Figure 17: Lise Meitner

 

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Lise Meinter (1878 – 1968) earned a Nobel Prize… Except that it wasn’t given to her.

Born in Austria in a Jewish family, Lise’s journey to university was slowed by her gender, but she was able to attend the University of Vienna from 1901, and emigrated to Berlin after earning her doctorate in 1907. She began working with Otto Hahn, a collaboration which lasted for the next 30 years. They worked together on making discoveries about the newly discovered field of nuclear physics.

Anyone who knows anything about the 20th century can see that as a Jewish woman in Germany, Lise was not able to stay in Germany after Hitler came to power and annexed Austria, and so in 1938 she fled to Stockholm, with only two hours to pack and say goodbye to everyone.

She joined Manne Siegbahn’s in Stockholm, but was given no equipment and had no collaborators; she didn’t even have a set of keys to her space. She continued to work with Hahn by letter, even meeting up with him secretly in Copenhagen to discuss their work. Lise and her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, would suggest experiments for the team back in Berlin, and it was them who first described and named the process of nuclear fission, which was discovered by her old team while she was exiled abroad.

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Lise was actually nominated more for the Nobel Prize than Hahn, but misfortune dictated that it was Siegbahn, who treated her unfairly and was apparently prejudiced against women in science, was the one who wrote a report about her, which would be considered when awarding the prize. The combination of Lise’s emmigration and lack of published work, as well as Manne’s sexism, meant that he underplayed her role in the discovery, and she was excluded from the Nobel Prize awarded to her former colleague Otto Hahn.

Although they remained in contact, Lise must have been hurt that, after the prize was awarded, Otto continued to downplay her role in the discovery, and he may have been offended by her criticisms of those who stayed behind in Nazi Germany; in a letter to Hahn, that never reached him, she said this:

‘You all worked for Nazi Germany. And you tried to offer only a passive resistance. Certainly, to buy off your conscience you helped here and there a persecuted person, but millions of innocent human beings were allowed to be murdered without any kind of protest being uttered.’

Nevertheless, she was always very affectionate towards him, and they were friends until 1968, the year that both of them died.

 

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