Dr. Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968) is one of the most significant woman scientists of the 20th Century for her discovery of nuclear fission. She was an Austrian-Swedish physicist who helped discover the element protactinium-231 with her colleague, chemist Otto Hahn. She received her doctorate in physics—the second woman to do so—at the University of Vienna in 1906. In 1926 she became Germany’s first female professor of physics, a role she held until the rise of Nazi Germany and the Nuremberg Laws forced her to flee to Sweden to escape religious persecution.
She worked closely with Otto Hahn, a prominent chemist, throughout the years. Their work on discovering isotopes resulted in the introduction of protactinium-231.
In 1939, Dr. Meitner discovered that uranium atoms split when bombarded with neutrons and she coined the term “fission,” which has been used ever since. Her role in this major discovery, which allowed for nuclear energy and nuclear bombs, was overlooked by the Nobel Prize committee and the award was given exclusively to Otto Hahn in 1944, who received full credit for making this Nobel Prize-winning discovery. Because of her role in this discovery, she was invited to work on the Manhattan Project, however, she opposed the atomic bomb and declined the offer. She was ultimately nominated for the Nobel Prize 48 times for physics and chemistry projects but never won.
She was a strong supporter of women in science and spent the last half of her life traveling and speaking to female students.
Awards & Recognition
- 1925 – Awarded the Lieben Prize from the Austrian Academy of Sciences
- 1944 – Named “Woman of the Year” by the Women’s National Press Club in Washington D.C.
- 1945 – Became a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
- 1954 – Awarded the inaugural Otto Hahn Prize of the German Chemical Society
- 1966 – Right before her death, Meitner was awarded the Enrico Fermi Award by the DOE alongside chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann for excellence in research in energy science and technology that benefits mankind and her “pioneering research in the naturally occurring radioactivities and extensive experimental studies leading to the discovery of fission.”
- 1997 – The chemical element 109 was named Meitnerium in her honor.