The science of fission lies at the very heart of our ability to harness nuclear power. Regardless of whether it’s used for weapons, energy, or some unknown purpose, we wouldn’t have any of it, had one of the world’s most brilliant scientific minds not unlocked its secrets.
In 1944, the Nobel Committee awarded a German scientist named Otto Hahn the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It was for his discovery of nuclear fission, and he would go on to be known as the so-called “father of nuclear chemistry.”
Hahn was a brilliant researcher, scientist, and chemist, so that’s all well and good, but it’s only part of the story. He didn’t conduct his research alone; in fact, when it came time to publicly explain his findings, he had some difficulty articulating the very science he was given credit for pioneering.
That’s because it was another researcher who did much of the work, before she was purposefully excluded from the published paper because she was female and Jewish. Her name was Lise Meitner, and in the decades following Hahn’s Nobel Prize, her continued anonymity has been consistently identified as one of the most blatant instances of sexism and prejudice in the scientific community.
Overcoming bias even in youth
Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878, though there is some debate about the date. She had always observed her birthday on November 7, but according to official records, she had been born on November 17. Just why the difference in dates isn’t clear — perhaps it was a clerical error no one cared enough about to fix; it’s also been suggested that her parents, Hedwig and Philipp Meitner, intentionally delayed their submission of all the proper paperwork. Regardless, Lise’s birth stands in sharp contrast to other parts of Europe, where such an error would have caused chaos. For Meitner, it didn’t seem to matter.
The Meitner family had only moved to Vienna fairly recently; in fact, it was only recently that they had adopted their last name. It was a gift from her great-great-grandfather, who adopted the name Meietheiner as a nod to their ancestral home in Moravia. They hadn’t bothered with a surname before, and only added one when Kaiser Josef II mandated the use of a surname for any family availing themselves of civil services like education and employment. And this was the first time the family enjoyed the benefits others took for granted… others, that is, who weren’t Jewish.
Just a few generations later, the Kaiser’s edicts had opened the doors of Vienna. It was a bustling hub of liberal advancements, and sure, it was crowded, highly unsanitary, plagued by cholera, and the suicide rate was high, but for the first time, Jewish men and women found themselves eligible for participation in activities and occupations that were previously off limits. Philipp Meitner was one of the first Jewish men who could study and practice law, and his social standing afforded to him by his occupation in the city allowed him to open up his home to all of Vienna’s most progressive citizens. The Meitner home in Leopoldstadt, just a stone’s throw from the Danube canal, was a gathering place for politicians, law-makers, and entertainers. At times, they would discuss the future of their beloved city, but often, they just wanted to play chess and socialize with other free-thinking individuals.
Lise was the third of eight children. Her family was by no means rich, but they were comfortably middle-class. Because her family had enough money to pursue hobbies, she and her siblings were encouraged to explore the world around them and find their passions. The siblings all studied music, and for Lise, the days she spent playing the piano as a child sparked a passion that lasted the rest of her life. But when it came to matters of more formal education, she was at a major disadvantage simply because she was a girl.
Fortunately, Lise’s parents were adamant that all their children would receive similar opportunities in life, so they hired private teachers and tutors to keep everyone up to speed. Here, Meitner studied subjects like math — but only basic bookkeeping — along with history, some geography and a bit of science. There were also a few subjects that seem a bit out of touch today: singing, drawing, gymnastics, and something that was simply called “feminine handiwork”. Her teachers noted that her grades were good, but her discipline was lacking. She was bored.
Much later, Lise would look back on her early schooling with a small pang of regret, writing, “Although I had a very marked bent for mathematics and physics from my early years, I did not begin a life of study immediately. Thinking back to… the time of my youth, one realizes with some astonishment how many problems then existed in the lives of ordinary young girls, which now seem almost unimaginable. Among the most difficult of these problems was the possibility of normal intellectual training.”
By the time Lise and her sisters were looking for secondary education options, the firm glass ceiling that had been in place was beginning to crumble. When it came to educating women, there were only two countries where aspiring female students faced more opposition than they did in Austria: Turkey and Germany. Austria had barred women from university for a long time, but in 1897, women were finally granted access to higher education.
Even as university became a viable option, new problems emerged. For one thing, all these new troublemakers were required to pass entrance exams in order to gain access to universities. Fortunately, the girls of the Meitner family had been well-prepared by their parents. Elder sister Gisela passed her exams and entered medical school in 1900, and Lise pushed herself to compress eight years of schooling down into two. She studied mathematics, physics, mineralogy, logic, religion, Latin and Greek, botany… It was a long and difficult period, during which her family said they never saw her without a book of some kind. In the end, though, all that hard work paid off.
When Lise Meitner turned 23, she enrolled at the University of Vienna and became the first woman to study physics there. When she graduated, she was only the second female student to earn a PhD from the school.
Climbing the ladder through the glass ceiling
While Meitner was studying at university, she found a teacher who encouraged her to enter the field of physics. That was Ludwig Boltzmann, a physicist who also graduated from the university and worked in statistical mechanics. Boltzmann was a little different than other professors and authority figures she’d met, as he accepted women in fields of higher learning without hesitation. He was married to a math and physics teacher, after all.
Meitner described him as “a pure soul, full of goodness of heart, idealism, and reverence for the wonder of the natural order of things.”
By the time Meitner met him, Boltzmann was already struggling with ill health. In 1906, Boltzmann took his own life. It was a tragic event, yet one that would serendipitously lead to a meeting that would change Meitner’s life.
Among those who traveled to Vienna to pay their respects at Boltzmann’s funeral was Max Planck, the father of quantum theory.
Here, too, was a potential roadblock. Planck had unconditionally refused to welcome women to his lectures, but for Meitner, he made an exception… sort of. When she picked up and moved to Berlin to continue her studies, she found that even though Planck had opened the door to his lectures, the doors to the practical, experimental laboratories were still firmly shut and locked.
And the University of Berlin is where Meitner met Otto Hahn, the chemist we mentioned before. He was working in a somewhat improvised radiochemistry lab, and since it was completely separate from Planck’s off-limits laboratories — complete with a separate entrance and everything — she could go there to research and study. She would be an unpaid assistant, of course, but given the uphill battle she was facing for acceptance, she knew she couldn’t underestimate the value of a foot in the door.
Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn
Meitner and Hahn worked side by side for a long time, and it was a partnership that was interrupted several times by some of the most iconic events of the 20th century.
Even in their small, makeshift lab, the dynamic duo had momentous days of achievement, including the discovery of several new isotopes. It was during this time that Meitner also wrote and presented several papers on beta radiation.
By 1912, Hahn and Meitner — still operating under that lead/assistant paradigm — had moved from their makeshift basement laboratory to the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft, where Hahn accepted a position as the head of the Radioactivity Institute. It was a huge step up, but it wasn’t long before the outbreak of World War One put their work on hold.
Hahn spent the war years working under Fritz Haber and researching the use of chemical weapons — by all accounts, his participation was unwilling. Chemical weapons caused less than 1 percent of World War One fatalities, but the physical and psychological effects of their use led to the Geneva Convention’s prohibition of such weapons in future conflicts.
While Hahn played war chemist, Meitner volunteered with the Austrian army as a nurse, working mostly with x-ray technology. They didn’t return to civilian life until 1917, at which point they returned to their work at the KWG.
By this time, Meitner was no longer a mere assistant — she was appointed to the head of the institute’s physics division. She had been recognized for her work and her potential, certainly, but there were plenty of reminders that her abilities were viewed with a double dose of skepticism. When she became Berlin University’s first female professor in 1926, Lise gave her first lecture on radioactivity and cosmic physics. It’s an unthinkably complicated subject; it was also reported as a section of “cosmetic physics.”
Innocent typo or not, it represented a common problem for how women were viewed in the workplace at the time.
Meitner and Hahn made a number subatomic particle discoveries throughout the 1920s and regularly published their research. But it wasn’t until the eve of World War 2 that James Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron gave the field a major boost. Suddenly, researchers were hypothesizing that it would be possible to create new elements in the lab, and teams of scientists were racing to see who could get there first. Meitner and Hahn added two more crucial elements… no pun intended… to their research team: Fritz Strassman and Meitner’s nephew, Otto Frisch. Together, they began trying to identify the decay patterns that formed when uranium was bombarded by the recently-discovered neutrons.
And here is where things got complicated, not just for Meitner, Hahn, and their partnership, but for pretty much everyone: the Nazi party began consolidating power in Europe. And remember — Meitner wasn’t just female, she was from a Jewish family.
Hate runs deep. While her parents had never really been practicing Jews, their children had all registered within the Jewish community. Even though the children had actively accepted different faiths — Meitner’s sisters were baptized Catholics, while she herself attended Protestant services — it didn’t matter to the Nazis. Their heritage was Jewish, and that’s all that was seen in the end.
As Hitler rose to power, Meitner saw other Jewish scientists she had worked with suddenly start to disappear. Even her nephew fled. For a while, she was protected by her Austrian citizenship; she kept her head down to avoid drawing any unnecessary attention to herself. Eventually, she was officially dismissed from her position at the University of Berlin, and while she kept conducting her research at the institute, her name was stricken from the record and removed from any official documents pertaining to her findings. Hahn alone received credit for her work.
Lise tried to ignore the problem, focusing on her work and nothing else, but when Austria was annexed by Germany, it became clear that her life was no longer safe in Germany. She also realized that she didn’t have the support of most of her colleagues. Consider the remarks of a coworker named Kurt Hess, who remained very vocal about her continued presence in the research community. At one point, Hess lamented that “the Jewess endanger this institute.”
In July of 1938, a car dropped her off at a train station in Berlin. She had already stayed too long — there were new laws in place, and no scientists were allowed to leave the country, or even to get new documents that would allow them to do so in the future. The train ride from Berlin to the Dutch border had to be unthinkably long and unbearably terrifying. She was travelling with a Dutch chemist named Dirk Coster, and he had arranged for her to be welcomed to the Netherlands. But she had to get across the border first, and the only document she had was her outdated Austrian passport. In her later years, Meitner recalled sitting, horrified, as an officer of the Nazi military checked her credentials.
“I got so frightened, my heart almost stopped beating. I knew that the Nazis had just declared open season on Jews, that the hunt was on. For 10 minutes I sat there and waited, 10 minutes that seemed like so many hours. Then, one of the Nazi officials returned and handed me back the passport without a word.”
Within just a few months, Meitner was living in Stockholm. She and Hahn maintained correspondence, even as Hahn continued the experiments they had worked on with the help of Strassman. They discovered that they could turn a radioactive substance into something that was almost barium… but not quite. It was much too light, and they couldn’t make heads or tales of what they’d found.
Meitner’s nephew, who had moved to Copenhagen after his escape from Germany, was visiting her that Christmas. The pair of them poured over the odd findings, eventually arriving at one inescapable truth: the uranium from their experiments had been split, releasing nuclear energy. They needed a name to refer to the process. They dubbed it fission.
Meitner’s Dutch Discovery is where our story gets a little hazy. When it was time for Hahn to publish his work and tell the world what they’d discovered, he had to carefully consider what names he should attribute to the project. Technically, it was he and Strassman who conducted the experiments, but it was Meitner who had told him what to look for. She was also the chief architect behind the interpretation of the results. And while it plainly seems like they should have shared credit, Hahn knew that adding a Jewish woman’s name to his work from the heart of Nazi Germany would have all but destroyed his career. So he published his paper on fission without giving her any mention.
There was a little bit of epic justice here, though. When Hahn published his findings, he left out a fairly important bit that explains exactly how uranium could be split into two barium atoms. He was vague about the actual mechanics, not fully comprehending them himself. Fortunately, Meitner could explain it, so she did just that — a few weeks after the discovery had been published, she wrote a letter to the editor of Nature and explained how the process has been successfully achieved. This was the first place where the term “fission” actually appeared.
It only took a few months for word of the discovery to spread. By April of 1939, the German government was pushing its scientists to find a way to weaponize the discovery, and by August, Einstein was issuing severe warnings on what would happen if the world figured out how to do it.
All the while, Hahn remained in Nazi Germany. Meitner continued to work with him, albeit with drastically changed opinions on him, alongside the other scientists who remained in Nazi-controlled territory. In a letter that she never sent, Meiner confessed that,
“I must write this to you, because so much depends for both Germany and yourselves on your recognizing what you allowed to happen… you betrayed Germany itself, because even when the war was already quite hopeless, you did not arm yourself against the senseless destruction… . If you could have seen for yourself those who came here from the camps.”
Unleashing hell on earth
It was the German physicist Werner Heisenberg who was put in charge of harnessing the power of nuclear fission for practical applications… or, in other words, creating a fission weapon. He failed where America succeeded, giving rise to one of Lise Meitner’s more famous nicknames: the “mother of the atom bomb.” She was awarded this epithet despite the fact that she had refused to do any work on or with the Manhattan Project. Her nickname bothered her — she was steadfast in her desire to have nothing to do with weaponized fission. She spent the rest of the war in Sweden, sticking firmly to her declaration: “I will have nothing to do with a bomb.”
It’s a long-standing misconception, too, that Meitner was directly responsible for the atom bomb; in 1945, she was honored by the Women’s Press Club and had dinner with President Harry S. Truman, who said to her, “So you’re the little lady who got us into all of this!” And if that made you cringe, well, you’re not alone.
Meitner’s entire career was punctuated by slights based on her gender and her family’s Jewish history, and it wasn’t just the Nobel Prize committee that did it — although theirs was, perhaps, the most gross oversight. It’s certainly theirs that is the most remembered, and they have gone back to look at the circumstances around her omission from Nobel history.
So, what have historians said really happened around Meitner’s Nobel Prize snub, and who or what is to blame? It’s more complicated than it seems at first glance, and according to Gustav Kallstrand, curator of the Nobel museum,
“Both Hahn and Meitner were nominated for the prize, and many consider it to be an omission that she did not receive it. Historians who have looked in the archives have determined that the committee member who evaluated Meitner’s candidacy made a mistake and underestimated her influence in the discovery.”
The museum might realize that now, but there was never any move made by the committee to formally address their oversight. Meitner, by most accounts, accepted the snub… but it still had to hurt.
For what it’s worth, there was no grand celebration for Hahn. He was in England, interned with other German scientists, when he got word that he had won. It was 1945 — after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and he sank into such a deep despair that he considered suicide. Instead, he returned to Germany, accepted a position at the Max Planck Institute, and became an active voice in the campaign against nuclear weapons.
As for Meitner, she refused to ever return to Germany. She briefly became a Swedish citizen before eventually settling in England for her retirement years. The role their work played in the building of the atom bomb seemed to haunt her more than the loss of any accolades.
Meitner never stopped speaking to Hahn. They continued to write letters, and Hahn, eventually, admitted to her that she had been right about his responsibilities during the war. For her 80th birthday, in 1958, he wrote to her, “We all knew that injustice was taking place, but we didn’t want to see it. we deceived ourselves… Come the year 1933, I followed a flag that should have been torn down immediately. I did not do so, and now I must bear responsibility for it.”
While the Nobel Prize Committee never fixed what many still consider a grievous oversight, Meitner did receive some recognition for her work. In 1966, the US Department of Energy awarded her, Hahn, and Strassman the Enrico Fermi Award, given for “pioneering research in the naturally occurring radioactives and extensive experimental studies leading to the discovery of fission.”
She was recognized with a slew of other awards and honors, too. She was nominated for a Nobel Prize three times, was given a number of honorary doctorates, and, perhaps best of all, lent her name to an asteroid, element 109 (meitnerium) and a series of craters on both Venus and the moon.
Those are all great gestures, but it could also be argued that they came a few decades too late. Meitner turned 89 in 1968, and she passed away after a heart attack, a fall, a broken hip, and a series of small strokes.
Her nephew and longtime collaborator wrote her epitaph, which read: “Lise Meitner, a physicist who never lost her humanity.”