexist compromise that she would receive a lower salary than her male counterpart. The new radioactivity section at the University of Vienna became theirs: Laboratorium Hahn-Meitner. In 1917, Meitner and Hahn discovered protactinium, a dense, silvery-gray actinide metal that readily reacts with oxygen, water vapor, and inorganic acids. However, they were only credited for this achievement 32 years later, in 1949. Between 1918 and 1922, Meitner gained much prestige and respect for her research and became more independent in her work. By 1920, Meitner and Hahn were on their separate paths.

In 1922, Meitner discovered a process in which an atom with an electron vacancy adjusts to a more stable state by ejecting one or more electrons. This early theoretical process became the basis for the process of splitting atoms, something that later progressed into nuclear fission. Unfortunately, French scientist Pierre Auger discovered the same process in 1923, overriding Meitner’s work. The process became known as the Auger Effect. This was only the beginning of the many works and discoveries of Meitner that were overlooked as a result of her gender.

In 1926, Meitner became the first female physics professor in Germany when she was selected to head a research program at the University of Berlin. This allowed Meitner to become even more exposed to the world of science and particularly, physics.

Lise Meitner: Further Discoveries and Hardships

Meitner’s greatest discovery was sparked by the theory of English physicist James Chadwick who discovered the neutron, sparking speculation among scientists that heavier elements could be produced through neutron bombardment, which is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom is struck by another nucleus, causing fission. In 1934, Meitner asked for Hahn’s help in researching this phenomenon. Together, along with chemist Fritz Strassmann, they discovered that bombarding uranium with slow-moving neutrons resulted in unidentified lighter elements. Experimenting continued as laboratories all over Europe raced to develop explanations as to why lighter elements were produced. Many believed that the person who could develop a theory for this essential discovery would be a frontrunner for the Nobel Prize in physics or chemistry.

While scientific research and experimenting progressed, the Nazi party was rising to power in Germany. After the annexation of Austria in 1938, Meitner’s status as a citizen of Austria was stripped, and she was now considered a German, putting her in danger due to her Jewish heritage. In July 1938, Meitner escaped from Germany, leaving her life’s work behind. Following her escape, she chose to work at the Nobel Institute of Physics in Stockholm in hopes of building a research group. This, however, caused her to become the face of extreme marginalization and discrimination as a result of her gender. Despite this, Meitner continued to collaborate with Hahn regarding the work on uranium and neutron bombardment that she had left behind in Berlin.

The Discovery of Nuclear Fission

In 1938, Meitner crossed Sweden to visit her nephew, Otto Frisch. A couple of days prior, she received a letter from Hahn regarding his and Strassmann’s experiments of uranium: the uranium had produced barium. Meitner and Frisch discussed this finding and came to the conclusion that when the atom had divided, it released a large enough amount of energy to break the atoms apart. Meitner shared this finding with Hahn, who proceeded to publish an article about it without any mention of Meitner, who had initially prompted this discovery. As the word went around of this extraordinary discovery, there was no credit given to Meitner’s contributions, but instead praised the work of Hahn and Strassmann.

This discovery of nuclear fission caused a wave of alarm in the United States as there could be a potential German production of nuclear weapons. As a result, the U.S. began working on the Manhattan Project, a secret organization that was focused on developing the first atomic bomb. Despite the opportunity it would give her to gain scientific recognition, Meitner declined the offer that she received to participate in the program because the idea of an atomic bomb went against her morals. Otto Hahn, however, agreed to work on the development of the bomb for the Nazis.

In 1944, Otto Hahn received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission. He gave very little to no credit to Meitner in his acceptance speech. This is still considered one of the biggest oversights by a Nobel Prize Committee today. 

Lise Meitner chemist nobel prize
Hahn (left) and Meitner (right) at a laboratory in 1912.

Lise Meitner: A Lasting Scientific Impact

Despite the many obstacles Lise Meitner faced throughout her life and career as a result of her gender and heritage, she persevered. In 1946, Meitner was awarded the prestigious “Woman of the Year” award by the U.S. National Press Club. At the age of 89, Meitner passed away on October 27, 1968. Meitner’s contributions greatly shaped the field of atomic physics, leaving a lasting impact on the scientific world. Today, nuclear fission is used to produce 11 percent of the electricity in the world, something that could not be possible without Meitner’s initial discoveries. Because she understood a few particles present in the universe, Lise Meitner was able to go to lengths to reform the scientific world in the long run.

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