Lise Meitner was one of the very few women physicists to achieve international professional status in the first half of the twentieth century. Most persons, if they recognize her name at all, do so only in connection with the process of fission that made possible the atomic bomb which brought an end to World War II. This biography by Ruth Lewin Sime addresses all the facets of Meitner’s life that can be discerned by archival study and contact with surviving Meitner family members and friends.
Lise Meitner was born in Vienna into a non-observant Jewish family in which the father was a lawyer. The third of eight children, she showed early interest and aptitude in mathematics and physics. Surmounting the difficulties faced by would-be women scholars of her time, she earned a Ph.D. in experimental physics in 1906 at the University of Vienna, profiting from the encouragement and intellectual influence of the theoretical physicist, Ludwig Boltzmann. Two years later, after having done creditable research in the burgeoning field of radioactivity, she went to Berlin, supported by her family, seeking greater opportunity for further study. While there she served for a time as assistant to Max Planck who remained her friend and adviser for many years to come.
Meitner’s work with the chemist Otto Hahn at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute began in 1908. For many years their research focused on identifying the elements involved in radioactive decay series. Meitner’s work was meticulous and soon became internationally recognized through her lectures, publications, and participation in prestigious conferences. During World War I, while Hahn was on active duty, Meitner served as an X-ray operator with the armed forces before returning to her laboratory work at the Institute.
By the 1930’s, the study of radioactivity was evolving into the emerging field of nuclear physics, especially after the discovery of artificially induced radioactivity. In 1935, Hahn and Meitner were joined in their work by a skilled young analytical chemist, Fritz Strassman.
In Berlin Meitner found satisfactory working conditions as well as congenial intellectual and social surroundings with such members of the physics community as Albert Einstein, Max von Laue, and the Planck family. By 1933, however, the atmosphere in Berlin and all of Germany deteriorated with the rise of Adolf Hitler. As an Austrian citizen she was not directly affected until after Austria came under German domination. Although she had converted to Protestantism in 1908, she was forced to declare her Jewish ancestry in 1938. In accordance with the Nazi laws against the employment of Jews, her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute was terminated. Although this ended her close working relationship with Otto Hahn, they maintained contact on personal and professional matters for many years.
Meitner’s Austrian passport became invalid and she was never issued a German passport. Stateless and without passport, carrying only two small suitcases, she literally had to be smuggled out of Germany, by way of Holland, to a hastily arranged, poorly paid post in Stockholm at an Institute headed by Manne Siegbahn. Dutch physicist Dirk Coster was the colleague and friend who engineered her travel. The chapter in this biography describing her ordeal reads like a harrowing adventure story. Meitner’s years in Stockholm were...
(The entire section is 1375 words.)