Lise Meitner: the woman nearly erased from history

By Jaime Seltzer

Elise Meitner was born in Vienna, Austria in 1878, the third of eight children in a prosperous, middle-class family. She went to the Akademisches Gymnasium for her secondary education, and in 1905 earned her doctorate at the University of Vienna, only the second woman to earn a doctorate in physics there.

Lise, as she was called, was one of the women truly at the frontiers of science. Very few had walked the trails she blazed in academia, and so she often had to work far harder than a woman born even a decade or two later than she. She worked for years on a charity basis, lucky enough to have parents who appreciated her cleverness and were wealthy enough to support her despite her lack of pay.

As a young woman, she worked as an assistant to Max Planck, who would later become famous for his quantum theory. It was while working with Planck she first met Otto Hahn, who would be her science life-partner, at her side for thirty years.

Lise noted that, in scientific journals where her work was cited, her name alone had been removed. It was as though some dark hand were reaching back into the past to erase her very existence, and the existence other scientists of Jewish ancestry.

All Hahn knew was that Meitner had a brain that was like a steel trap, only sharper and with more teeth; and that she understood physics at a bone-deep level. Hahn was a chemistry guy, and in the early 1900s, when the atom seemed ready to give up all its secrets to those with determination and foresight, he chose Lise as his research partner. He chose her even though the university he worked for refused to hire her because they did not hire women for professor’s positions; he chose her even though that choice banished them both off of university grounds, to an old carpentry shop the first year of their partnership.

Talk about pressure! It was up to Meitner – and Hahn, too, if he ever wanted to do his research on campus grounds again – to prove that Meitner could do good work, and was worthy of a position and a salary. After that first year, they were re-located to the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, where Hahn was established as the head of the Radioactivity Institute. Meitner, meanwhile, was still left out in the cold. Up until 1912, she worked as a ‘guest’ and was not paid a single Austrian schilling.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that she took a break from her research do to other charity work: like Irène Joilet-Curie, she became a volunteer x-ray technician during World War I. Lise felt guilty and sorrowful, knowing that the War would continue without her, but she felt the call of her work and returned to the lab in Berlin by 1916.

In 1917, she and Hahn discovered protactinium, element number 91 on the Periodic Table. Its existence was predicted, but until Meitner, no one had been able to get a sample that stuck around long enough to prove its existence. This won Meitner the Leibniz medal from the Berlin Academy of Sciences… and a professorship, head of the physics department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. She was the first woman to become a full professor of physics.

In 1922, Meitner discovered and published on a phenomena known as the Auger Effect, which states that when an electron is removed from a position close to the nucleus, and other electrons fall lower in response – like the pieces in a ‘Connect Four’ game – energy can be released via the escape of an electron. Despite Meitner being the first to publish on the idea, the effect is named after a man who based his PhD thesis on the concept a year later.

Meitner and Hahn continued to work together through the 1920s and 1930s. It was an exciting, fascinating time to be a scientist: Rutherford in Britain, Joilet-Curie in France, Fermi in Italy and Meitner-Hahn in Germany all cheerfully competed against one another to discover how to split an atom, if such a thing were possible. It is fair to say that the atom’s potential as a weapon was far from the scientists’ minds as they all raced to complete their work before their competitors could; indeed, it would have been hard to say at this point that such a thing had the ability to be weaponized.

Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner and her Women in Science playing card.

In 1933, the rise of the Nazi party meant that Lise’s professorship was revoked, and Hahn resigned from the university in protest. By 1936, the Nazis were rounding up people of Jewish ancestry. Lise’s parents were Jewish, but she remained safe for two more years – in part because she had converted to Christianity at a very young age, and in part because of her high position – but many others had already been deported, including members of her own family.

1938 found Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn making their goodbyes. A colleague in the chemistry department had informed the Nazis that Lise was to flee to the Netherlands, and time was running out. Hahn pressed Lise to take the diamond ring that had once belonged to his mother, to bribe anyone who refused her passage. Lise had no idea at the time, but a rather vast network of scientists had been conspiring for months to spirit her out of the country. Two Dutch physicists accompanied her and persuaded the border guard that she had permission to travel, and Lise slipped away without having to bribe anyone at all.

It was a good thing, too: Lise had 10 marks in her purse, a lovely diamond ring, and the clothes on her back when she fled Germany. Later, she said, “it was not only stupid but very wrong that I did not leave at once!

She had been promised an appointment at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, but this fell through. Luckily, she was able to work at the Nobel Institute in Stockholm, Sweden; however, she was forced to work under the odious Manne Siegbahn, who denied her lab space and the use of the x-ray machinery, and once even stole an assistant out from under her. Once of Meitner’s friends wryly stated that a fitting punishment for Siegbahn would be to “split him in two, and force one half to work for the other half”! Yet it must also be said that Siegbahn, despite this daily pettiness, was one of the men who worked behind the scenes to ensure that Lise escaped Germany safely, and that he had agreed to take her on at the Institute out of a respect for her work that he apparently never managed to voice aloud.

At least Meitner had Hahn, if at a distance: they continued to exchange letters and occasionally met in secret. She corresponded with Niels Bohr, who was famously good at getting talented scientists to work together. She also had re-acquainted herself with her nephew, Otto Frisch, himself a physicist, who had been forced to flee Germany two years before Lise.

Later in 1938, Bohr, Meitner, Hahn and Frisch met in Copenhagen at a talk Hahn was giving. Hahn had designed and performed an experiment that he believed provided evidence that the atom could split, but he couldn’t quite manage to describe the theory behind his empirical results – the theoretical physics had always been Meitner’s bag. Meitner and her nephew worked together and produced this theoretical framework for the splitting of the atom that they then delivered to Hahn.

When Hahn published, he included neither Lise nor Frisch on the paper. However, given the climate at the time, and Hahn’s long history with and affection for Lise, this may have been to protect Lise from becoming a target rather than to rob her of the credit. Nonetheless, he was then awarded the Nobel Prize for his work, and Lise was never mentioned. It was not an oversight: one member of the Nobel Committee explicitly refused to include her.

Worse, that slight was a small part of the picture. Lise noted that, in scientific journals where her work was cited, her name alone had been removed. It was as though some dark hand were reaching back into the past to erase her very existence, and the existence other scientists of Jewish ancestry. It was a devastating obliteration of everything Lise had worked for. Even Hahn seemed to distance himself from Meitner, no longer admitting that her work had long contributed to his success as a scientist, though he did quietly offer her some of the prize money he had received from the Nobel.

Lise was invited to the United States to give lectures, talks, and meet with important people. The press styled her ‘the Mother of the A-Bomb’ because it had a catchy ring, but Lise was horrified at the very thought. When she heard of Hiroshima, she wept. When she saw the pictures of the concentration camps in Germany, she wrote a scathing letter to her colleagues who still worked there. She herself felt guilty for staying in Germany as long as she had, for lending the Nazi regime any legitimacy. Hahn, too, felt as though their work had been devastatingly misused.

Lise Meitner was a brilliant scientist, an incredible collaborator, and a tenacious and prolific scientific writer, publishing her research at a rate that would be considered swift even by today’s competitive standards. She was brave and stubborn and clever, and spent the rest of her long years speaking out about women in the sciences, her experiences in both World Wars, and the dangers of nuclear armament. A book written about her role in the discovery of the splitting of the atom brought her back into the public consciousness in the 1990s; and Meitnerium, element 109 on the Periodic Table, was named after Lise to commemorate her achievements.

Despite her worst fears, her name would never be erased from history.

References:
Goldstein, G. R. (2001). A Review Essay on “Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age” by Patricia Rife. In Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics. Retrieved from http://cwp.library.ucla.edu/articles/gold_meitn.html
Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Fritz Strassmann. (n.d.). In Chemical Heritage Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/online-resources/chemistry-in-history/themes/atomic-and-nuclear-structure/hahn-meitner-strassman.aspx
Rife, P. (2009, March 1). Lise Meitner. In Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Jewish Women’s Archive. Retrieved from http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/meitner-lise
Sime, R. L. (1996). Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.

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