Nuclear Physicist. Lise Meitner, an Austrian-Swedish physicist, discovered nuclear fission in conjunction with her nephew Otto Frisch. Born third of eight children, her family were of a Viennese Jewish heritage. Her father was the first Jewish lawyer in Austria. Although public schools did not support women receiving a higher education, she was given private lessons. At the age of 21, she entered the University of Vienna, excelling in physics. After receiving her doctorate in February of 1906, she moved in 1907 to Berlin for Max Planck’s lectures and obtained a post with Otto Hahn researching radioactivity. The collaboration of the two scientists continued for 30 years, each heading a section in Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. In 1909 she presented two papers on beta-radiation. She did not have a full-time paid position until 1913. During World War I for a short time, she was a nurse in the German army. In 1917 she was awarded the Leibniz Medal by the Berlin Academy of Sciences. In 1918 she and Hahn announced the discovery of the 91st element, protactinium. She became the first woman to become a professor of physics at Berlin University in 1926, advancing to the head of the Chemistry Department. Adolf Hitler with his Nazi Party came to power in Germany in 1933. Despite having converted to Christianity in 1908, her Jewish origins caused her increasing persecution from the Nazis, and on July 13, 1938 she fled Germany through the Netherlands leaving behind all her possessions and accepting a post at the Institute of Physics at Stockholm University. She lost the advantage of doing research at the well-equipped Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and was met with prejudice against women scientists. While in Stockholm, she received the news that Hahn, along with radiochemist Fritz Strassmann, had bombarded uranium with neutrons and had found radioactive isotopes of much higher elements such as barium, cerium, krypton and strontium. They were unable to explain this find, thus Hahn had a clandestine consult with her in Copenhagen after he had given a lecture, with a series of letters following. She and Frisch concluded that the nuclei of uranium 238 was being split into two nearly equal parts. They called this fission. They calculated that as there was a loss of mass there must, according to Albert Einstein, be an increase in energy. Frisch verified this experimentally at the Bohr Institute in Copenhagen on January 13, 1939. The pair published their results in the professional periodical “Nature” in February of 1939; Hahn’s article on the discovery had been published in another magazine in January. During World War II, she was invited by the United States to be part of the Manhattan Project, but refused since she rejected the use of an atomic bomb in war. In 1944 Hahn received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for discovering nuclear fission; many in the scientific community argued that Meitner merited a share of the award for her part in the discovery. She received 48 nominations for the Nobel Prize candidacy with one being submitted by Hahn in 1948. In a 1946 visit to the United States to give lectures, she was given total American press celebrity treatment, as someone who had "left Germany with the bomb in my purse." In 1947, a personal position was created for her at the University College of Stockholm with the salary of a professor and funding from the Council for Atomic Research. She returned to Germany in October of 1947 for Max Planck’s funeral. Meitner retired in 1960 to Cambridge, England where she died. She was buried in the churchyard of St. James's, Bramley, Hampshire, near to her nephew Walter Meitner, whose son Philip farmed at nearby Sherfield on Loddon for many years. Element 109, the heaviest known element in the universe, is named meitnerium in her honor. In recognition for her part in the discovery, she shared with Hahn and Strassmann the Enrico Fermi Award, which was awarded in 1966 by the United States.
Bio by: Linda Davis
"A physicist who never lost her humanity"