The beginnings in Vienna
Lise was born on November 7, 1878 in Vienna, in a bourgeois family of Jewish origin. Her father, Philipp Meitner, was a lawyer and chess teacher. Her mother, Hedwig Skovran, was a talented hobbyist musician. Like for all the Austrian girls of that time, Lise’s formal education ended when she was 14 years old. Then her father recommended her to study French in order to secure her future.
After Lise completed such studies, she could dedicate herself to what she was really passionate about: science. In October 1901 she managed to enroll at the University of Vienna. She was 22 years old and decided to specialize in physics. Five years later, she became the second female doctor at the University of Vienna.
Breaking the glass ceiling in Berlin
In 1907 Lise moved to Berlin, convinced that she could not pursue a scientific career in Vienna. In Berlin she met the young chemist Otto Hahn, whom she decided to associate herself to deepen in the studies of natural radioactivity. It was a very advantageous union, indeed Otto had studied radioactivity with Rutherford, he was young and approachable and did not mind working with women.
The collaboration between Otto and Lise was very fruitful. Together they discovered a new chemical element, the protactinium. Thanks to this achievement, Lise was able to advance in her career, becoming head of the Physics Department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Senior Lecturer at the University of Berlin and, finally, she was the first woman to become a full professor of physics in Germany.
From uranium to the periodic table
Because of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Lise’s life became complicated and in 1938, when she was 60, she was forced to run away from Germany. It was right in the middle of a research that would change the destiny of the humankind… That one leading to the discovery of the uranium fission!
Even though Lise’s role was crucial in the experiments, only Otto was awarded with the Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission. Lise was nominated 48 times to the Nobel Prize, but she never received it. Nevertheless, history reserved her a higher honour: she is the only woman scientist who names exclusively an element of the periodic table, the meitnerium.