This Day in Jewish History |

1968: The Woman Who Discovered Nuclear Fission Dies

Not that she got the credit. Also, albeit unintentionally, Lise Meitner probably contributed as much as anyone to developing the atomic bomb that she abhorred.

David Green
David B. Green
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Lise Meitner (1878-1968), lecturing at Catholic University, Washington, D.C., 1946
Lise Meitner (1878-1968), lecturing at Catholic University, Washington, D.C., 1946Credit: Wikipedia
David Green
David B. Green

On October 27, 1968, Lise Meitner, the first scientist to identify the splitting of the nucleus of an atom, and who gave the process its name, “nuclear fission,” died at the age of 89.

Meitner, one of the most insightful physicists of the 20th century, probably contributed as much as anyone to the development of the atomic bomb, although she refused to participate in the project in any way.

Elise Meitner was born in Vienna on September 2, 1878, the third of the eight children of Philipp Meitner and the former Hedwig Skovran. Philipp was one of the Austrian capital’s first Jewish lawyers.

Lise’s interest in science was sparked, at least in part, by reading as a child about the discovery of radon by Pierre and Marie Curie. Lise’s parents supported her academic studies so that even though young women in Austria did not attend high school at that time, she studied privately to fulfill the university entrance requirements. (Two of Lise’s sisters also received doctoral degrees.)

Meitner pursued physics studies at the University of Vienna, and completed her Ph.D. in 1905. Two years later, she moved to Berlin, where she became an unpaid assistant to Max Planck, the man who had originated quantum mechanics.

Through Planck, Meitner met Otto Hahn, a German chemist also interested in the new, radioactive elements then being discovered. With their respective expertise in physics and chemistry, the two soon initiated a research relationship that continued for three decades.

Convert to Christianity

During a home visit to Vienna in 1908, Meitner formally withdrew from the city’s Jewish community and underwent baptism in the Lutheran church. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, she, as an Austrian citizen, was allowed to continue with her work, even when German-Jewish colleagues were expelled from their university positions.

Meitner took note disapprovingly of what was happening around her, but did not leave until 1938, when, after the Anschluss, German racial law became applicable to her too. After leaving Berlin in July 1938, Meitner was given refuge in Sweden. She remained there until her retirement in 1960, when she joined other family members in Britain.

After the war, Meitner expressed remorse for having remained in the Third Reich for so long. She also criticized the non-Jewish Hahn in a letter for staying put through the war, as “millions of innocent human beings were allowed to be murdered without any kind of protest being uttered.”

Meanwhile, in December 1938 she received a letter from Hahn, describing in detail an experiment he had done that led to the “bursting” of uranium atoms and asking, “What would physics say about such bursting?” Reviewing the findings, Meitner concluded that adding a proton to the nucleus of uranium by bombardment should cause it to split into two nuclei, whose mutual positive charges would cause repulsion that would release 20 million times the amount of energy of an equivalent amount of TNT.

Meitner understood that this reaction, which she dubbed “nuclear fission,” was the physical expression of Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2.

Yet it was Otto Hahn who received the Nobel Prize (for chemistry) for the discovery of fission in 1945, a decision generally accepted now as a mistake for having excluded his partner. The scientific establishment later made the slight up to Meitner by awarding her most of the other possible honors it could, and after her death she was immortalized with the naming of element 109 for her: meitnerium, an extremely radioactive synthetic atom that does not exist in nature.

It was Niels Bohr who passed word of Meitner’s understanding of fission onto Washington, soon after which the Americans initiated the Manhattan Project, with the goal of turning that knowledge into a bomb. In 1945, when she met United States President Harry Truman, he reportedly said to her, “So you’re the little lady who got us into all of this!”

In fact, though, Meitner had refused to work on the bomb and always lamented its creation.

Lise Meitner never married, and by all accounts never had a romantic relationship. She died in a nursing home on this day in 1969, just three months after the demise of her longtime professional partner Otto Hahn.

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