“Life need not be easy; what is
important is that it not be empty. And
this wish I have been granted.”
Men have long taken credit for the work of smart women. We’re striving to correct much of that false history, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to fully make it up to the many female scientists shafted by the historic record in favor of their male colleagues. If that kind of affront makes you angry, then get ready to have some major feelings about Lise Meitner, the most important scientist of the twentieth century you’ve probably never heard of.
Born in Vienna in 1878, Lise was the third of eight children. In a stroke of enlightened thinking, her father insisted that all his children receive the same educational opportunities regardless of gender. Lise loved learning all the things, later saying she showed a “marked bent” for physics as a child, a preference that continued into adulthood. After becoming one of the first women to earn a doctoral degree in physics from the University of Vienna in 1905 (often finding herself the only woman in a class of a hundred students), Lise teamed up with the chemist Otto Hahn, who would eventually help her make beautiful scientific discoveries but would also royally screw her over.
When Lise began researching alongside Otto in the radiochemistry department at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute, the going got a whole lot tougher on our gal than it already had been. Lise was relegated to the status of “guest” and denied a salary because her boss didn’t want women in the lab for fear that their “rather exotic hairstyle” might catch fire from a Bunsen burner (unlike a man’s bushy beard?). Lise was instead forced to set up their lab in a carpentry shop in the basement. And lest you think the sexism was limited to that particular lab, Lise once had an article rejected from the encyclopedia Brockhaus when the editor discovered her given name (she’d previously published multiple times under her last name) because “he would not think of printing an article written by a woman.” It was only in 1913 that Lise started being paid for her work, after a university in Prague offered her an assistant professorship. When World War I hit the next year, Lise took a quick break from science to become an X-ray technician—and since we know that Einstein used to call her Germany’s own Marie Curie, it seems pretty certain she rocked at radiation, too.
After returning to her lab in 1917, Lise was ready to just get on with stuff and do the science—and did she ever. She discovered a stable form of the element protactinium (along with a bunch of other isotopes) and finally, a year later, was offered her own radioactive physics department at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute. Then in 1922 Lise discovered the atomic phenomenon that causes emissions from the surface of electrons, which is now called the Auger effect, after the French guy who “discovered” the exact same thing two years later (noticing a trend?). Oh, and Lise also became Germany’s first female physics professor, although the press laughed and called her inaugural speech “cosmetic physics” instead of “cosmic physics.” (Get it? Because she’s a lady and ladies like makeup! Hilarious.) Despite much evidence to the contrary, no one was buying the notion that gals could be good at sciencing, but Lise refused to let that fly. As she would later say, “The gradual development of the professional and legal equality of women can only be properly understood if one remembers how many accepted customs had to be overcome in the struggle for the emancipation of women.”
Fast-forward to 1930s Berlin, when Lise was fifty-nine years old and Nazism was on the rise. Otto was safe, but Lise had Jewish parentage, so despite initially believing she’d be left alone because she was “too valuable to annoy,” she realized she was in danger. She got the heck out of Germany with only two small suitcases and ten deutsche marks to her name. Her escape was orchestrated by a group of scientists that included Good Guy Scientist Niels Bohr, who would later go on to champion Lise’s work and nominate her for three Nobel Prizes (way to not be a jerk, Niels!).
After her dramatic flight (which Otto casually attributed to—and this is a direct quote—“these Hitler regime things”), Lise set up shop in Stockholm at the lab of a guy named Manne Siegbahn. Now Manne, unlike Good Guy Niels, hated women in the sciences (and was therefore kind of a trashbag). He refused to give Lise collaborators, equipment, tech support, or even her own set of keys to the lab, and he paid her an assistant’s measly salary. (Lise would later write that in searching for “male supporters of the higher education of women and of their professional equality with men, then it is remarkable how few men of general reputation we find.” No kidding.) Despite these setbacks (and the misery and loneliness that accompanied fleeing her homeland), Lise continued to work, writing back and forth with Otto about a little thing she had been considering: how to split the nuclear atom into smaller parts, also known as nuclear fission. Yeah—kind of a big deal.
After years of research and correspondence, Otto followed Lise’s instructions and bombarded some uranium with neutrons. At this point, Otto wrote a nice letter to Lise that basically said, “I smacked uranium with neutrons and barium came out? Don’t understand? Halp???” (What he really wrote was: “Perhaps you can suggest some sort of fantastic explanation. We knew ourselves that [uranium] can’t really break up into barium…so try and think of some other possibility.” Which is equally as clueless, but still.) So Lise wrote him a nice explanatory letter (after, some sources romantically claim, drawing calculations in the Swedish snow on a Christmas hike with her physicist nephew, as if her life was a scene out of A Beautiful Mind), making her the first-ever person on the planet to accurately articulate what happens to atoms during nuclear fission. But since Lise was exiled from Germany, Otto published their findings and Lise’s theory in the journal Nature—without giving Lise credit in the byline or the text. Then in 1944, despite Lise having coined the term nuclear fission in her own Nature article in 1939, Otto won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery, even though his original note to Lise promised that they “would be together in this work after all.” Although his 1946 Nobel lecture did mention Lise five times, most people assumed she was merely Otto’s junior assistant, a misconception that he seems to have done nothing to correct.
Meanwhile, Lise was using her powers for good—or not using them, as it happened. She turned down an invitation to work on the Manhattan Project and refused to have anything to do with the nuclear bomb, becoming horrified, as you can imagine, at what her Big Discovery had made possible. Lise hoped that “the atomic bomb will make humanity realize that we must, once and for all, be done with war.” Unfortunately, as we all know, war didn’t end because of her work—and neither did sexism. At a presidential dinner celebrating a “Woman of the Year” award bestowed upon Lise in 1946, U.S. president Harry Truman greeted her as “the little lady who got us into all of this!” (which she just loved). When the MGM film company showed her a script for a biopic of her life, she hated that it was based on “the stupid newspaper story that I left Germany with the bomb in my purse.” Despite an increased offer from the studio, she declared that she “would rather walk naked down Broadway” than see the film produced.
Lise would go on to lecture around the world, receive a butt-load of honorary degrees and scientific honors, and have a crater on the moon, a crater on Venus, and an asteroid named after her. She died in Cambridge, England, at the age of eighty-nine.
Today, a growing number of people are recognizing Lise’s instrumental work in discovering nuclear fission. In fact, element 109 is named meitnerium in her honor (and I’m pretty sure there’s no element called hahnium, so take that). Lise’s life was definitely not easy, but she lived it to the fullest. Wish granted, lady.