Lise Meitner: Forgotten Discoverer of Nuclear Fission


Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner (LEE-Zuh MITE-ner) is one of the most significant scientists in human history, whose discovery has created as much of a sea change as Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. However, she has become all but forgotten. Several teams in Europe and North America conducted experiments with uranium, but it was a tiny woman of Jewish origin and her nephew who realized that uranium fissions. Despite this, she never got the Nobel prize, while she has been overshadowed by Marie Curie and Otto Hahn himself.

Table of Contents


Meitner was born on November 7th?, 1878 in Vienna, Austria to Philipp Meitner and Hedwig Skowran-Meitner, and was the third of eight children. The Meitner name originates from Philippe Meitner's ancestral village of Meiethein (Meitheiner was gradually shortened to Meitner).

Lise Meitner Phillip Meitner
Phillip Meitner

Austria was undergoing a radical change. Kaiser Franz Joseph I completed a transformation of the country from autocracy to republic, establishing a parliament, a constitution, and ending centuries of state discrimination against the Jews. Phillip Meitner was a successful lawyer, celebrated chess player, and most importantly for his children, a strong advocate of liberalism (classical or libertarianism). His liberal beliefs would ultimately have a major influence on the eight children. Far less is known about Hedwig, other than that she is of Slovakian origin and her ancestry can be traced to Russia, where her grandparents fled anti-Jewish pogroms. Despite living in a former Jewish Ghetto (Leopoldstat), the Meitners did not practice Judiasm and most converted to Christianity, including Lise, who converted to Lutheranism - possibly inspired by Max Planck - in 1908. This movement away from Judiasm was common among the newly liberated Ghetto.

Meitner was fascinated by math and science from an early age, initially by the cause of the colors of oil on water - she remembered what she was told about the effects of dispersion and optical interference of thin films - and an avid reader, she was be known to keep a math book under her pillow to read past her bedtime.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire, however, forbade women from education past the age of 14. In 1897, the Empire caved to growing demand by parents for the admission of their daughters to its universities. Phillip agreed to fund Lise's private education under the condition that she learn french to become a French teacher, if her scientific ambitions failed. Even while learning French, she secretly studied physics. Determined to pass the Matura - the exit exam - she compressed eight years of education into two. So diligent she was to study that she did not sleep very much, and was known to have trouble doing basic household chores. Her brothers and sisters teased her constantly, often calling her "Wuzerl" (pudgy, though this was probably more for clumsiness); "You'll fail! You've just walked across the room without picking up a book!" "But it [chores] isn't in her physics book!"

Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner, Always Shy

Despite this, the Austrian academia remained closed to women. However, Ludwig Boltzmann -- known for the theory of entropy -- allowed women into his lectures for his wife, who had an interest in learning; he believed that a marriage was stronger when the wife was allowed to share in the same knowledge. His daughter Henrietta, one of Lise's friends, was as eager to lean as Lise was. On February 1st, 1906, Meitner became the second woman to graduate in the university's 500 year history.  Boltzmann, suffering from depression, committed suicide on September 5 the same year. Meitner became even more determined to succeed.

Lise Meitner
Graduation Portrait, 1906

Despite this achievement, there were no opportunities to pursue a scientific career in Austria, and after having her application to work in the Curies' labs rejected, Lise fell back on teaching French, until she decided to cast her lot on Berlin.

A Slow Start

While Austria was slowly liberalizing, Germany remained staunchly male dominated. Even the most moderate -- Max Planck, father of quantum theory, among them -- believed that what he called "bright women" should be encouraged individually, but that the system not allow women in general. Max, however, was willing to hear Meitner out and allowed her to listen to his lectures. She sought out a Professor Heinrich Rubins for access to the chemistry labs, something he refused, but on September 27th, 1907, he introduced her to another rejectee, Otto Hahn, who had been cast out for his interest in radiochemistry. Emil Fischer, head of the Chemistry Department at Berlin University, refused Lise access to the labs, reasoning that "women's hairdos are a fire hazard in the labs" (see photo below!) but allowed the two to set up in an old carpentry shop.

Lise Meiter
Emil Fischer, who thought his beard was made of asbestos.

Lise and Otto were almost the same age, and were both warmed up to each other right away, with a lot in common beyond science. Despite this, the two never fell in love and Lise would ultimately never marry (for more on that, see the final chapter), but it was the beginning of a friendship that would last most of their lives. Both of them worked without pay for five years, but the two worked together diligently and enthusiastically, singing together and discussing music and literature.

Lise Meitner
Meitner and Hahn in their makeshift laboratory.

Motivated only by their passion for science and working with equipment as obsolete as Marie Curie's, the two contributed to discoveries about alpha and beta particles, then in 1909, the two got a lucky break. The Kaiser Wilhelm Society was founded by a mix of public and private interests to further science for Germany, and Otto Hahn was given a position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. She went with him, though it would be another five years until she got equal pay.

Lise Meitner
Lise and Otto in their laboratory, 1913.


Lise was not a supporter of Austrian or German nobility, but she still loved her country and like many Austrians, loved Germany, and supported the war. According to Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics, Lise followed followed newspaper reports of the German advance into Belgium and France with "honest admiration," and comforted herself against reports of heavy Austrian casualties by saying that "the fate of the individual recedes behind the greater cause." In 1915, Otto Hahn, who had previously fought on the front, was brought back to the KWI to help develop chemical weapons under the leadership of Fritz Haber (inventor of the Haber Ammonia Production Process), something he protested in a letter to Lise; her response: "any means which might shorten this horrible war are justified."

Lise Meitner
Lise, flanked by two Austrian Soldiers, 1915.

Inspired by similar work by the Curies, enlisted in the Austrian army as an X-ray technician and was sent to military hospitals in Ukraine, Italy and Poland. She also helped treat wounded and repaired equipment, working to exhaustion. The suffering of wounded and maimed soldiers opened her eyes, and she became opposed to war for political prestige.

 "We are converting the local Technical Institute into a barracks hospital. Until now there was a field hospital here, with about 6,000 to 7,000 wounded who had to be transferred here as quickly as possible. Now as a barracks hospital, at least some of the wounded can stay longer to make a recovery.... Oh, Elisebeth, what I have already seen -- I never expected it to be as awful as it actually is. These poor people, who will at best be cripples, have the most horrible pains. One can hear their screams and groans as well as see their horrible wounds. Today we had a Czech who was severely wounded in his arms and legs, who moaned in pain while tears ran down face.... Since we are only 40km from the front we get only the most severely wounded here. I tell myself this for consolation. But one has one's own views of war when one sees all this.

She returned to Berlin in 1916 to find the institute almost completely taken over by the military, but got to work on research she and Otto had started just before the war.

In 1918, Lise was given charge over the new physics section of the institute while Otto took over the chemistry department. Both worked largely separate, but still collaborated enough to complete research interrupted by the war, which led to the discovery of Protactinium.

The Quantum Revolution

Lise and Otto became "mother" and "father" figures to the students, treating the entire staff like family. In addition to teaching and research, Lise donated food and clothing to those who needed it and provided shelter, as political violence between the Sparticists and the Freikorps and economic trouble both deprived basic services. In 1919, Lise became full lecturer, though the Berlin press dismissed her inaugural lecture on astronomical radioactive processes - Cosmic Physics - as "Cosmetic Physics."

Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner, 1921, Potsdam

As lecturer, Lise grew out of most of her shyness and became more assertive. Her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch joined her in 1922 specifically because he was inspired by his aunt's achievements. Her strict enforcement of lab safety discipline, assertiveness, and brutal honesty inspired Robert to teasingly called her "short, dark and bossy." Robert was her favorite nephew and the two played music and attended concerts frequently.

Lise Meitner Otto Robert Frish
Otto Robert Frisch

The decade was politically and economically turbulent, with extremist political parties waging gun battles in the streets. The National Socialists were one of these new parties, and wasted no time in dismissing the discoveries of so many Jewish scientists as some elaborate plot. Despite this, there were many achievements in science and art. Neils Bohr had just demonstrated his model of the atomic nucleus, acting less like a clump and more like a liquid, which would be crucial later on.

Lise Meitner at a Bonzenfrei - literally "Bigwig Free" - meeting of physicists in 1921 in Dahlem, with Neils Bohr at the front.

In 1924 and 1925, Lise Meitner won the Liebniz Prize and Ibaz Lieben Prize, and gained her first U.S. recognition with a reward from the American Association to aid women in Science. Lise contributed to Wolfgang Pauli's discovery of the neutrino as well. The late 1920s in general looked up for the world, and for Lise. Lise spent this decade dividing her time in Berlin and Copenhegan, where she became close to the Bohr family. In 1926, Lise was also invited to the Netherlands as guest lecturer at several Dutch universities and she met Professor Dirk Coster and Adriaan Fokker, who would be critical in her escape from Nazi Germany.

Rise of Evil

The Great Depression sent Germany into another phase of economic upheaval, and the masses demanded the government do something about it. The Nazis gained almost half the Reichstag - largely on resentment over the loss of WWI, and the poor who blamed their misfortune on the "bourgeois" Jews - but never attained a majority. Lise was concerned, but like many scientists, decided to maintain political neutrality and believed that National Socialism was a transient phenomenon. She decided to revisit something that she and Otto were interested in since the discovery of Protactinium: transuranic elements.

Lise Meitner Nazi Germany
Nazi Propaganda Posters

In 1933, the Nazis set the Reichstag on fire, blamed the communists and used the emergency to install Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. Almost immediately, the Nazi Party began their purge of Jews, Liberals, and Communists from public employment, and Lise Meitner was stripped of her professorship. Many of Lise's colleagues resigned and emigrated. However, she and Otto continued to work on transuranic research, motivated by competition from the Curies, and Enrico Fermi. Enrico bombarded uranium with neutrons in 1934 and claimed to have created Element 93, but the results were inconclusive. Another woman physicist, Ida Naddock, suggested that maybe Enrico's Uranium atoms had fragmented, but no one had taken her seriously either, not even Lise.

The Nazis' model of progress required that women be relegated to "breeders" for the Reich and the few women left were fired. Lise continued to experiment with her colleagues, confident that her Austrian citizenship would protect her from the Nazis' laws. The staff became polarized, with one Professor Kurt Hess being the most dangerous to Lise of all; he could be heard chanting to his students that "the Jewess threatens our institute" and had been Lise's neighbor since 1933. To make things worse, Otto was becoming fearful and saw his position as head of the KWI as protection, and at one point he echoed a Nazi treasurer's insistence that Lise resign. Lise was angered at the suggestion of giving up, and this was the first permanent wound in their friendship.

Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner in laboratory, 1938.

Brave Lise ignored the dangers surrounding her and pressed on with the Uranium experiments, but her time in Germany would not last. Germany invaded a welcoming Austria on March 8th, 1938 and Lise's Austrian citizenship would no longer protect her from the Nazi's racial laws.

With her frail shield gone, Lise was now vulnerable to abduction and deportation to a concentration camp. At the urging of Dirk Coster, Adriaan Fokker, Neils Bohr and Otto, she finally decided to escape. In July, the four men cooperated, With Dirk and Adriaan convincing the Dutch government to allow her across the border with an invalid passport and Neils petitioning the Nobel funded Swedish Royal Academy of Science to provide her a position, which only happened after several tries and with the help of another close friend, Eva von Bahr. Lise moved into a hotel and waited for Dirk. Otto provided Lise a diamond ring, a family heirloom, to bribe the Nazi border guards if all else fails. Dirk escorted Lise from Berlin on a tense train ride. Luckily for both, the border guards let them pass without incident and Lise passed the ring on to Robert for his wedding. Just a day before Lise left, Kurt Hess informed the Gestapo she was about to leave.

The Atom Splits

Lise briefly stayed in the Netherlands,Denmark, and with Eva von Bahr in Kungälv, but ultimately made her way to Stockholm, where she spent the next 9 months in a hotel room. Manne Siegbahn, made her an assistant but went out of his way to make her stay as miserable as possible, refusing to provide assistants and even describing her on the roster as "apart from the Institute's staff." His institute poured generous amounts of money into the construction of a particle accelerator but most of the place was empty, lacking basic laboratory equipment. She helped her relatives emigrate but, had little else to do other than the petty work of an assistant. In a letter to Otto she described her life:

"I often appear to myself like a wind-up doll who does certain things automatically, with a friendly smile, but with no real life in her."

Otto continued to run the KWI and collaborate with Lise in secret, and he still considered her a part of the team, but time in the Nazi bureaucracy was poisoning his mind. In one letter to Lise shortly after Kristallnacht, he referred to concentration camp inmates as "human undesirables" and a fit of karma, Otto's name was included by accident in a traveling exhibit called "The Wandering Jew" and he had to prove his "Aryan" purity. Still, they collaborated well enough for one last breakthrough.

On December 19th, Lise received a letter from Otto that he and Fritz had isolated an isotope of barium from the uranium experiments, but they were unsure why. On December 24, Robert met Lise at Eva von Bahr's home in Kungälv. As if sensing the potential danger of this new discovery, they both insisted to discuss the findings in private and walked in the surrounding forests. They went over the findings and realized that a nucleus as big as uranium was just barely holding itself together; the strong nuclear force just exceeding the mutual electrical repulsion of the protons.

Lise Meitne Fission
Uranium Fission

The two realized that if a nuclear acted like a liquid drop, a single neutron could stretch the nucleus enough for the electrical repulsion of so many protons to overcome the strong nuclear force and pull atom apart in a manner similar to the division of cells. Lise called this process fission because of the similarity.

Was it a mistake? No, said Lise Meitner; Hahn was too good a chemist for that. But how could barium be formed from uranium? No larger fragments than protons or helium nuclei (alpha particles) had ever been chipped away from nuclei, and to chip off a large number not nearly enough energy was available. Nor was it possible that the uranium nucleus could have been cleaved right across. A nucleus was not like a brittle solid that can be cleaved or broken; George Gamow had suggested early on, and Bohr had given good arguments that a nucleus was much more like a liquid drop. Perhaps a drop could divide itself into two smaller drops in a more gradual manner, by first becoming elongated, then constricted, and finally being torn rather than broken in two? We knew that there were strong forces that would resist such a process, just as the surface tension of an ordinary liquid drop tends to resist its division into two smaller ones. But nuclei differed from ordinary drops in one important way: they were electrically charged, and that was known to counteract the surface tension.
The charge of a uranium nucleus, we found, was indeed large enough to overcome the effect of the surface tension almost completely; so the uranium nucleus might indeed resemble a very wobbly unstable drop, ready to divide itself at the slightest provocation, such as the impact of a single neutron. But there was another problem. After separation, the two drops would be driven apart by their mutual electric repulsion and would acquire high speed and hence a very large energy, about 200 MeV in all; where could that energy come from? ...Lise Meitner... worked out that the two nuclei formed by the division of a uranium nucleus together would be lighter than the original uranium nucleus by about one-fifth the mass of a proton. Now whenever mass disappears energy is created, according to Einstein's formula E = mc2, and one-fifth of a proton mass was just equivalent to 200 MeV. So here was the source for that energy; it all fitted!
-- Robert Frisch

In a visit to Copehagen in 1939, Lise Meitner and Neils Bohr concluded that Uranium 235 could undergo an explosive chain reaction under the right conditions. Frisch joined the Manhattan project, while Hahn joined the abortive Nazi nuclear bomb program. Lise was offered a position on the Manhattan project but refused with the defiant words "I will have nothing to do with a bomb!"

Lise Meitner Atomic Bomb
Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave her unwanted press coverage. She was called "the Jewish mother of the bomb" and a false story was circulated around the world that Lise fled Germany with bomb blueprints in her purse. This falsehood persisted for a year following her to the United States, were, during a lecture tour, she was offered to supervise production a movie based on this lie. called The Beginning or the End (see trivia below). Lise refused, stating that "I would rather walk naked down Broadway!" Despite this, and despite the paparazzi, her time teaching Americans allowed her to re-live her best years in Berlin.

Lise Meitner Truman Hiroshima Nagasaki
Lise Meitner with Harry Truman in 1946.

Exclusion & Legacy

On November 15, 1945, Otto Hahn and only Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission. There was no mention of the contributions of Fritz Straussman, Robert Frisch or most importantly, Lise Meitner. Lise response was this in a letter to a friend:
"Surely Hahn fully deserved the Nobel Prize for chemistry. There is really no doubt about it. But I believe that Otto Robert Frisch and I contributed something not insignificant to the clarification of the process of uranium fission—how it originates and that it produces so much energy and that was something very remote to Hahn."
One reason was secrecy; working with someone of Jewish descent would have endangered Otto's life, so her name could not be included in the papers. However, Lise still had a chance at the Physics prize, but that did not go to her either. There was a great deal of controversy among the committee, and the vote was only narrowly against Lise. The biggest factor was evidently Manne Siegbanne who sought to increase his own prestige by bringing others down: Royal Swedish Jealousy. Fritz Straussman also came to her defense.
“What does it matter that Lise Meitner did not take direct part in the ‘discovery’… she was the intellectual leader of our team.”
The truth may probably never be fully known. There is a waiting period of 50 years for the full details of Nobel Prize deliberations to be disclosed, but it has been 70 years as of 2016 and there is still nothing public about the the decisions to exclude Lise.

Lise was not bitter toward Otto over the Nobel Prize, but their friendship would never fully heal as a result of his minimization of her contributions and his political revisionism. Like many others in Germany at the time, he could not accept that Germany was the guilty party in the war, and minimized Germany's war crimes.
You all worked for Nazi Germany. And you tried to offer only a passive resistance. Certainly, to buy off your conscience you helped here and there a persecuted person, but millions of innocent human beings were allowed to be murdered without any kind of protest being uttered ... [it is said that] first you betrayed your friends, then your children in that you let them stake their lives on a criminal war – and finally that you betrayed Germany itself, because when the war was already quite hopeless, you did not once arm yourselves against the senseless destruction of Germany. -- Lise to Otto (portion of a letter that was never delivered)
Lise became a Swedish citizen in 1947 and in 1949, Manne Siegbann, possibly feeling regret, made her a full member of his institute. She assisted in the construction of Sweden's first nuclear reactor, then retired in 1960 and moved to Cambridge to be close to her relatives. She outlived most of her friends and family, and passed away on October 27th, 1968. She was buried in Bramley, Hampshire, next to her baby brother Walter. Robert Frisch had the headstone engraved with the words "Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity."

Lise achievements did not go unrecognized. She received the Max Planck Medal jointly with Otto, the first Otto Hahn medal, and the Enrico Fermi Award jointly with Fritz Straussman. Craters on the moon and Venus are named after her, as well as an asteroid. In 1997, she received an honor far rarer than a Nobel Prize: element 109 in the Periodic Table was named Meitnerium.

Unwitting Conceptualizer of Nuclear Cruise Missile

In a letter to Eva von Bahr shortly after D-Day.
I am certainly glad that the invasion has finally begun, but I fear what the Germans will do when their situation appears hopeless. I am very anxious to know if the [German] robot bombs have something to do with uranium bombs. I don't actually think so, but I do know that the institute that was working on those things [Heisenberg's] was transferred to southern Germany, even though it was not hit by bombs at all. That makes me wonder, and I am disturbed to think that it may be possible to make uranium bombs after all.
The V1 missile was often called a "Robot Bomb," though the German nuclear weapons project never reached nearly the progress of the Manhattan Project. Lise did not know how big and heavy atomic bombs of the time would be (too much for a V1), and she would have never suggested this to any weapons program, but it is still interesting that she -- however unknowingly -- thought of nuclear missiles (as opposed to bombers) decades before anyone else.

Lise Meitner the Person

Lise Meitner

Lise never authorized an official biography and published only a loose memoir called Looking Back, but she preserved her correspondence to friends and family. Lise was best known for being both very stubborn and very shy. She was also very honest, to the point where she would sacrifice her own prestige for the truth.
My first term I studied differential and integral calculus with Professor Gegenbauer. In my second term he asked me to detect an error in the work of an Italian mathematician. However I needed his considerable assistance before I found the error, and when he kindly suggested to me that I might like to publish this work on my own, I felt it would be wrong to do so, and so unfortunately annoyed him forever.
She was also very helpful to others, both personally and and professionally. She tried to minimize conflict, to the point of being conciliatory, unless her opponent did something truly hurtful, such as deny her contributions to a project. While she had a great capacity for friendship and carried herself with confidence when delivering lectures, she struggled with wide-spread publicity, especially when it was undue.


Marie Curie had her affairs, Albert Einstein also had affairs and married a cousin, and Ewin and Annamarie Shrödinger had an open marriage complete with threesomes and foursomes. Lise's love life or apparent lack thereof is mundane by comparison. Lise's and Otto's friendship never grew into a romance; the two did not spend significant time together outside the laboratory until after the First World War, and did not even address each other as du - you, used only for strong friendships, relationships and family - until 1922, long after he married his wife Edith. It is possible that Lise loved physics enough to forgo a deeply personal relationship and a letter to a close friend, Elisebeth Schiemann, highlights this.

"I love physics with all my heart ... It is a kind of personal love, as one has for a person to whom one is grateful for many things."

Lise received a written marriage proposal in Ukraine in World War I, from Mathematics Professor Nikalos Hajidakis, who sent it from Piraeus, but there is no known evidence of a relationship between them.

"I would like to have the honor of marrying you. I admire you and the Germans and your wonderful country. I hope you take my offer of marriage seriously. Also, I would like your photograph. Please answer me. P.S. Greece is for the Germans."
Nikolaos was born in Berlin in 1872 to parents from Crete. In 1899, he abandoned his studies to fight in Crete's (and later Greece's) war of independence and became a professor at the University of Athens in 1901. He was also a poet (which would explain the flowery language) and a linguist, fluent in 13 languages. He founded the Hellenic Mathematical Society in 1918, and died of hunger in Athens in 1942.

Lise Meitner
 Nikolaos Hatzidakis

Eva von Bahr was born in 1874 on a farm just outside of Stockholm. She had a similar passion for physics and studied against her family's wishes, obtaining a teaching position at the University of Uppsala with the support of professor Knut Ångström. In 1912, Eva applied for a position at Berlin University and met Lise, and their shared passion for physics made them close friends.

Lise Meitner Eva von Bahr
Lise Meitner with Eva von Bahr, 1914

In 2012, Swedish Architect Hedvig Hedqvist released a book called Love and Nuclear Physics came out in Sweden, containing quotes from previously undiscovered letters that reveals a romantic friendship between them. This book is in Swedish only, but you can get the gist of it in English here. Beyond that, Eva was wealthy and supported Lise financially. Eva also had connections, and she played a major role in getting Lise a position in Sweden.

  • Women

    Lise Meitner Elisebeth Schiemann
    Lise (right) with geneticist Elisebeth Schiemann

Lise's approach to the few women in her laboratory would come as a surprise to the majority of modern feminists. Lise was unwilling to accept women not as dedicated to physics as she was - she was known to view Tivka Alper's plans to marry "dimly" - She never collaborated with women or published papers with them - not even Eva. It is important to remember that physics was Lise's passion, not women's causes. It was only after he Second World War that Lise revealed the difficulty of entering a men's profession.

 “Although I had a very marked bent for mathematics and physics from my early years, I did not begin a life of study immediately. Thinking back to . . . the time of my youth, one realizes with some astonishment how many problems then existed in the lives of ordinary young girls, which now seem almost unimaginable. Among the most difficult of these problems was the possibility of normal intellectual training.”

  • Politics

Lise was never politically active, but her political beliefs can be seen in letters to friends. She considered herself Social Democratic, but in practice inherited much of her father's individualism and objectivity. Other than her episode of nationalistic fervor during WWI, she strongly supported international cooperation, motivated by the multi-national origins of the scientists in the KWI. Her experience in WWI made her opposed to war for political gain. WWI also solidified her opposition to the nobility, as she told geneticist Elisabeth Schiemann.

"It is impossible for a single person to control the fate of millions and be answerable to anyone but himself."

She was opposed the Spartacists - socialists who attempted to launch a violent revolution - as well was the extreme right.

She had no love for conformity - after all she was a woman who wanted to study physics, not become a housewife - and this extended to her politics as well. She frequently debated with Otto Hahn and disagreed most of the time. In Sweden, she described her experience to James Franck: "here, being a woman is half a crime, and having your own opinion is forbidden." She refused to work again in Germany because of widespread historical revisionism among German intellectuals. After WWII, political differences frayed most of her friendships, because many refused to accept Germany's guilt.

  • Habits & Hobbies

Lise was a music aficionado and piano player, having been encouraged to play at a young age, engaged in duets with nephew Otto Robert Frisch. She was also a chain smoker and a not insignificant portion of her meager income want to supplies of cigarettes. She also did not eat much, an most of her lack of appetite was motivated by her limited budget, but even in the dark days of German hyperinflation, she gave most of her food to others. She was also an avid walker, striding several miles a day, and in summer breaks went on hiking trips in the Bavarian and Austrian Alps to enjoy the flowers.

  • Outlook on Life

Lise was never one to back down from a challenge. She played the odds against sexism twice (in Vienna, then Berlin) and won, remained a thorn in the Nazis side for five years, and in general did not let anyone tell her what she could be. She did not care how hard things were, as long as it was exciting.

Lise Meitner


  • Albert Einstein called Lise Meitner "Our German Marie Curie." Lise of course was Austrian.
  • Lise never actually knew how the atomic bomb worked, at least during the Manhattan Project. It is possible she learned when the fission bomb designs were partially declassified in 1951 for the trial of the Rosenbergs, but she has never commented on it and has never advocated the bomb's use. Despite this, she is still occasionally called the "mother of the bomb," and sometimes the "involuntary mother of the bomb."
  • Lise's actual birthdate is not precisely known. While she used November 7th, Vienna's Jewish Community places it on the 17th, while one entry in Lise Meitner: Dawn of a Nuclear Age places it on November 28th. This lack of precision was called Schlamperei or "Sloppiness," and was almost a cultural tradition in Vienna.
  • Lise's sister in law was famous portrait photgrapher Lotte (Charlotte) Meitner-Graf, wife of younger brother Walter Meitner.
  • Lise was shortened from Elise, short for Elisebeth (German pronunciation: ee-leez-uh-beth).
  • Lise would not give up her Austrian citizenship, even to gain citizenship in Sweden. It took an act of the Swedish Parliament (Riksdag) to allow dual-citizenship
  • Lise and Otto never considered the possibility of fission. Their focus was on making transuranic elements. Protactinium was their only discovery of a new element (though it actually preceded Uranium in the periodic table).
  • An early version of the script for The Beginning or the End was written by Ayn Rand.


Lise Meitner: Dawn of a Nuclear Age by Patricia Rife
Lise Meither: A Life In Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime

Love and Nuclear Physics

Women in the Shadows by Charles S. Chiu

Max Planck Society

German Physical Society
Berkley National Laboratory 

Constantin Caratheodory: Mathematics and Politics in Turbulent Times by Maria Georgiadou (information about Nikolaos Hatzidakis) 

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