Notable Women in the Physical Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary

By Benjamin F. Shearer; Barbara S. Shearer | Go to book overview
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the decay products from the neutron bombardment of uranium were isotopes of barium, and they asked her to propose an explanation. No known scientific process explained their findings. Meitner discussed their findings with her nephew, the physicist Otto Frisch. When they proposed that the neutrons had split the uranium, the data all fit.

Meitner immediately sent her explanation to Hahn. Although she and Frisch also reported their interpretation in a paper that described this nuclear "fission," their paper was published shortly after the one by Habn and Strassmann. Hahn had not acknowledged Meitner for her contribution. Otto Hahn alone won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1944 for the discovery of fission of heavy nuclei.

But Meitner's contribution was recognized in some circles. She was invited to join the team working on the development of the atomic bomb, but she refused and hoped until the very end that the project would prove impossible. She was voted Woman of the Year by the Associated Press; and she received honorary degrees from the University of Rochester, Rutgers University, the University of Stockholm, the University of Berlin, Adelphi College, and Smith College. In 1946, Meitner was invited to spend half a year in Washington, D.C., as a visiting professor at Catholic University. In 1947 she retired from the Nobel Institute and went to work in the laboratory that the Swedish Atomic Energy Commission had established for her at the Royal Institute of Technology.

Lise Meitner was a shy, modest person who cared little for fame or money. She enjoyed unraveling the mysteries of nuclear physics because it was fun to do so. She continued her research until she was 81 years old. After spending twenty-two years in Sweden, Meitner retired to Cambridge, England, in 1960 to be near her family. She shared the 1966 Enrico Fermi Prize of the Atomic Energy Commission with Hahn and Strassmann. Meitner continued to travel, lecture, and attend concerts until near the end of her life. She died a few days before her ninetieth birthday on October 27, 1968. German physicists named a newly created element, meitnerium, in her honor in 1992.

Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, "Lise Meitner: Nuclear Physicist," in Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries ( New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993), p. 40.


Frisch Otto. R. "Lise Meitner." Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society of London 16 ( 1970): 405-420.

-----. "Lise Meitner," in Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Edited by Charles Couiston Gillespie . New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970.


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