Lise Meitner

Brenda Ou
March 19, 2011

Submitted as coursework for Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2011

Fig. 1: Meitner pictured with laboratory partner (and later Nobel Prize winner) radiochemist Otto Hahn. (Courtesy of the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Brittle Books Collection.)


The early 20th century saw rare opportunities in academia for women, let alone in science. As the "Marie Curie" of Austria, Lise Meitner made strides in her field, and her studies and experiments in physics and nuclear energy stand made her one of the top female contributors to the field.

Early Life

Born in November of 1878, Meitner was the third of eight brothers and sisters. She grew up in the district of Leopoldstadt in Vienna, Austria (Vienna's second district).

Growing up, Meitner excelled in math and science, and by age 13 she had finished the standard amount of schooling for women in Austria at the time. However, by 1900, it was becoming much more socially acceptable for women to attend institutions of higher learning, and in 1901, Meitner enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1901, studying physics under Ludwig Boltzmann.

Boltzmann was a theoretical physicist who believed that atoms were divisible and Meitner gained much inspiration from her mentor.

By 1905, Meitner had received her undergraduate degree and had begun research toward her doctorate degree. It was during this time that she gained significant interest in and began her work with radioactive elements.

Scientific Works

In 1906, Meitner's focus turned to alpha particles. She began experiments in whether they were absorbed or scattered as they passed through matter, and proving that atoms indeed provided strong electrical forces that showed new information about the alpha particles (and that they did, as a matter of fact, scatter).

Meitner's experiments in alpha scattering contributed to findings that would later facilitate finding the nuclear atom. Meitner was also one of the first to show how gamma ray energy could be used to expel electrons in the outer orbitals, producing conversion electrons. This was one of the very first discoveries of auger electrons, electrons pushed out from the atom's outer shells when affected by the energy of other electrons that were changing energy levels

In 1939, after leaving Nazi Germany, Meitner discovered what is quoted as her most significant accomplishment. She had found that, though barium atoms were smaller than those of uranium, striking a uranium nucleus with neutrons resulted in the production of barium.

Using the Bohr Model, Meitner (and her radiochemist partner Otto Hahn) showed the oscillations in the shape of the uranium nucleus and how the forces between the protons in opposite ends of the nucleus could cause the nucleus to stretch, pinch off, and form two nuclei from one. Meitner had done a great amount of work in exploring nuclear fission, and this work and her hypotheses in the chain reactions of nuclear fission were key aspects in the creation of the atomic bomb. Meitner and Hahn also discovered element 91, protactinium.

In 1947 the Swedish Atomic Energy Commission founded a laboratory for her by where her work centered on an experimental nuclear reactor.

Later Life

Though Meitner had converted to Christianity, her Jewish roots forced her to leave Austria in 1938. She fled to Sweden, where, in 1949, she gained citizenship.

In 1944, her former partner Otto Hahn was given the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work in nuclear fission, though Meitner was given no credit for her contributions to the project.

She became a visiting professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and then lectured at Bryn Mawr College. She later retired to Cambridge, England, where she passed away in October of 1968.

© Brenda Ou. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. D. Aczel, Uranium Wars: The Scientific Rivalry That Created the Nuclear Age, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[2] C. S. Chiu, Women in the Shadows: Mileva Einstein-Maric, Margarete Jeanne Trakl, Lise Meitner, Milena Jesenska, and Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky (Peter Lang Publishing, 2008).

[3] P. Rife and J. A. Wheeler, Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age (Birkhäuser Boston, 2006).