Lise Meitner was born in Austria in 1878, a time when girls weren’t allowed a public education past age fourteen. Fortunately for the young woman who excelled in physics and mathematics, her parents paid for a tutor so she could continue her studies. Times changed and in 1878, woman were allowed entrance to the universities. She got her doctorate in physics from the University of Vienna in 1905 and shortly after began working with chemist Otto Hahn at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Germany. They would work together for thirty years and he’d betray her at least twice.
Together, they discovered a new naturally occurring heavy element, protactinium, atomic number 91. Although Lise did most of the work, Hahn was listed as the senior author on their paper published in 1918, perhaps because he had served in the military. They began a series of experiments designed to make a heavier element than uranium, the largest natural element. They did this by hitting uranium with subatomic particles known as neutrons. Instead of getting larger, as expected, the uranium got smaller. It was surely puzzling, as if the atom itself was breaking apart.
Lise was born Jewish and had to flee to the Netherlands during this time of Hitler’s power. However, she had plenty of opportunity to ponder the results and wrote to her partner, Hahn, about a new process that they were observing: fission—the splitting of the atom! Hahn published and later won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of fission. Did he take the trouble to mention his lab partner, Lise Meitner, who interpreted the results of the experiment for him? No. He did not. In fact, he spoke badly about her behind her back. His excuse: She was in exile when the famous paper had been written. She had won a “Woman of the Year” prize. Wasn’t that enough for her? This whole treatment shattered her self-confidence but she wasn’t silent about it and many other scientists were in her corner. In fact, her connection to fission was so widely known that she was invited to work on development of the atomic bomb in the United States. She declined but continued her physics research in Sweden and England.
Lise wasn’t afraid to speak out when she faced overt sexism. She said that being a woman was “almost half a crime.” She was sad about her treatment by Hahn, although they remained friends. She never despaired about not getting the Nobel Prize for her discovery. It had been used to make a weapon and for this she held remorse.
To honor Lise, element 109 discovered in 1982, was named Meitnerium and given the abbreviation Mt. Is there a Hahnium named after the betraying Otto? This was once proposed as a name for element 105, but in the end, the element was named Dubnium after a town in Russia. At least on the periodic table of elements, there’s no place for a backstabber.
Written for Sheroes of History by Catherine Haustein. Catherine Haustein is a chemist and author. Her blog can he found at catherinehaustein.com. Her lab green lab manual can be found here and her adventure romance novel about a female biologist in 1871 can be found via links here.
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Her biography Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime is a good place to find out more about Lise’s life.
This short video gives a nice overview of Lise’s life: