Meitner, Lise

(1878-1968)
   physicist; Albert Einstein* dubbed her "the German Madame Curie." Born to a Jewish lawyer in Vienna, she was drawn to science as a child. Ignoring her father's counsel against following physics, she began studies in 1901 at Vienna's Institute for Theoretical Physics. Mentored by Ludwig Boltzmann, she became the second woman to receive a doctorate in science (1906) from the university. In 1907 she went to Berlin* to study under Max Planck.* She worked from 1908—when she converted to Protestantism—at the Chemical Institute of Emil Fischer and became Planck's assistant in 1912, both at the university and at the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) for Chem-istry; two years later she declined an offer to teach in Prague. By this time she was engrossed in her thirty-year collaboration with the chemist Otto Hahn.*
   Meitner, whose early curiosity was theoretical, found herself drawn increas-ingly to radioactive substances. Although war disrupted their collaboration (Meitner joined the Austrian forces as an X-ray technician), Meitner and Hahn fitfully continued inquiries leading to the discovery of protactinium in early 1918, the year she was appointed head of a new physics department at the KWI. She remained at the university as a lecturer and became the first woman to complete her Habilitation while playing a key role in a weekly physics collo-quium comprised of Planck, Albert Einstein,* and Gustav Hertz.* Meanwhile, she continued her work with Hahn.
   Meitner's important achievements in nuclear fission came after James Chad-wick discovered the neutron in 1932. By the mid-1930s she and Hahn were isolating a series of isotopes generated by Enrico Fermi through neutron bom-bardment. Troubled by findings that could not be squared with prevailing theory, she failed to comprehend how close she was to formulating the concept of nuclear fission. Before she and Hahn completed their work, the March 1938 Anschluss nullified her Austrian citizenship and forced her to flee Germany. Already sixty years old, she accepted appointment with the Nobel Institute in Stockholm (she had been nominated three times for a Nobel Prize). Working with her nephew, Otto Frisch, and maintaining a correspondence with Hahn, she eventually concluded that fission takes place, with the release of extraordinary energy, when the uranium nucleus is bombarded; it was her foremost contri-bution to science.
   When Meitner was invited to join the American team that developed the atomic bomb, she refused; hoping that the project would fail, she had given up work on fission. In 1947 she retired from the Nobel Institute. Meitner was honored with the Max Planck Medal in 1949, the Otto Hahn Prize in 1954, and the Enrico Fermi Prize in 1966. In 1957 she received the Pour le Merite, Ger-many's highest honor.
   REFERENCES:Frisch, "Lise Meitner"; Hermann, New Physics; Shea, Otto Hahn; Sime, Lise Meitner.

A Historical dictionary of Germany's Weimar Republic, 1918-1933. .

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