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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.

“Younger women need role models in order to develop ambition and stamina”

Today, the UN celebrates women and girls in scienceEducation, research and academia in general were traditionally male-dominated and there is still a need for change before we can describe the field as gender neutral or equal. Academia today is not only lacking in women, but diversity in general. Yet, while we look forward at how we can tackle current obstacles, it is also important to look back in history and see how the role of women in science has changed over the last centuries.  

At the end of 2020, ALLEA published the third book in its series Discourses on Intellectual Europe Women in European Academies: From Patronae Scientiarum to Path-Breakers. This volume shares the stories of thirteen women whose names have made a mark on academies in Europe. To take a closer look, we had the chance to ask historian Prof. Ute FrevertManaging Director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, author, and one of the editors of this book some questions. 

 

Question: In editing “Women in European Academies”, what did you learn or notice most commonly about the roles of women over the different countries and different disciplines? 

Ute Frevert: It was quite remarkable (and distressing) to see how all over Europe, the academic world in every discipline has been reluctant and adversarial to accepting female scholars and scientists. This lasted way into the 20th century, and the arguments that buttressed male monopolies were very similar. At the same time, individual women were extremely smart in moving around such obstacles, with passiontenacityand, all too rarely, with the help of progressive parents, friends, and husbands.     

Q.: Examining academia today, there are more women with on average better higher education degrees in Europe. Still, much fewer than men consider or achieve a career in academia. What changes have you been able to see in your career? 

U.T.: I have been socialized in the feminist movement of the 1970s, and since then we have definitely seen some success and progress. Yet, progress is far too slow, compared to the efforts made and the large number of qualified women who would love to pursue an academic career. Among doctoral students, the gender ratio is more or less balanced now. But we still see very few women in top positions.  

Q.: If asked why women belong in academia, why or how they can make a unique contribution, what would you say?  

U.T.: Honestly speaking, women do not have to make a unique contribution. They belong in academia as much as men do, just because they are both human beings with smart brains. So, in principle, there is no need to further justify women’s place in academia. In real life, however, women often have to be better, more innovative and original than men in order to make it.   

Q.: As an expert on emotions and history, what changes do you consider most relevant to these trends and emerging discourses on masculinity and feminism in society? 

U.T.: From a historical perspective, first- and second-wave feminism was important because they challenged and finally altered the categories applying to male versus female bodies, brains, and behaviour. They questioned the long-held notion of separate spheres, and they empowered women to move on. Becoming mentally more independent, women developed pride as well as self-confidence – which are essential prerequisites for any career.    

Q.: Looking forward, what would you like the role of women look like in academia? 

U.T.: I would like to see many more women in top positions, as full professors, research group leaders, institute directors, and presidents of academies. Younger women need role models in order to develop ambition and stamina. At the same time, being a role model does not come easy, because of complex expectations. While men just have to excel academically, women at the top are supposed to be excellent in many more matters. They have to show emotional skills like “feminine” empathy, kindness, understanding in personal relationships. They have to be accessible for all kinds of problems. Having a family proves that they lead a full life and know about motherly and wifely commitment – something that is never requested from her male colleagues. Such gendered expectations are very hard to meet and can result in mutual frustration.             

 

Prof. Ute Frevert is Director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin. Before joining the Institute in 2008, she taught modern history at the Universities of Berlin (FU), Konstanz, Bielefeld and Yale (USA). Her publications include: Women in German History (1989); Men of Honour: A Social and Cultural History of the Duel (1995);  A Nation in Barracks: Modern Germany, Military Conscription, and Civil Society (2004); Emotions in History – Lost and Found (2013); The Politics of Humiliation: A Modern History (2020).

Learn more about ALLEA’s book Women in European Academies: From Patronae Scientiarum to Path-Breakers and the series Discourses on Intellectual Europe.

Book release: “Women in European Academies — From Patronae Scientiarum to Path-Breakers”

ALLEA released the book “Women in European Academies — From Patronae Scientiarum to Path-Breakers” today. Published by De Gruyter, the volume examines the lives and achievements of women who played determining roles in the history of European academies and in the development of modern science in Europe.

These persevering personalities either had a key influence in the establishment of academies (“Patronae Scientiarum”) or were pioneering scientists who made major contributions to the progress of science (“path-breakers”). In both cases, their stories provide unique testimonies on the scientific institutions of their time and the systemic barriers female scientists were facing.

“While many of our academies were founded by women in position of political power such as Prussia’s Sophie Charlotte, Austria’s Maria Theresa, Russia’s Catherine the Great or Sweden’s Lovisa Ulrika, women’s role in professional science has suffered from a long discrimination which in the academic world was not less virulent than in other societal domains”, says ALLEA President and series editor Antonio Loprieno in the preface.

Conceptualized as a transversal series of thirteen biographical portraits, the contributions focus particularly on each personalities’ role in (or relation to) European academies, ensuring both a geographical and disciplinary balance.

The co-editors of the volume are Professor Ute Frevert (Co-Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development), Professor Ernst Osterkamp (President of the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung) and Professor Günter Stock (former ALLEA President). In the foreword, they underline the myths that this book challenges:

One might easily get the impression (…) that behind the scientific and scholarly achievements of the exclusively male members of these academies membership was the sole preserve of men for several centuries there was in all these cases a patrona scientiarum: the hand of a woman, conceptually guiding the membership and their research programmes from on high. Yet are these not, in reality, mere founding myths formulated on the basis of the interests and wishes of our own time, and assigning to these queens and empresses a substantially greater interest in the academies and a higher share in their scientific programme than they ever in fact delivered?”.

The contributions are written in the native language of the authors and translated to English where necessary. The book is the third volume of the ALLEA book series Discourses on Intellectual Europe, which includes two additional volumes: “The Boundaries of Europe” and “The Role of Music in European Integration”, both in open access.

About the book

Authors: Eberhard Knobloch, Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, Eva Haettner Aurelius, Jan Kusber, Paolo Sommella, Pat Thane, Hanna Krajewska, Doris A. Corradini, Katja Geiger, Brigitte Mazohl, Ramon Pinyol, Patricia Faasse, Eoin Mac Cárthaigh, Minna Silver, Eleanor Dodson.

More information about how to acquire the book is available here.

The foreword is available here.

Media inquiries

Please contact Susana Irles, ALLEA Communications and Media Relations Officer at irles@allea.org.

Free copies for reviewers and media are available upon request.