Lise Meitner was born in Vienna, Austria in 1878 as the third among eight children of Hedwig and Philipp Meitner. Her family was Jewish although they later distanced themselves from their Jewish past. During her childhood, Lise was already curious about math and science and had rational skepticism. Her parent’s idealism, in which they wished for freedom, led the family toward an extraordinary intellectual atmosphere. All of the children, including five daughters, pursued an advanced education. Because women, by law, were excluded from Austrian universities as well as rigorous secondary schools until the end of 19th century, receiving an advanced education was extraordinary, especially for girls.
With her parent’s support, Lise entered the University of Vienna in 1901, and she was awarded her doctorate degree in physics in 1906 as the second woman to earn a doctorate in that field from the University of Vienna. Despite her doctorate, there were no prospects for women in physics. She taught at a girl’s school in the daytime and worked in the evening at the Institute of Ludwig Boltzmann, who gave her through his lectures the vision of physics as a battle for ultimate truth, a vision which she never lost.
Yet, her future appeared to hold nothing but teaching at the girl’s school. Hence, she decided to go to Berlin, Germany for a few terms of study in 1907. She did not know at that time that she would stay there for more than thirty years. The University in Berlin was still a man’s world in which she not only felt like a stranger but also an oddity. Before attending Max Planck’s lectures she had to ask Max for permission to attend because she was a woman. While she attended his lectures, she realized that she preferred experimental physics as opposed to theoretical physics. She then got placed in the laboratory of Prof. Heinrich Rubens, who was the head of the Experimental Physics Institute. There she met Dr. Otto Hahn, who had the degree in Chemistry and would work with her for the next thirty-one years.
Even though she was allowed to investigate her research into radioactivity with Hahn in the chemistry institute where Hahn did his experiments, she still lacked a position within the field. She had a permanent double liability: a woman who was a scientist, and a scientist who was female. Because the Institute was completely off limits to women, she was allowed to work only in a basement room, and in order to use the toilet she had to walk down the street a couple of blocks to a restaurant.
When Hahn was offered a position, with a decent annual salary, in a new independent research institute, Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute (KWI) for chemistry, Lise was offered a position as well, but as an unpaid guest. She had published more than twenty articles, and established her reputation as a scientist since she started working with Hahn. Nevertheless, she still had no position, no income, and no prospects for the future.
After Lise and Hahn moved into the new institute, late in 1912, her situation was dramatically changed. Max Planck appointed her as his assistant, which was her first paying position. Soon after, Emil Fischer, chairman of KWI for chemistry, who had followed her work kindly, assigned her for the same position as Hahn’s although her salary was still considerably lower.
In spite of World War I as well as the long absence by Hahn, she managed to keep their radioactivity laboratory. In 1917, she was assigned to establish a physics department in KWI for chemistry. In 1919, she was promoted to Professor in the Institute. As the first woman professor in Germany, this achievement helped Lise to attract people around her, obtain larger grants and work with important officials. The partnership between Hahn and Lise had been very successful, and she was the leader of their experiments in many respects; nonetheless, others saw a woman working with a man as nothing but his subordinate.
In 1920s, she continued to scale the academic ladder; her title qualified her for university teaching. Besides, her work spanned almost all of experimental nuclear physics; she had the equipment, resources and co-workers, and published intellectual articles about new findings throughout this period when the nucleus was still very much a newcomer to the atomic scene, and radioactivity remained the prime source of nuclear data.
Under the Third Reich, Lise despite being Jewish tried to stay and to continue her research as long as she could, refusing many friends’ offers to get out of Germany. However, the situation was getting worse, which forced her to flee to Stockholm, Sweden in 1938.
Lise went to Stockholm without any possessions, money, adequate clothing, or the language skills to start out successfully. However, she was accepted to Manne Siegbahn’s Institute sponsored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Science. Yet, her salary was not as high as what she expected. There were no resources left in which she could perform her experiments in her new laboratory, no support was provided by her colleagues or organizations. Lise’s unhappiness was the product of two factors: the hardships of the Third Reich and dissatisfaction at work. She continued to keep in touch with Hahn; they often exchanged letters; moreover, they sometimes met secretly. Hahn, who was still in Berlin, had continued to investigate their research with their assistant, Fritz Strassmann. Hahn reported every result to Lise, and she gave him advice and suggestions in return. Strassmann knew that the direction of their experiments had come from her ideas although he did not know that Hahn had met her.
These experiments led directly to the discovery of nuclear fission. When Lise spent Christmas holidays in 1938 with her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, and her friends, Lise received a letter from Hahn stating that he had found a theoretical interpretation for a property of the nucleus. Although Lise and Hahn continued to correspond about further researches, the same racial policies that had forced her out of Germany made it impossible for Hahn and Strassmann to include her in the discovery of fission. She knew that it had nothing to do with science and everything to do with race. Lise submitted a small, independent article about the interpretation with Frisch, which would receive worldwide attention later. On the other hand, Hahn himself suppressed and denied not only their ongoing collaboration but also the value of nearly everything she had done, just as the political situations deprived her of her proper recognition.
Even after her fission interpretation with her nephew gained an acceptance throughout the world, her status in Siegbahn’s Institute did not improve. At that time in Sweden, there was no sympathy for refugees from Germany. The Swedish academic culture had always been supporters of Germany. Groups from within Siegbahn’s Institute considered Lise as an outcast. Moreover, having been forced into immigration and being excluded from the discovery of fission formed an unforgettable hardship that she would undoubtingly remember for the last twenty years of her life.
If fission had been found in a world at peace, its energy might first have been used to provide light and heat for people’s homes. Unfortunately, the discovery led to the development of the nuclear bomb because of World War II, which made her really sorrowful. If fission had been discovered in a world that was free of racial persecution and gender bias, her contribution to nuclear fission could have received much worthier rewards. In fact, Hahn received the Nobel Prize in 1946; she did not. Although she was not honored with the Nobel Prize, she received many honors after World War II. She continued to work on her research, yet she never fully established herself in physics again. In 1960, she retired and moved to Cambridge, England in order to be closer to her nephew, Frisch, who was a professor of physics at that time. Even though she retired, she was still trying to learn the new aspects of physics in every way possible, relying on Frisch to explain the new developments within the field. In 1968, after numerous contributions to the scientific world, Lise Meitner died right before her ninetieth birthday. Frisch selected the inscription of her headstone to contain the following phrase, which best describes her attributes: “Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity”.