Science

Pioneering Physicist Lise Meitner Was Denied The Nobel Prize For What She Discovered

Lise Meitner was a pioneer for women in science and a genius physicist. Despite leading the team that discovered nuclear fission, when that team won the the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Meitner wasn't included.

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The Overlooked Pioneering Genius

President Harry Truman honored Lise Meitner's accomplishments at a 1945 dinner for the Women's Press Club by saying, "So you're the little lady who got us into all of this!" Cue eye roll. This type of treatment (being called a "little lady" when you're at an event that celebrates you as a groundbreaking physicist) was not new to Meitner. For example, as Jewish Women's Archive reports, "Meitner became an official University Lecturer in 1922, but even in liberalizing Berlin the press jokingly reported the topic of her inaugural speech as "Cosmetic Physics" instead of cosmic physics."

Born in Vienna in 1878, Lise Meitner independently published 56 papers between the years of 1921 and 1934, and led the team that discovered nuclear fission. That discovery earned the 1944 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Unfortunately, Otto Hahn never mentioned Meitner, his collaborator and co-discoverer, in the published account of the discovery. As a result, it was awarded to Otto Hahn alone. It's unknown why Hahn left Meitner's name out of the document. Perhaps because she was a woman (many universities at the time did not allow women to attend, teach, or pursue research) or because she was Jewish (Meitner proudly displayed her Jewish heritage at the time the Nazis took power in Germany, and was forced out as a result). Any way you spin it, Meitner was shafted by a trusted partner in science.

Related: Marie Curie's Notebooks Are Dangerously Radioactive

She did receive some overdue recognition later on though. According to the Jewish Women's Archive, "Eleanor Roosevelt aptly stated in an NBC Radio interview with Lise Meitner immediately after Hiroshima in August 1945, that 'we are proud of your contributions as a woman in science.' She was awarded numerous honorary doctorates by universities in the United States and Europe as well as the Enrico Fermi Prize, Atomic Energy Commission (U.S.) with Hahn and Strassmann in 1966. Meitner spent most of her 70s and 80s traveling, encouraging women students to 'remember that science can bring both joy and satisfaction to your life.'"

Why This Is Important To Know

There are plenty of underdogs throughout history—notably women and minorities—who never got what they deserved. The fact we're still talking about her today is testament to the fact that Meitner's brilliance could not be diluted or ignored, but many women over the years weren't so lucky. The underrepresentation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is a problem to this day. What can be done? Step one: Don't refer to a Lise Meitner-level genius as a "little lady" while attempting to recognize her intellectual prowess.

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Marie Curie coined the term radioactivity, and was the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in different disciplines. 00:40

  2. Marie Curie made the groundbreaking observation that radioactivity came from atoms themselves, and not from molecular interaction. 04:31

  3. During World War I, Marie Curie drove a portable x-ray machine to assist wounded soldiers. 07:55

Written By Curiosity Staff January 3, 2017