Meet Lise Meitner, the 'German Marie Curie'


Unless you are a student of physics, you have probably never heard the name of Lise Meitner. Albert Einstein once referred to her as the "German Marie Curie." 

However, as brilliant and important as her work was, she was another in a long list of women scientists who was denied the full recognition she deserved for her many achievements. 

Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. When it became time to attend college, she enrolled at Fredrich-Wilhelms-Universitat in Berlin, Germany. Here, she was permitted to attend the lectures by the Nobel Prize winning physicist Max Planck. It was a special gesture by the great physicist who, up to that time, had refused to allow women into his lecture theaters.   

Even though it was very difficult for women at that time, Meitner chose scientific research as a career.  In 1905, she became only the second woman to gain a doctorate in physics from the University of Vienna.  Before World War I, she went to Berlin to assist two very prominent scientists, Planck and Fritz Haber.

By 1917, she was made head of the physics department of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute where Otto Hahn was head of its chemistry department. They started a very successful collaboration that was to last for more than 30 years. Working with Hahn, she discovered and isolated a new element named protactinium.

She and Hahn then launched a program that in 1938 resulted in the discovery of nuclear fission of heavy nuclei. This became the basis for the development of the Atomic Age.

However, Meitner, being of Jewish heritage in an increasingly Nazi Germany, had to flee Germany in July 1938 because she became slated for arrest and a concentration camp. She had to leave in a hurry with only 10 German marks and what she could carry. She fled to the Netherlands and later moved to Stockholm where she found work in physics. 

Hahn received the 1944 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of fission.  Although nominated for a Nobel a number of times, she never received the honor. This decision is now widely considered to have been totally unjustified.  She was invited to work on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, but is reported to have declined as she was against the development of a nuclear bomb.