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date: 22 April 2018

Meitner, Lise

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History

Jeris Stueland Yruma

Meitner, Lise 


nuclear physicist. Meitner was born in Vienna on 7 November 1878 to a middle‐class family of Jewish heritage. Her early career coincided with the entry of women into higher education in modern German‐speaking Europe. After being educated by a private tutor—women were not allowed to attend the college‐preparatory high schools (Gymnasiums)—Meitner enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1901, and in 1906 she received her doctorate in physics.

In 1907 Meitner moved to Berlin, an important center of physics research in this period. She soon began to work in the emerging science of radioactivity and collaborate with the chemist Otto Hahn. Women were not allowed to enroll in German universities when Meitner arrived in Berlin (that right was granted in 1909), and she encountered some discrimination. However, she found a group of scientists, including Hahn, with whom she enjoyed interacting professionally and socially.

In 1914 World War I broke out in Europe. Although Hahn was conscripted into the German army and Meitner volunteered as an X‐ray nurse with the Austrian army, the pair, especially Meitner, continued their research on radioactive elements throughout the war. In 1918 Meitner and Hahn announced that they had discovered a new element: element 91, protactinium.

Through the 1920s Meitner pursued her own work on radioactive elements and advanced through the ranks of faculty in the German university system, but the political situation in Germany was darkening. By 1933 Adolf Hitler had risen to power and that same year Meitner's professorship was revoked because of her Jewish heritage. However, because she was an Austrian rather than a German citizen, she was able to continue her research until 1938.

The subject of this research would have great implications worldwide. In 1934 Meitner learned that Enrico Fermi and his team in Rome were irradiating uranium with neutrons and obtaining interesting results. Meitner proposed that she and Hahn collaborate again on experiments similar to Fermi's. From 1934 through 1938 Hahn, Meitner, and Fritz Strassmann, another chemist who had joined their team, along with the rest of the scientific community, believed that irradiating uranium with neutrons produced new elements heavier than uranium.

In December 1938 Hahn and Strassmann realized that barium, an element much lighter than uranium, was present in their sample of irradiated uranium. By this time Meitner had fled the Nazi regime for Sweden. Hahn wrote to her of his and Strassmann's puzzling finding, and Meitner and her nephew, the physicist Otto Frisch, developed a theoretical explanation for it, concluding that neutron impact could cause uranium atoms to split into two new atoms, each approximately half the weight of a uranium atom. This process, which Frisch christened “nuclear fission,” was used to power the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.

Although Otto Hahn alone was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fission, it was Meitner who was most popular in the United States immediately after World War II, where she became known as the woman who discovered the process that fueled the atomic bomb. Meitner was not interested in fame, however, and continued to work as a physicist in Sweden until 1960, when she retired to Cambridge, England. She died on 27 October 1968.


Rife, Patricia. Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age. Boston: Birkhäuser, 1999.Find this resource:

Sime, Ruth Lewin. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. The best‐regarded biography of Meitner.Find this resource:

Watkins, Sallie A. “Lise Meitner: The Foiled Nobelist.” In A Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer Women of Radioactivity, edited by Marelene F. Rayner‐Canham and Geoffrey W. Rayner‐Canham, pp. 163–191. Philadelphia: Chemical Heritage Foundation, 1997.Find this resource:

Jeris Stueland Yruma