#SWC18 : Jewish Women in History: Lise Meitner – Physicist who discovered fission

Listen to the podcast (07:01)

Today I’ll tell you about a Jewish woman who did NOT get the Nobel prize.
But first, I’ll tell you who the Jewish women are that DID get the Nobel prize.
There are eight amazing women on this list:

1947 Gerty Cori – Physiology or Medicine-USA-: For their discovery of the source of the catalytic conversion of glycogen

1966 Nelly Sachs – Literature – Sweden-: for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel’s destiny with touching strength

1977 Rosalyn Sussman Yalow – Physiology or Medicine-USA-: For the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones

1986 Rita Levi-Montalcini (together with Stanley Cohen) Physiology or Medicine – Italy-: For their discoveries of growth factors

1988 Gertrude Elion: Physiology or Medicine-USA-: for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment

1992- Nadine Gordimer – Literature-South Africa: – who through her magnificent epic writing has, in the words of Alfred Nobel, been of very great benefit to humanity

2004 Elfriede Jelinek – Literature-Austria: for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity fo society’s cliches and their subjugating power

2009 Ada Yonath – Chemistry-Israel- for the studies of the structure and function of the ribosome

So, I know the suspense is killing you, and you are dying to know who is the woman who did NOT get a Nobel Prize. So other than you and me who are also women who might be Jewish and didn’t get a Nobel prize, (unless Ada Yonath or Elfriede Jelinek are listening, then this doesn’t apply to you).

Another Jewish woman who did not get the Nobel Prize, though she deserved it, and her lab partner did get it and didn’t credit her for their discoveries, is:

Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner was a physicist, born 1878, died in 1968, just shy of her 90th birthday.
Lise was born to a Jewish family in Vienna, and they were secular Jews. Her dad, once he noticed that Lise was adept at math, he got her a private tutor, insisting that his daughters get the same education as his sons! And in fact, three of her sisters also got their Ph.D.’s Go dad!!

She wasn’t allowed into the high school, which was only for boys, so she concentrated on getting straight into university, which she did, being the first woman to be admitted to the University of Vienna’s physics.

There she met Max Planck, the father of the quantum theory, who invited Lise to Berlin for her post-doc.

Although for five years she wasn’t allowed to go into the lab, because she was a woman, and women’s hair was a danger because it might catch on fire, so they weren’t allowed into the lab, she worked on research on radioactive processes. She wasn’t paid for her work there.

The same year, 1907, that she moved to work in Berlin, she was introduced to Otto Hahn, a chemist her age, who became her research partner on radioactivity for 30 years, in experimental work discovering new radioactive elements and unraveling their complex physical properties. Lise worked on the physics, Otto on the chemistry. But only Otto was officially allowed to work and be paid because Lise was a woman.

Max Planck also invited another scientist to Berlin that year, and that was Albert Einstein, and the three of them, and a few others hung out together a lot during that time.

Lise Meitner published papers of her research then, alone, and together with Otto Hahn. They showed that radioactive recoil could be used to produce elements with very high purity.
Around that time, in 1908, Lise Meitner converted to Christianity, as did two of her sisters.

With the rise of the Third Reich, in 1933 Jewish Academics were stripped of their professorial positions. After the Anschluss, the international physics community secretly planned Lise’s escape from Berlin. She was helped to the Netherlands, then to Sweden via Denmark.

In their letters from that time, between Otto and Lise, Otto asks Lise about a strange bursting that happened to uranium, which formed barium, as a result of his continuing Lise’s work. He wrote a paper, excluding Lise from the research, her research, describing the bursting.

She then worked on the question, figured out that if mass cannot be lost, then the nucleus would be split in two, and would yield tremendous energy.

She then wrote a series of articles on the nuclear fission of uranium. She, together with her nephew, Otto Frisch, were the first ever to use the term fission, describing how a nucleus could be split and transformed into another element.

Lise Meitner disassociated herself from any use of this theoretical knowledge to produce weapons of mass destruction.

It was creative; it was intellectual excellence.

Hahn published Meitner’s work without ever mentioning her, and in 1944 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work.

Further along in her life, Lise Meitner received many prizes and honorary Ph.D.’s, and after her death, she even had an element named after her: meitnerium, but she never got a Nobel Prize.

Thank you to The Curious Wavefunction, Brainpickings.org, and the Jewish Women’s Archive for most of the information in today’s podcast.

Thank you for joining me today for this quick podcast about strong Jewish women in history.

Have a great week everybody,

Ciao for now,