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Influential Women in STEM: Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner was an Austrian-Swedish physicist responsible for the discovery of nuclear fission and the radioactive element Protactinium.

Meitner was born in Vienna in 1978 as the third child of a Jewish family. She began studying at the University of Vienna in 1901, before becoming the second woman to obtain a doctorate from the university in 1906.

After obtaining her doctorate, she went to Berlin to work alongside Max Planck as his assistant, and the chemist Otto Hahn. After the founding of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1911, she retained a position there during World War I handling X-ray equipment, before returning to Berlin in 1916.

In 1917, Meitner and Hahn became the first to isolate the radioactive isotope Protactinium-231, for which she was awarded the Leibniz Medal and her own section for physics at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.

In 1926, whilst also being the first female physics professor at the University of Berlin, she began to start her research into nuclear fission.

Due to her Jewish heritage, she had to leave Germany in 1938 as Hitler rose to power, and resided in Stockholm, Sweden, whilst continuing her research alongside Hahn.

Her colleagues Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered that Uranium atoms split when bombarded with neutrons. Meitner and her nephew, Otto Frisch, then went on to be the first to describe fully the process of nuclear fission.

Whilst the chemical proof was discovered by Hahn and Strassmann, the physical proof and explanation of the phenomenon was equally as important in the discovery of nuclear fission.

Hahn and Strassmann published their chemical findings in Naturwissenschaften on January 6th, 1939, while Meitner and Frisch published their explanation on the findings on February 11th, 1939. Despite their groundbreaking insights, only Hahn and Strassmann were credited for the discovery, with Hahn going on to win a Nobel Prize for his work in 1944.

Despite her great impact on the world, Meitner’s legacy has been overshadowed by that of her male colleagues, showing us how unjust being a woman in a male dominated field is, and how much we struggle to have our voices heard.

We hope you enjoyed this short blog about one of the most influential women in science, and stay tuned for upcoming blogs on a wide variety of STEM topics!

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