In 1938, Lise Meitner discovered that nuclear fission can produce enormous amounts of energy.
She made the discovery in Sweden, after escaping a few months earlier from Nazi Germany.
When World War 2 ended, she was acclaimed as the mother of the atom bomb. In fact, she disapproved of both the acclaim and the bomb. She believed nuclear energy should be used solely for peaceful purposes.
Although, controversially, Lise Meitner was never awarded a Nobel Prize, in 1997 her work was acknowledged in a more exceptional way when chemical element 109 was named Meitnerium in her honor.
Lise Meitner was born on November 7, 1878 into a relatively wealthy, cultured family in Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Her father was Philipp Meitner, a lawyer, and chess master. Her mother was Hedwig Skovran, a talented amateur musician. Lise was the third of the couple’s eight children. The Meitner family were non-religious Jews. Later in life they converted to Christian denominations. At the age of 29, Lise became a Lutheran.
Even as a child Lise was academically inclined. She enjoyed mathematics, and her father employed private tutors to help her learn more. She also enjoyed playing the piano, reading, and finding out how the world worked. Her parents encouraged all their children to think independently. Her mother told them:
“Listen to your father and me, but think for yourself.”
Recalling her parents, Lise remembered:
No School Allowed
Lise was a serious child for whom, like all Austrian girls in the 1800s, formal schooling ended at age 14. Unlike her brothers, she was not permitted to attend a grammar school to prepare for a college education.
Lise stayed at home, read books, and played piano. She eventually asked her father if she could take a science degree at the University of Vienna. Her father was sympathetic, but knew it would not be easy.
He recommended that Lise get a teaching qualification first so she could stand on her own two feet. Lise began working for a teaching qualification in French, which she completed in 1899, age 21. Her father then paid for private tutoring to help her prepare for the university entrance exam, which she passed in the summer of 1901.
University of Vienna
Lise Meitner matriculated at the University of Vienna in October 1901. She was 22 years old and had decided to major in physics. Soon she found herself inspired by the brilliant Ludwig Boltzmann. Almost all her physics classes were taught by Boltzmann, and Meitner held him in the highest esteem.
She worked incredibly hard to understand everything the great man said in his lectures, and was rewarded with a deep understanding of physics. In her old age, Meitner recalled these lectures fondly:
“He was so enthusiastic about everything he taught us that one left every lecture with the feeling that a completely new and wonderful world had been revealed.”
In December 1905, Meitner passed her doctoral oral exam summa cum laude (the highest honor) and, in February 1906, graduated with a Ph.D. in physics.Her doctoral thesis was entitled: Thermal Conduction in Non-homogeneous Bodies.
Unsure what to do next, Meitner wrote Marie Curie asking for a research position in her Paris laboratory, but unfortunately no work was available.
In September 1906, Meitner was crushed by the news that Ludwig Boltzmann had taken his own life.
Her days were now spent teaching high school physics. In the evenings she researched the exciting, new phenomenon of radioactivity at the university’s physics laboratory. She hoped an official research position would become available, but nothing turned up.
She turned to Max Planck at the University of Berlin, asking if she could attend his lectures for a semester. This was not just a formality. Universities in the German state of Prussia, in which Berlin was situated, did not allow women to matriculate.
Planck said Meitner was welcome to come to Berlin for a semester, and Meitner’s father agreed to pay her living costs while she was there.
University of Berlin
In September 1907, Lise Meitner arrived in Berlin. She did not know it, but after almost three decades in Vienna, she had left her hometown forever. She would spend the next three decades in Berlin.
Shy and modest about her own abilities, somehow she had to find a way of easing herself into research work. She hoped to study radioactivity – a topic on the borderline of physics and chemistry. Meeting Berlin’s scientists, she found she was welcomed by the physics faculty, but not the chemistry faculty.
Although most chemists steered clear of her, she soon teamed up with an enthusiastic chemist of her own age by the name of Otto Hahn. Hahn had already done impressive work in Ernest Rutherford’s laboratory, discovering new radioisotopes, and had recently joined Berlin’s chemistry faculty.
Hahn was not allowed to provide Meitner with laboratory space in Berlin’s Chemical Institute. Instead, he obtained the use of a small carpenter’s workshop within the Institute and installed equipment in it for their joint program of work. This was the beginning of a scientific partnership that would last for decades.
Working together in the small room for many hours the pair became good friends, but their relationship remained formal. For many years they did not even use first names, calling one another “Herr Hahn” and “Fräulein Meitner.”
Max Planck also welcomed Meitner, inviting her to small family parties at his home where she met other physicists informally. She became an accepted part of the physics scene at Berlin, albeit with no official status.
New Isotopes and Radioactive Recoil
Soon Meitner was publishing papers in academic journals in her own name or in collaboration with Hahn, including their 1908 discovery of a new radioisotope of the element actinium.
In 1909, Meitner and Hahn discovered radioactive recoil, finding that when an atomic nucleus emits an alpha particle, the nucleus will recoil like a gun that has fired a bullet. The recoiling positively charged nucleus can be attracted to a negatively charged electrode. Meitner and Hahn demonstrated that radioactive recoil can be used to produce elements with very high purity, collecting them on the negative electrode.
Ernest Rutherford often mailed his old student Hahn radioactive samples packaged in cardboard!
Meitner astonished the mailman by telling him before he handed over the mail if something had come from Rutherford. The source of her apparent telepathic powers was her sensitive electroscopes detecting the radiation emitted by Rutherford’s package.
These were the swashbuckling days of nuclear chemistry and physics, when radioactive materials were handled without precautions. Although Meitner herself lived to a ripe old age, many workers, such as Marie Curie and her daughter Irene were not so lucky.
In fact, Meitner soon became aware of the dangers of radioactive materials and implemented strict rules in the laboratories she ran to prevent radioactive contamination.
Independence at LastIn 1912, Max Planck gave Meitner a paid position as his assistant. This was time-consuming work as she had to mark assignments handed in by Planck’s students.
In October 1912, the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry opened in Berlin, employing both Hahn and Meitner.
The following year, the Institute began paying Meitner a salary. At last, at 34 years of age, she was financially independent.
In 1914, Germany entered World War 1. Like Marie Curie on the opposing side, Meitner carried out X-ray work at the front line helping wounded soldiers.
She returned to research work in 1916, two years before the war ended. She felt she was abandoning the soldiers, but research work was her life.
Protactinium’s Long-lived Isotope
In 1917, Meitner and Hahn discovered 231-protactinium, a new isotope of the element protactinium. Until then, only very short-lived isotopes of protactinium had been discovered, making its properties hard to determine. 231-protactinium’s half-life of about 32,000 years allowed the element’s properties to be established for the first time.
Further professional recognition now came Meitner’s way. Age 38, she was awarded the Berlin Academy’s Leibniz medal for the protactinium discovery and in 1918 she became the Director of Radiation Physics at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.
In 1922, age 43, she was appointed as physics lecturer at the university.
Nobel Nominations and a Professorship
Meitner and Hahn’s radioisotope research provided them with data for a large number of high quality research papers. They enjoyed a high reputation internationally. They were nominated ten times for the annual Nobel Prize in Chemistry or Physics, without success.
In 1926, Meitner became an untenured professor at the University of Berlin, becoming the first female professor of physics in Germany.
By the beginning of the 1930s, Otto Hahn was director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Although he was less active in research, he and Meitner remained close colleagues. Meitner was the institute’s most senior active scientist.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler became Germany’s leader, and Germans with Jewish ancestry began to be fired from their jobs.
As an Austrian with Jewish ancestry, the situation was not quite as bad for Meitner. Despite protests from Planck and Hahn the Nazis decreed that Meitner would no longer be permitted to lecture at the University of Berlin. She could, however, continue in her senior research position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.
Meitner was desperately unhappy about the situation. But she loved her work and hoped that reason would prevail in the end. She opted to stay in Berlin.
The Neutron and the Nucleus
In 1934, Enrico Fermi in Rome, Italy announced that he had bombarded uranium (element 92) with neutrons. Uranium was then the heaviest element in the periodic table. Fermi said his results suggested a uranium nucleus could possibly absorb a neutron. This extra neutron then decayed to form:
- a proton, and
- a high energy electron – a beta particle – which flew out of the nucleus at high speed.
The net result was, Fermi suggested, that uranium gained a proton to form element 93.
Fermi suggested scientists could utilize this method to make heavier elements than uranium – transuranic elements.
Ida Noddack, from a government laboratory in Berlin, suggested that neutron bombardment might cause uranium nuclei to break apart into lighter elements. Noddack, therefore, was the first person to propose the concept of nuclear fission:
Having made the proposal Noddack did nothing to follow it up.
Meitner and Hahn Get Involved, and Get it Wrong
Meitner was thrilled by the possibility of transuranic elements and suggested to Hahn they should team up again to determine if Fermi was right. Imagine it! Not just discovering a new element, but actually making a new element. Hahn agreed, and added his young chemistry colleague Fritz Strassmann to the team, which got to work in 1934.
The team quickly (and incorrectly) ruled out Noddack’s idea of nuclei breaking up; they thought it was highly unlikely.
They bombarded uranium with neutrons, trying to produce transuranium elements.
As they carried out more and more experiments, they found that bombarding uranium with neutrons seemed to produce ever more substances with different half-lives. They could not be sure what a bombardment’s initial products were, because they realized that some of the half-lives in the confusing muddle were very short.
They also spent time disputing the results coming out of Paris, where Irene Joliot-Curie and her coworkers were also studying transuranic elements.
Over the next few years, Meitner, Hahn, and Strassmann published a large number of papers documenting a rather elaborate (and incorrect) interpretation of the transuranic elements.
Work Interrupted by the Need to Survive
When Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, any protection Meitner enjoyed through her Austrian citizenship disappeared. She was now a citizen of an expanded Germany. Hahn angered Meitner by saying it would be best for everyone if she no longer came into the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. She felt badly let down by her old friend. In truth, though, Hahn was right. The best thing Meitner could do now was escape from Germany, before it was too late.
Meitner was invited to work in Denmark by her friend Niels Bohr, and also received offers from Switzerland, and the USA. Her physicist nephew Otto Frisch – the son of Meitner’s older sister Auguste – had been made welcome in the UK, but Meitner was reluctant to follow him because she did not speak English.
Meanwhile, the Nazis had begun enforcing a law preventing scientists from leaving Germany. Meitner was trapped. She continued working at the Institute.
Scientists in the Netherlands arranged with the Dutch government for Meitner to be given an entry visa for the Netherlands. Her scientific colleagues in Germany, including Hahn, were aware of the secret escape plan and, at significant personal risk, helped prepare her departure. She traveled from Berlin to the Dutch border by train. At the border the Dutch border officials persuaded their German colleagues to allow Meitner to pass into the Netherlands even though she did not have an exit visa. She crossed the border to safety on July 13, 1938. She was now in her sixtieth year and was welcomed into the home of Dirk Coster, the co-discoverer of the element hafnium.
Meitner left Germany with no personal possessions to speak of. Otto Hahn had given her his mother’s diamond ring to bribe border guards with, but this had not been needed.
Meitner spent several weeks as Coster’s guest, before heading to Copenhagen and Niels Bohr’s Institute, and from there to a new job at the Nobel Institute for Physics in Sweden’s capital city, Stockholm.
The Discovery of Nuclear Fission
Hahn’s Unexpected Results
In December 1938, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman performed the decisive experiments in the history of nuclear fission.
They bombarded uranium with slow moving neutrons, after which Hahn wrote Meitner with a sense of bewilderment. His results seemed to indicate that the element barium was consistently one of the products. How on earth could uranium produce barium? Uranium’s atomic number was 92, while barium’s was 56.
We ourselves realize that it [uranium] can’t really break into barium…!
Actually, however, Hahn and Strassman ‘realized’ wrongly. Uranium nuclei were breaking up into smaller nuclei – in other words nuclear fission.
Scientific dogma had previously said that the largest particle a nucleus could emit was an alpha particle. Could the uranium nucleus really break into pieces significantly bigger than alpha particles?
George Gamow and Niels Bohr proposed that atomic nuclei might resemble drops of liquid. In Sweden, Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch, who was visiting her, now wondered if a liquid-drop nucleus might break into two smaller drops.
Throwing Away Four Years’ Work
Embracing nuclear fission was a very hard step for Meitner to take. If fission were real, it would mean all the work she had published with Hahn and Strassman in the previous four years about transuranic elements was wrong.
At the end of December 1938, Meitner and Frisch were walking one day in the snow when inspiration came to Meitner. She sat down in the woods and began calculating the energy involved when nuclei produced by uranium fission fly apart. Her calculated energy, 200 MeV, was huge. Its source was Einstein’s famous equation: E = mc2. Meitner realized that enough mass was converted to energy during nuclear fission to produce an enormous amount of energy.
Quickly Meitner and Frisch wrote a paper, which they submitted to the journal Nature. Meitner told Hahn about her calculation, and Frisch told Niels Bohr.
News Spreads Quickly
Bohr carried the news about nuclear fission to the USA on a prearranged visit – the news spread like wildfire. Soon laboratories across the country were doing their own experiments to confirm the reality of nuclear fission. Unfortunately, all of this happened before Meitner and Frisch’s paper was actually published, so their names were not as prominent as they should have been.
No Nobel for Meitner
Bohr tried hard to ensure Meitner was recognized for the discovery, but Otto Hahn alone was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission. Meitner felt injured by her omission, and many other scientists shared her feeling of injustice.
She also felt injured by Hahn, who had initially downplayed her role because of the danger of associating his name with hers after she left Nazi Germany illegally; but then seemed to continue downplaying her role after the war. Despite some bad feeling on both sides, Hahn gave Meitner part of the cash from his Nobel Prize. Meitner immediately donated this to Albert Einstein’s Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, which was promoting peaceful rather than military use of nuclear energy.
Hahn gave proper credit to Meitner and Frisch in his Nobel lecture, noting it was they who had raised the possibility of heavy nuclei breaking into lighter ones using the liquid drop model, and:
Meitner and Frisch soon proved that the active breakdown products, previously considered to be transuraniums, were in fact fragments produced by splitting…
… the expression ‘nuclear fission’ is due to Meitner and Frisch.”
Despite some lingering bad feeling, Meitner and Hahn remained friends, and she always spoke of him with great affection.
The Mother of the Atom Bomb
At the end of World War 2, Lise Meitner was hailed as the mother of the atomic bomb by the victorious allies. She hated the title. She disapproved of the military use of nuclear fission. However, the genie was out of the bottle, and could never be put back, even by its ‘mother.’
In 1946, Meitner toured the United States, where she was given celebrity status. She saw a Hollywood movie script about her life and threatened to sue anyone who made such a distorted biography. She wrote:
A Greater Honor
Although she never received a Nobel Prize, Meitner was honored in a more exceptional way when element 109 was named Meitnerium in 1997.
Some Personal Details and the End
Meitner lived her life in the service of science. She never married and had no children. Her main recreation was walking – she enjoyed going on very long walks. She also loved music and regularly attended concerts.
When World War 2 ended and Meitner learned the full extent of the Nazi atrocities, she decided she never wanted to live in Germany again. She became a dual Swedish-Austrian citizen in 1949 and worked in Stockholm until retiring, age 75, in 1953.
In 1960, after suffering a broken hip, she moved to Cambridge, UK to be near her nephew Otto Frisch and his family.
Lise Meitner died at the age of 89 in Cambridge on October 27, 1968, after being weakened by a second broken hip and a number of small strokes. She was buried in the churchyard of St James Church, Bramley, close to where her youngest brother had been buried a few years previously.
Author of this page: The Doc
Images drawn or digitally enhanced and colorized by this website. © All rights reserved.
Cite this Page
Please use the following MLA compliant citation:
"Lise Meitner." Famous Scientists. famousscientists.org. 27 Sep. 2016. Web. <www.famousscientists.org/lise-meitner/>.
Lise Meitner and Otto R. Frisch
Disintegration of Uranium by Neutrons: A New Type of Nuclear Reaction
Nature, Vol. 143, pp. 239-240, February 11, 1939
Lise Meitner. 1878 – 1968
Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 16, pp. 405-420, Nov., 1970
Ruth Lewin Sime
Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics
University of California Press, 1996
Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age
Birkäuser, Boston, 1999