Women in STEM

Portrait of Lise Meitner; a young woman looking stoically off to the right of the screen. She's wearing a high collared dress with her dark hair pulled back in what appears to be a low bun.

Lise Meitner

1878 - 1968

Lise Meitner was born into an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Austria, where her father was one of the first Jewish lawyers. Women were not allowed to attend public universities, but she was able to receive a private education in Physics and became the second woman to obtain a PhD in Physics at the University of Vienna. Upon graduation, she declined a factory job to go to university in Berlin, studying from and becoming the assistant to physicist Max Planck, who until then had rejected women being educated in the higher sciences. Her early research was published under her surname only.

Her subsequent partnership with chemist Otto Hahn resulted in the discovery of several new isotopes. Lise worked as an X-ray nurse during WW1, and then returned to her research, forever changed by witnessing the suffering of war.  Her research with Hahn and others continued, and she made a number of important discoveries - including the discovery of nuclear fission in heavy nuclei in 1938.  That year, Hitler’s rise to power put all Jewish scientists at risk; Meitner left all of her possessions and escaped German-annexed Austria to live and work in Sweden.  She became a Swedish citizen in 1946 and continued her scientific work.  Lise retired to the UK in 1960, and continued to lecture and travel until her death at the age of 89.

Why She Matters

Lise Meitner’s research forged both new discoveries and confirmed the work of others (such as The Auger Effect and the existence of the neutrino) at a time when women were discouraged from higher education, excluded from publication and unrecognized for their contribution to the sciences.


Leaving a Legacy

Born into an era fraught with challenges for women (especially Jewish women) in the sciences, Lise Meitner discovered isotopes, generated ground-breaking research, and, in partnership with others, discovered and named the most important scientific discovery of the 20th Century - nuclear fission - which changed physics and the world in what has become known as the Nuclear Age.