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Lisa Meitner (1878–1968)

Throughout her life, the Austrian scientist Lise Meitner experienced prejudice. At one stage she had to secretly conduct her experiments at night because her supervisor at the Berlin Institute "did not allow women in the laboratory."

However, Meitner would not be put off, and when the regulations changed Meitner was able to openly work at the Institute. Meitner formed a working partnership with Otto Hahn and together they worked on radioactive substances. World War I interrupted this work—Hahn was in the German Army and Meitner worked as a nurse—but they were still able to isolate a new radioactive element by the end of the war. Meitner also became the Institute's head of Physics in 1918.

Meitner and Hahn continued their work on radioactivity, and in the 1930's were observing the radioactive decay of Uranium that was bombarded with neutrons although they did not realise what was occurring. Meitner's work was interrupted again and Meitner, like many other Jews, was forced to flee Germany for her safety after the Nazis came to power.

Meitner ended up in Stockholm where she learned Swedish and continued her work. By this time Hahn was in Denmark and, although separated, they managed to continue their collaboration. The paper that announced their discovery of the process of fission was written during a telephone conversation.

This discovery gave the first picture of what was occurring with fission, and eventually led to the description of the nuclear forces that control radioactivity. However, despite a lifetime of collaboration, Otto Hahn alone received the 1944 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

By this time developments in understanding fission had led to the development of the atomic bomb. Lise Meitner was offered a job on this project, but refused. Moreover she immediately stopped her work on fission, and hoped that the project would be unsuccessful.

In 1960 Meitner retired from physics entirely and moved to England where she died in 1968.


Lise Meitner
magnifyLisa Meitner


Old telephone
magnifyLise Meitner's most important scientific paper was written over the telephone!
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