Lise Meitner: “A Physicist Who Never Lost Her Humanity”

The editorial De Gruyter has published an excerpt from the ALLEA book “Women in European Academies: From Patronae Scientiarum to Path-Breakers”. The article is part of the chapter on Lise Meitner, written by Doris A. Corradini, Katja Geiger and Brigitte Mazohl and dedicated to the scientist, the first female member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OEAW). The full article, including full references, can be found here. We reproduce parts of the contents, which can be read on their blog DG Conversations.

Against all odds, Austrian-born Lise Meitner devoted her life to a career in nuclear physics. On the occasion of the UN International Day of
Women and Girls in Science, we look back on the achievements of a brilliant woman who many believe was once robbed of the Nobel Prize.

“It brings me great pleasure that with the election of your person in particular, esteemed Professor, the first woman has been elected to the ranks of the Academy’s membership since its founding.” The president of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), Heinrich Ficker, wrote these words of congratulation in a letter dated 9 June 1948 to Lise Meitner, a physicist already famous beyond Austria’s borders, on her election to Corresponding Member Abroad for the Division of Mathematics and the Natural Sciences.

Lise Meitner was indeed the first female member of the Academy, which had been founded in 1847. As a woman and a Jew she was elected into an academy whose membership only three years prior had consisted of many members of the National Socialist party (NSDAP) (approximately 50%) and which had not significantly changed its composition since the NSDAP had been outlawed in 1945. In 1949, the same honour of being elected the first female member was conferred on her at the German Academy of Sciences in Berlin. A few years previously she had been elected to the Academies in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Copenhagen and Oslo. In 1955, she was named an External Member of the Royal Society, an honour that meant a great deal to her, and in 1960 this was followed by her election to membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The grounds for Meitner’s election to the ÖAW were her fundamental research in the field of nuclear physics and her contribution to the study of nuclear fission. While in exile in Sweden over the New Year 1938/39, she had succeeded in explaining the physics behind the puzzling results of an experiment performed by her former Berlin colleagues Otto Hahn and Fritz Straßmann. When uranium was irradiated with neutrons, the radiochemical analysis revealed traces of the element barium. This indicated that the uranium atom had ‘split’ into lighter fragments, a result which the two chemists were unable to explain. Lise Meitner, together with her nephew Otto Robert Frisch, interpreted the reaction as nuclear fission and calculated the huge quantity of energy released in the process. Nevertheless, in 1946 Otto Hahn was the sole recipient of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei”.

That Lise Meitner’s involvement in this epoch-making scientific breakthrough was crucial, and yet recognition for it went instead to Hahn, can be considered a prime example of the lack of acknowledgement and visibility granted to women in science. It is particularly striking because Lise Meitner was nominated for the Nobel Prize a total of 48 times by colleagues – without success. That she went empty-handed in 1946 has been cited by the science historian Margaret W. Rossiter as paradigmatic of the unequal distribution of fame between women and their male colleagues. At one point Rossiter considered naming this phenomenon the ‘Lise Effect’, but instead decided on the ‘Matilda Effect’ – now the conventional term in the history of science – after Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826–1898), an American feminist and early sociologist of knowledge.


Read the full article here.