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Lise Meitner - Mother of the Atomic Bomb

January 8, 2014

Lise Meitner was a brilliant Austrian physicist of Jewish decent, and a pacifist. But her work on nuclear fission helped lay the groundwork for the building of the atomic bomb, the deadliest weapon of all time.

USA Atombombentest Los Alamos
Image: Imago/United Archives International

Lise Meitner received her doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1906, becoming the second woman to earn a doctoral degree in physics at that university. She then went Berlin to study with Max Planck. In Berlin, she met Otto Hahn, who was her research partner for the next 30 years. At the time, women were still not permitted at Prussian universities, so Meitner spent her first years there working without pay in a cellar room. By the 1920s, she had achieved a worldwide reputation for her work in nuclear physics.

In 1938, Lise Meitner fled Nazi Germany for Sweden. Some months later, she received a letter from Otto Hahn recounting his successful attempt at nuclear fission. Meitner’s contributions to this discovery and her theoretical interpretation of the process were the greatest triumphs of her career.

From her exile in Sweden, the committed pacifist watched her discovery be put to use in the atomic weapons that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1944, Lise Meitner was left out of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Even though Meitner’s contribution was crucial to the discovery of nuclear fission, Otto Hahn was the sole recipient – and Hahn did not mention Meitner’s work in his acceptance speech. Lise Meitner did not return to Germany after the war. She never forgot how her former homeland and her male colleagues had treated her. She remained active in her opposition to the bomb until her death in Cambridge, England in 1968.

Lise Meitner was never awarded a Nobel Prize for her work.
Lise Meitner was never awarded a Nobel Prize for her work.Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

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