Despite sexism, anti-Semitism, a genius persevered

November 16, 2008

While reading a well-written account of Einstein's now famous formula, "E=mc2" by David Bodanis, I became fascinated by a chapter relating the life of a brilliant female physicist, Lise Meitner.

Indeed, I purchased several biographies in order to get a more complete account of her discovery of atomic fission. A more compelling aspect of her life was the tragic story of the brutalization of her very selfhood by sexism, anti-Semitism and lack of respect for her genius. One has to be touched by her courage and steadfast sense of duty.

Lise Meitner was awarded a doctorate in 1906 (in physics) by the University of Vienna at a time when it was almost unknown for women to enter the realm of science.

She then moved to Berlin and, in 1919, was awarded the first professorship ever given to a woman. But time would disclose that the most significant event of her life was that of becoming a lab associate for a winsome chemistry professor named Otto Hahn.


A forced separation occurred during WWI. Hahn served in the German army while Lise did volunteer work in hospitals. At the conclusion of that war, Lise was promoted to be the head of the theoretical physics department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry.

She hired Otto Hahn as a chemist.

Events unfolding in Germany would alter their lives forever. With the rise of Adolph Hitler to power, there began a policy of systematic repression of Jews with a fury that was shocking. Many Jews were forced to flee to avoid incarceration or death. Indeed, no less than 14 Nobel Laureates and 26 professors of theoretical physics in Germany were among that number.

Lise Meitner was also a casualty of anti-Semitism. Her family had converted to Christianity but Lise was still classified as a Jew because the law considered anyone with a Jewish grandparent to be a Jew. When Germany overran Austria in 1938, Lise became a German citizen and subject to all laws applying to Jews.

A devastating blow now followed. Lise was removed from her position as a professor with little chance of another job. She secretly plotted her escape to a safe haven in Sweden. All that Lise had to show for her life's labors was two small suitcases. She was a stranger in a strange land; anti-Semites and sexists seemed to rule the world.

But, this was only the beginning of her agony. Back in Berlin, Otto Hahn was engaged in experimentation in radioactivity. He had reached a point in his research where he could proceed no further without some help. He wrote a letter to Lise in December of 1938 and asked for any insight she might offer.

On Christmas day at breakfast, Lise, with her nephew, Otto Frisch (also a physicist) studied the letter from Berlin. They then decided to take a hike down a ski trail in the snow. Suddenly Lise sat down on a log and calculated the mathematical solution for "splitting" the nucleus of a uranium atom by the use of a neutron. She sent her solution to Otto Hahn.

Now began what is seriously considered to be a conscious effort on the part of Otto Hahn to take credit for the work of Lise Meitner.

It started when Otto and an assistant wrote about the discovery of atomic fission (a term first used by Lise at the suggestion of a friend) in some professional journals. There was no mention of Lise as the true discoverer of this monumental advance in physics.

It is totally understandable that Otto Hahn did not mention her name in any of his public statements. His career would have ended in Germany if it ever became known that he was collaborating with a Jewish exile in Sweden. But, for the remainder of his life, Otto Hahn took complete advantage of the original need for secrecy. On several occasions, Lise made plaintive pleas to Otto to give her the credit she deserved.

But he was resolute in his refusal. Lise was a helpless witness to Otto Hahn being awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry while she was by-passed three times.

Her true character was further demonstrated when she was invited to come to America and give her talent to the production of an atomic bomb. The offer, at first glance, would appear tempting to one who had been greatly underpaid throughout her professional career. But Lise gave a blunt, forceful veto to the proposal. Lise had definite moral views about using atomic fission for military purposes.

Lise Meitner died in 1968. Fame and fortune had passed her by. However, those familiar with her life story will stand in awe at her charm and tranquility in the midst of so much humiliating mistreatment. Anti-Semitism and sexism were daily tests of her self control and a debilitating resentment.

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