European HerStory: Lise Meitner

, by Rafael Silva

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

European HerStory: Lise Meitner

History is not merely a question of fact but of how it is recorded and how we interpret it. What is remembered, and how we remember it, is shaped by our socially constructed understandings of the world as it was at the time and as we know it today.

With the feminine history of our continent often sold short under the weight of enduring patriarchal structures, women’s contributions to science, art, politics and beyond are often at best overshadowed or at worst forgotten.

The following article is part of our fortnight-long feature, “European HerStory”, during which we are presenting inspiring stories of women who have contributed to Europe. With this feature, we hope to help rectify the imbalance stemming from our collective prism of history, and inform ourselves and our readers about female achievements and innovations.

You can read the full presentation of the feature here.

Meitner was born to a Jewish family in Austria-Hungary in 1878 and is known for having contributed to the discoveries of protactinium and nuclear fission.

Meitner completed her doctoral research in 1905 and was one of the first women to get her Masters and PhD in Physics from the University of Vienna. She was also the first woman to become a full Professor of Physics in Germany.

She was best known for sharing the Enrico Fermi award with the chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann for their research, which made the discovery of uranium fission possible.

Although she was instrumental to the discovery of nuclear fission, she did not share the Nobel Prize for Chemistry that Hahn received in 1944.

Known for her works in academia, she was invited to join the Manhattan Project in the US. She later refused the invitation due to her opposition to the atomic bomb.

Praised by Einstein as the “German Marie Curie”, Meitner had to flee Germany because of the draconian and anti-Semitic laws that the Nazi Party was imposing. She settled in Sweden, where she later became a citizen. Even in Sweden, she continued her research and correspondence with German scientists.

Acknowledging her contributions, the chemical element Meitnerium was named in her honour.

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