A lof for science from a young age
Lise Meitner (who was Born Elise Meitner) started her first experiment when she was eight years old.
The year was 1886 and she hid her records beneath her pillow at night. She was fascinated by math and science.
Her first interest centered around colors, the swirling patterns in an oil slick, thin films, and the light reflecting off of them. She was passionate about these topics and continued her research in secret. At the time, women were not allowed to attend higher education, but around 1900 her parents saw to it that she could receive an education in physics.
She attended the University of Vienna, although only men were allowed to register officially at the University. She was very studious, taking dozens of notes and attended classes in both mathematics and physics. During this time, women had to work harder than their male classmates to be taken seriously. Elise worked through those challenges and her skill and dedication drove her forward. Her passion and talent for physics drove Elise to become the second woman to obtain a doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1905.
She had studied heat conduction in inhomogeneous bodies and was inspired while studying a beam of alpha particles. Some of her studies inspired Ernest Rutherford to later study and experiment with the nuclear atom.
Upon her graduation she was offered to work in a gas-lamp factory, but with the encouragement and financial backing from her father she went instead to Friedrich Wilhelms University in Berlin. There she was allowed to attend lectures by Max Planck, a famous physicist who had previously rejected women from attending his lectures.
She impressed Planck so much that Elise became his assistant after a year of listening to his lectures. She worked with Otto Hahn, a chemist, and together they discovered several new isotopes. In 1909, she presented papers on beta-radiation. During this time she and Hahn developed a method of physical separation of atoms. She continued to work in radiochemistry as a “guest” professor in Hahn’s department, but was not given a position until Prague offered her a position as Associate Professor. She stayed in Berlin and became a permanent scientist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) in southwest Berlin.
At the beginning of World War I, Lise served as a nurse handling the x-ray equipment. However, she discovered that serving in that way wasn’t work she wanted to do. She returned to her laboratory in 1916, feeling some guilt over leaving the soldiers. However, her research continued to develop and in 1917, Elise and Hahn discovered the isotope of the element protactinium. For this achievement she earned the Leibniz Medal given by the Berlin Academy of Sciences. That same year, she was given her own physics section at the KWI.
She continued to make important discoveries in the world of physics and chemistry. She was actually the first person to discover the Auger Effect in 1922, although the naming of the phenomenon was given to a French scientist who discovered it independently in 1923. She also made great strides in discovering atomic particles, assisting James Chadwick who would go on to discover the neutron.
By 1926, her accomplishments gave her the position of Professor of Physics at the University of Berlin. She was the first woman in Germany to assume this post. In 1930, she taught a seminar with Leo Szilard, a nuclear physicist. Since the discovery of the neutron, the scientific community was curious if they could create elements even heavier than uranium. Along with other physicists around the world, they started looking into this possibility.
They thought they were doing research worthy of the Nobel Prize. None of them thought it would later lead to the development of nuclear weapons.
World War Two
Things changed for Elise Meitner when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. She was still head of the Physics department at the University of Berlin and was protected by her Austrian citizenship. Her family, like many other scientists, were Jewish.
Her parents had been prominent members of the Jewish community in Vienna. At first, she was untouched, although many other prominent Jewish scientists were forced to resign their posts and leave Germany.
Elise wanted to continue her work, so she said nothing and worked harder. She hoped that nothing would change for her. However, during the events of the Anschluss, where Germany annexed Austria, the laws that had affected her German Jewish colleagues, applied to her as well. She was forced to flee in July of 1938. Her chemist friend Otto Hahn, along with Dutch physicists Dirk Coster and Adriaan Fokker, helped her get to the Netherlands. She made it across the border, but had nothing left of her possession but ten marks in her pocket and a diamond ring Hahn had given her to bribe border guards.
She began working in a laboratory in Stockholm, where she established a relationship with Niels Bohr. During her research here, she continued to speak with other German scientists who had not left. Late in 1938, Elise, Hahn, Bohr, and her nephew Otto Frisch, met to discuss a group of experiments that isolated the evidence for nuclear fission. Elise had done work on this with Frisch and had created a method where the nucleus of an atom could be split into smaller parts. They knew this released a great deal of trapped energy. Hahn and Fritz Stassmann would go on to discover nuclear fission, as the chemists who were able to achieve it.
This event set off a series of events that would lead to the Manhattan Project and the development of the nuclear bomb. The Project even reached out to her in 1942, and she refused. She wanted nothing to do with a bomb. When the nuclear bombs were later dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki she was surprised and sorry that such a thing would have been invented at all.
In 1944, her longtime research partner, Hahn received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission. Unfortunately, it was not shared between them. Several other scientists that had been involved in the discovery were troubled by the fact they were not also recognized. They did not dispute Hahn deserved it, but he hardly made the discovery alone. When historians and future Nobel Prize winners reflected on the award they realized that the committee was hampered by haste due to the war and a lack of information on the work Hahn and Elise had done in Germany.
After the war, she was critical of her choice to stay in Germany during the rise of Hitler. She was also bitterly critical of other German scientists who stayed and did nothing to protest the crimes of the Nazi regime.
In Sweden she became involved at the Nobel Institute for Physics, the Swedish National Defence Research Institute and the Royal Institute of Technology. She began to help with the research of R1, the first nuclear reactor in Sweden. By 1947, she was given a position at the University College of Stockholm as a professor and research funding by the Council for Atomic Research. She became a citizen of Sweden in 1949.
Elise Meitner won “Woman of the Year” from the National Press Club in the United States in 1968. She was given many other accolades and awards over her distinguished and brilliant career. She earned nearly two dozen scientific awards over her career. She passed away in 1968, after medical complications from a heart attack.
Since then, she is still a recognized figure for scientists around the world. She was a woman who challenged a world that thought women couldn’t become scientists and make great discoveries. She survived World War II, and did what she could for her research to be used for positive change. She lived to 90, making great strides in the scientific world in both pure science and for women.
To me she is not only one of the most inspiring scientists, she is one of the most inspiring people in history.