Lise Meitner was born on November 7, 1878, in Vienna, Austria. The third of eight children of a Jewish family, she entered the University of Vienna in 1901, studying physics under Ludwig Boltzmann. After she obtained her doctorate degree in 1906, she went to Berlin in 1907 to study with Max Planck and the chemist Otto Hahn. She worked together with Hahn for 30 years, each of them leading a section in Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. Hahn and Meitner collaborated closely, studying radioactivity, with her knowledge of physics and his knowledge of chemistry. In 1918, they discovered the element protactinium.
In 1923, Meitner discovered the radiationless transition known as the Auger effect, which is named for Pierre Victor Auger, a French scientist who discovered the effect two years later.
After Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, Meitner was forced to flee Germany for Sweden. She continued her work at Manne Siegbahn's institute in Stockholm, but with little support, partially due to Siegbahn's prejudice against women in science. Hahn and Meitner met clandestinely in Copenhagen in November to plan a new round of experiments. The experiments that provided the evidence for nuclear fission were done at Hahn's laboratory in Berlin and published in January 1939. In February 1939, Meitner published the physical explanation for the observations and, with her nephew, physicist Otto Frisch, named the process nuclear fission. The discovery led other scientists to prompt Albert Einstein to write President Franklin D. Roosevelt a warning letter, which led to the Manhattan Project.
In 1944, Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his research into fission, but Meitner was ignored, partly because Hahn downplayed her role ever since she left Germany. The Nobel mistake, never acknowledged, was partly rectified in 1966, when Hahn, Meitner, and Strassman were awarded the Enrico Fermi Award. On a visit to the U.S. in 1946, she was given total American press celebrity treatment, as someone who had "left Germany with the bomb in my purse."
Meitner retired to Cambridge, England, in 1960, where she died October 27. In 1992, element 109, the heaviest known element in the universe, was named Meitnerium (Mt) in her honor. Many consider Lise Meitner the "most significant woman scientist of the 20th Century."
Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics
by Ruth Lewin Sime