Lise Meitner

Emily Xie
May 2, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Lise Meitner in 1946. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

With the sparse number of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) as it stands, it is an especially remarkable achievement to be a renowned nuclear physicist as a woman. Lise Meitner was an Austrian physicist who did remarkable work in radioactivity and nuclear physics in the early 1900s (see Fig. 1).

Life Outside of Physics

Meitner was born in 1878 to a Jewish family but eventually converted to Christianity as an adult. [1] She studied physics after being inspired by one of her teachers who was a physicist. She was one of the first women to obtain a degree in physics, despite the fact that women were not really allowed access to higher education. Afterwards, she eventually worked with Max Planck and Otto Hahn.

During World War I, she was a nurse, working with X-ray equipment. However, even then she still wanted to continue her physics research.

During World War II, she stayed in Germany despite her own morals, which was something she eventually looked back on and regretted.

Notable Discoveries

Many of Meitner's most notable achievements were overshadowed by her male colleagues or counterparts. Many of her stories are clear manifestations of the drawbacks to being a woman in science at the time. It is amazing that many of the discoveries she made are now widely accepted but not attributed to her.

The Auger effect, named after Pierre Auger, was actually discovered independently by Meitner, a year before Auger. [2] However, the namesake of the effect remains the man who discovered it a year later.

Meitner was the very first woman in Germany to become a full professor in physics in 1926. In fact, she was even praised by the great Albert Einstein. [3]

Meitner was actually part of the team that eventually discovered nuclear fission. However, it was her colleague, Otto Hahn, who was eventually awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for that discovery. [4]


It is clear that Lise Meitner was not only an amazing female nuclear physicist, but also just an amazing nuclear physicist without the gender distinction. Lise Meitner's story provides clear insight into the struggles many women still face in STEM even today.

© Emily Xie. 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] R. L. Sime, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (University of California Press, 1997).

[2] P. Auger, "Sur les Rayons β Secondaires Produits dans un Gaz par des Rayons X," C. R. Acad. Sci. 177, 169 (1923).

[3] M. Bartusiak, "The Woman Behind the Bomb," Washington Post, 17 Mar 96.

[4] E. Westly, "No Nobel for You: Top 10 Nobel Snubs," Scientific American, 6 Oct 08.